Salt Shaker Spotlight: Cameron Doolittle, President and CEO of Jill’s House
Earlier this week we featured the wonderful work of Jill’s House, a resort-style overnight respite center in Vienna, Virginia for children with intellectual disabilities and their siblings. Since its launch in October 2010, this 42,000-square-foot center has served nearly 200 families and has provided more than 40,000 hours of respite care, offering unique recreational opportunities for special needs kids while giving their parents much needed time off to rest and restore.
In November 2010, Jill’s House founders Lon and Brenda Solomon recruited brilliant businessman Cameron Doolittle to serve as President and CEO of the center. Prior to coming to Jill’s House, Cameron spent a few years as a policy strategist on Capitol Hill then led a turnaround of the operations practice at a management-consulting firm. He successfully launched two business units at Corporate Executive Board serving finance and legal executives in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, which gross tens of millions annually and employ dozens of people. He earned his J.D./M.B.A. at the University of California at Berkeley and his B.A. at Stanford University. Cameron and his wife Carolyn live in Falls Church, Virginia, with their four children. He has served on the board of Every Generation Ministries, and currently serves on the vestry of Restoration Anglican Church.
“We are very blessed and pleased to have Cameron on board as the President and CEO of Jill’s House,” said Denny Harris, Chairman of the Board of Jill’s House. “His leadership skills in operations, personnel and strategic planning continue to enhance the experience we deliver to all of the children with special needs who come to Jill’s House.”
Cameron is responsible for leading operations, marketing and development, personnel, volunteer staff coordinators and other day-to-day activities at Jill’s House. So what is it like to run Jill’s House? We talked to Cameron about his perspective on special needs children and his experience leading this remarkable organization:
RM: What are some of the biggest challenges facing families with a special-needs child today?
CD: The biggest challenge that we see families encounter is lack of time. If you are raising a child with special needs, not only do you have the same stresses that we all face, but you spend many hours a week attending to your child’s needs. When you need a break, you cannot call the high schooler down the street because your child’s needs are complicated. So those most in need of a break are the least likely to get the break.
When you give a family time, they know how to use it. They tell us that they are able to spend uninterrupted time with their other children, or that they went for a hike for the first time in a decade. One family used the time we gave them to go to dinner and a movie, which does not sound special until you consider that they had never done that as a family because their brother cannot sit through a restaurant dinner or a movie.
Divorce rates among families [with special needs children] are reportedly around 80 percent, so many couples use the time to focus on one another and on their marriage. One of our couples used the time to have their first date in years, so we called the Outback Steakhouse that they were going to visit and the manager comped their meal.
Other parents are challenged with raising their child alone. One mom is studying to be a nurse; her husband left recently and so she is working to build a better life for herself and her son, but cannot study very well when he’s around.
Some children have conditions that result in them sleeping just a few hours a night; so those families use the time just to sleep. We have a mom who schedules her chemo treatments around the times her child is with us, so that when she’s at her weakest, he is here.
The common denominator is that when you give a family the gift of time, the family knows how to get itself healthy again. They are just desperate for time.
RM: What do you think is the biggest misconception about children with special needs and intellectual disabilities)?
CD: When God created children with intellectual disabilities, He made them as unique and diverse as the rest of His creatures. When many people think of children with intellectual disabilities, they think of children with Down syndrome whom they knew in high school. Those children are a wonderful, beautiful part of this community, but they are only one strand in the tapestry. As you approach serving children with intellectual disabilities, it is important to come without expectation. They may be able to hug you and smile in response, or God may have designed them so that they are unable to respond verbally. We have volunteers who do not always feel that they have “done much” if they sit with a nonresponsive child for an hour or two. But even those with severe impairments know when someone is near and when they are loved. Whether a child is responsive or nonresponsive or even violent, the joy that we find in serving them needs to come from knowing that the God who made them has called us to serve them. It challenges our pride when we give to those who cannot say “thank you” or even respond. What is more Christlike than laying down your life for those who may never respond at all?
RM: What part of your efforts at Jill’s House do you find most rewarding? Most challenging?
CD: When a family gets into what we call the “rhythm of respite” and comes weekly or monthly, we see family systems start to change. One family told us recently, “We would not have made it through the year without Jill’s House.” There are families that are still together and loving one another because of the oxygen that we get to inject into their lives.
RM: How has your educational and/or professional background prepared you for your current work at Jill’s House?
CD: One of the exciting things is that this ministry takes all types of training and gifting. I have been blessed to be a speechwriter on Capitol Hill, to earn a law degree and a business degree, to serve as a leader in my church, to be a husband and dad to four great kids, and to have a profession launching new businesses and working with senior executives at the world’s top companies. Running a center like Jill’s House draws on each of those experiences, but we all still have a lot to learn.
RM: How is Jill’s House able to provide such high quality services even without receiving federal funding?
CD: God provides for Jill’s House in amazing ways. Financially, God continues to stir the hearts of people who love our mission and who love the families that we serve. It is astounding to see Him continue to provide. Last year, a single mom sold some property and gave us the proceeds; another couple got married and decided that the wife’s condo should be given to Jill’s House. One family sold its business and made a significant donation. We have a couple of businessmen who see their businesses as vehicles to generate funds for Jill’s House. The congregation at McLean Bible Church gives generously. People have started to include us in their wills.
In addition to money, people give their time and talent. A wonderful group of volunteers comes in to assist with the children, which allows us to give the children even more attention. Jill’s House costs us nearly $600 per night to provide, but most families pay just $75 of that cost. God stirs up generosity in people’s hearts and accounts for that gap.
RM: What is the biggest need facing Jill’s House right now?
CD: Funding is the variable. We have hundreds of children who need our services, and we have a building that has space for many more children during the week. God grew our revenue by twenty percent last year, and we trust that He will continue to do so.
RM: Are there future plans for replicating the Jill’s House model?
CD: We believe that every community needs something like Jill’s House. It does not necessarily need to be a center of this size or have all of our features. But just about any church could gather a group of volunteers to provide a Saturday afternoon break to families, or – with a bit more planning – rent a camp for a weekend and provide weekend respite. We are excited to come alongside any group of believers to share what we have been blessed to learn. We envision a country in which God’s people have met the need so completely that every family of a child with special needs is a short drive away from great overnight respite. But, after just 16 months of service, our primary focus is on continuing to improve our own service here in the Washington D.C. area.
RM: Can you share ideas on how to maximize the talents of volunteers at a not-for-profit organization?
CD: Our volunteer team manager, Jan Pascoe, does a great job with this. It starts with a passion for our work and the families we serve. If a volunteer is focused primarily on getting their own needs met, or exercising a particular skill, they should look for opportunities elsewhere. We recognize the amazing array of gifts God has given His people, but the children must come first. Once we have seen a volunteer serve faithfully, we are thrilled when we can find opportunities to put their specific talents to work. Some volunteers serve as lifeguards; others are in the kitchen; others work at the front desk or represent us at fairs in the community. One volunteer collects items and sells them on Craigslist, giving the proceeds to us. Others come and provide handyman services or teach CPR refresher courses to our staff and volunteers. Still others play instruments for the children or bring in therapy dogs or advise us on preparing creative activities.
RM: Would you like to share a specific anecdote or encounter with us that stands out from your work at Jill’s House?
CD: There are so many. We have served more than 230 families and have blessed each one! Three examples come to mind:
One child needed to be soothed by his dad each night and so has slept in bed with his dad for the past eight years. When his dad heard about overnight respite, he signed up his son. We were not sure if the son would sleep well here, but at least the dad would have a break. The next morning, before he had heard whether his son had slept, the dad called to sign his son up for more nights! But then the miraculous part occurred that night when the child went home and, at bedtime, went to his own room and went to sleep. He had learned independence here–in just one night–that radically transformed his family’s life and mental health.
In another instance, a single mom has a child who needs constant supervision. She heard about Jill’s House and—as a maid—decided to clean extra houses so that she could finally have a weekend without having to care for her son. She emailed after the weekend saying, with broken English, that to her we were “God’s angels sent to bring relief.” Over time, we have been able to line up funding for that child to come often. That’s a family whose life has been transformed and she rightly gives glory to God for it.
Finally, we serve a boy who had very dark thoughts when we started serving him. He talked about death a lot and objected when we prayed. After a few visits, his dad pull one of our staff aside and said, “I want you to understand that I have very different beliefs from yours. Very different. But what I know is that when my son is here, he comes home talking about how God loves him and how God made him special. And it changes his whole outlook. So whatever you are doing, keep doing it.” That child now asks if he can lead prayer at meals. We never coerce children or families toward Jesus, but we rejoice when they see Him in us, and when He uses us to draw people closer to Himself.
RM: Is there anything you would like to say in general to encourage parents of a special needs child?
CD: You are not alone. You are going to make it. God is not just present in your pain; He has a purpose for your pain. Jill’s dad, Lon Solomon, who pastors McLean Bible Church, has written well on this in his book, Brokenness: How God Redeems Pain and Suffering. In the Solomons’ case, God has used their pain to write an amazing story that now blesses hundreds of families; He is more than able to use your pain as well.