The Care Connector

Churchill Hindes applies the experience of years spent in health care and public administration to his job as president and CEO of the Visiting Nurse Association of Chittenden and Grand isle Counties.

Church Hindes steers the business and the heartfelt mission of Chittenden County's fourth-largest employer

By Tom Gresham

Churchill Hindes calls them broccoli stories. Over the years he has heard a bunch of them. He'll be shopping in the grocery store when someone will recognize him and approach for a visit. Years ago, when Hindes served as the state budget director, the conversation often turned to a complaint about taxes. Later, when Hindes was working as a hospital administrator, the discussion tended to drift into the high cost of health care.

"I'd come home and tell my wife, 'I got the groceries, but I had a tough broccoli story'," Hindes says.

Things have become much more pleasant in the supermarket aisles in recent years, according to Hindes, the CEO and president of the Visiting Nurse Association of Chittenden and Grand Isle Counties.

"Once I came to the VNA, those trips to the grocery changed," Hindes says. "People see me now and make a beeline for me, and I tense up out of instinct, expecting something bad; and then they say something like, 'I've got to tell you about what you did for my sister,' or 'Your nurses did some great things for my mother.' So now I come home and tell my wife about these wonderful broccoli stories I hear."

The VNA represents the latest stop in a richly diverse career for Hindes, a Vermont native. He has also held positions as a research administrator at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, as the state budget director for governors Richard Snelling and Madeleine Kunin, as chief financial officer for the University Health Center and as vice president for finance and administrative director at Fletcher Allen Health Care. He enjoyed each stint of employment, he says, but his work at the VNA has been his most satisfying.

"It's the job where I feel the closest to the people we're serving," says Hindes, who served on the VNA board until he was hired as CEO in 1999. "Here, one of the things I force myself to do is to go into the field every three or four weeks and work with some patients. I have bathed the dying at the Respite House because of my job. I have spent time with children who have lost a parent to illness. I feel much more intimately connected with the process of serving the community at the VNA because it's a very hands-on place, and that's the most rewarding part of the job."

The VNA has played a prominent role in Vermont health care since it was founded in 1906 with aspirations of serving impoverished families and children in Burlington's slums. The organization's reach has widened steadily in the intervening years, and today 750 employees and more than 600 volunteers handle 200,000 patient visits a year in Chittenden and Grand Isle counties. The VNA has an annual revenue of $23 million, while providing $1.9 million in services annually to patients who are unable to pay.

Programs are varied, encompassing much more than just home nurse care. VNA, says Hindes, has one of the most diverse program offerings among home health care organizations in northern New England. Among them are a variety of maternal and child-care services, a parent-child center, the Vermont Respite House, an adult day program and Camp Knock-Knock, a summer camp for families who have lost loved ones.

Michael Breen, vice president of the corporate banking division at the Merchants Bank, is chairman of VNA's board of directors. "He has a voluntary relationship with the agency that extends back to the 1980s," says Hindes, "and has taken the time to know the VNA as well as I do."

Hindes says the the organization's value to the community stretches beyond the services it provides directly to local residents; it also helps drive the economic engine in the region. The VNA ranks as the largest employer in Colchester and the fourth largest in Chittenden County. Women dominate the VNA payroll about 95 percent of the employees are female. In addition, Hindes notes, "our jobs don't get exported overseas. The nonprofit jobs are here to stay. We're a good, clean Vermont industry."

"I'm a champion of this sense that nonprofits are big business, too. I like to point out to people that if you take the two dozen largest nonprofits in the state and add them together, they represent almost $2 billion in economic activity in Vermont. And between them they have 20,000 employees."

Hindes appreciates the opportunity to work in a place that runs on a combination of clear-eyed business practices and lofty nonprofit ideals.

"I'm a business guy in a mission-driven business," Hindes says. "The mission feeds your soul, but you stay up late worrying about the business. And you have to do both. You get the midnight stamina, in fact, because your soul is being fed."

Ernie Pomerleau, a member of the VNA board of directors, says Hindes has an unusual mixture of a CEO's business acumen, a missionary's zeal and an artist's creativity. He says Hindes also demonstrates an unusual and admirable flexibility in his decision-making, and it all makes Hindes an adept leader.

"He's extremely knowledgeable in matters of health care and is a very smart manager," Pomerleau says, "but he's also got this big-hearted side of him. He really has an interesting blend of attributes. Most people can't bat both left-handed and right-handed, but he can."

Because the work at the VNA can prove both rewarding and emotionally difficult, the headquarters building includes a serene reflection room where employees and volunteers go to decompress from the rigors of a draining day.

"The profound nature of the work we do here gets to you, and it takes a little piece of your heart," Hindes says. "This isn't just a place where people have jobs. People talk about being called to this work."

Hindes says the dedication of the employees and the large, reliable volunteer base represents the biggest strength of the organization. He refers often to VNA workers as heroes, citing numerous instances of their actions. For example, this winter, an on-call hospice nurse traveled on dicey roads to pronounce six people dead during one overnight snowstorm. While she was inside with the patients and their loved ones, her husband was outside plowing their driveways.

"Though we are here in a 45,000-square-foot brick building on Prim Road in Colchester, I don't want people to think of this big building as the VNA," Hindes says. "I want them to think of the VNA as that hospice nurse who went to their home in the middle of a blizzard to pronounce the death of their husband; one caregiver in the driveway, knocking on your door. That's the VNA most people know."

Hindes has been interested in health care work ever since he was a part-time employee at Mary Fletcher hospital in college. However, Hindes freely acknowledges he originally entered the world of health care guided not by his high intentions but by a serendipitous combination of happenstance and his ability to operate a tractor.

He first wandered into Mary Fletcher as a car-less St. Michael's freshman in search of a job. The hospital seemed large enough to have plenty of employment opportunities, he figured. He was told the hospital had a place for him as long as he knew how to drive a tractor.

"I told them, 'piece of cake,'" Hindes says. "I worked on dairy farms when I was in high school and I was good with tractors, so they hired me to mow all the grass and paint and do things like that."

He eventually took on other roles in the hospital and began to sense health care was the field he wanted to enter after graduation.

"I was in college from 1966 to 1969, and those were some pretty tough years with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War," Hindes says. "A young man did a lot of soul-searching in those days. I had classmates and friends who went to Vietnam and never came back; I had friends who marched in the south. I couldn't help but develop a sense that I wanted to leave the world a better place than I'd found it. I was already in hospital and health care work, and serving the community is what that's all about."

About 95 percent of VNA's employees are women. From left are, seated, Beverly Boget, director of program advancement; Sue Watson, director, Community Care Connection; and Pat Donehower, director, Adult Home Care. Standing are Sidney Rockliss, chief financial officer; Connie Stabler, executive assistant; Toki Eley, director of maternal and child health; Church Hindes, president and CEO; and Dawn Stanyon, director of development.

With his career path in sharp focus, Hindes ventured west to attend the University of Iowa's well-regarded hospital and health administration graduate program, eventually earning his doctorate. Hindes still visits Iowa regularly, and a few years ago delivered a lecture entitled "12 Jobs, One Address" to graduate students there.

While he admits that hospital administrator families move around like military families, Hindes, who states with obvious pride that six generations of his family are buried in the Champlain valley, never had to leave Vermont. He and his wife, Marilyn, also a native Vermonter, raised three sons in their house in Colchester. They now have two granddaughters.

In addition to his work for the VNA, Hindes is a clinical associate professor of medicine and public administration at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and a member of the lay ministry at the chapel at St. Michael's.

Still, the VNA is clearly Hindes' largest project. He is guiding the organization through its Friends for Life campaign, a six-year fund-raising project with an aim toward adding $5 million to the VNA's endowment. The response from the community has been enthusiastic and generous, which he says is hardly a surprise.

"The fun thing about the campaign has been, when you go and sit down with a donor, they want to tell you their VNA story," Hindes says. "And the VNA has been a part of this community so long and it has done so much that just about everybody has a VNA story to tell."

Originally published in March 2004 Business People-Vermont