Hearing him talk, you wonder how he carries the weight of it all. Sure, anyone scrolling through social media may be thinking about current events and societal problems, but Jason Hooper leads a team of nearly 1,600 people who are working to solve those massive problems head-on. Day after day, they’re tackling the opioid addiction crisis, increased suicide rates, and a prevalence of childhood trauma, including abuse and neglect, in communities across America.
|>> JASON HOOPER|
|Title: President and CEO, KVC Health Systems|
|Education: Master’s degree in social work from the University of Kansas, bachelor’s degrees in psychology and sociology from Baker University|
|Home: Lives with his wife and two children in the Johnson County, KS area|
|Hobbies: Coaching youth soccer, spending time with family, attending pro and college sporting events (football, baseball, soccer)|
Hooper has successfully navigated his first 18 months as President/CEO of KVC Health Systems, a leader in behavioral health, child welfare, and community health and wellness.
Despite the weight of these challenges, whether due to his social work training or the qualities instilled in him by his mother or one of several life-changing coaches along the way, Hooper manages to remain hopeful. His conviction is that people and community are key answers in the larger fight.
We recently sat down with him to provide a peek inside the organization.
Behavioral health is a field that many people don’t know much about. What are some of the current themes within behavioral health care?
Mental or behavioral health is an important topic that affects everyone. Some big themes within the field right now are:
- home-based care. In-home therapy is our model because it improves participation and is more effective;
- substance abuse. Addressing substance use disorders and understanding that addiction is a disease. Recognizing that using substances is not a moral misgiving; it’s about the brain;
- suicidality. The tremendous emotional pain and hopelessness many people feel. I had dinner with a colleague last night, and this person has three friends who have experienced a family or friend’s suicide in the last four months;
- care integration. the blending of primary health care with mental and behavioral health services. Knowing that there is a relationship between diseases of the body and the way the brain and emotions function. We’re integrating treatment;
- data-informed care. Innovating at the speed of science. Using science and data to inform the treatment we provide to people; and
- funding. Health care is changing and there are new models for payment and accountability.
One of the other core competencies of KVC is social work. What do you want people who are not familiar with social work or child welfare to know about it?
Social work is really about people. Sometimes it’s about therapeutic work; sometimes it’s about helping people with resources; and sometimes it’s just about advocacy. The work we do is focused on keeping families safely together.
It takes a tremendous skillset to be a truly effective social worker. Social workers are the connectors between all of the systems that provide services and support to children and families: the justice system, social services, schools, primary health, and behavioral health. Social workers do immensely important work and it is our honor to have so many of these talented people a part of KVC.
What is KVC’s finish line? What does success look like 10 or 20 years from now?
We will keep working until every child, teenager and adult is safe and connected to others. Our finish line is where organizations like KVC aren’t needed anymore. Parents and caregivers have the supports and skills to care for their children and families. Abuse and neglect are no longer prevalent. Addiction is not an issue. Trauma and its effects are no longer wreaking havoc on our communities. If we can work ourselves out of existence, how cool would that be?
I don’t know if we’ll ever get there. But one thing we can do is to create care pathways for people suffering from depression or mental illness. If you walk into a hospital with chest pains, there are immediate protocols for assessment and treatment. In behavioral health and child welfare, we have evidence-based best practices, which are a great start. But the next step is to develop care pathways that can help us assess and deliver the appropriate care at the appropriate time.
What are the greatest challenges KVC is facing right now and how is it addressing them?
The healthcare and human services environment we work in is complex and changing rapidly. We have the experience, scale and expertise to increase our impact and make sure people are getting the best services possible. But quite frankly, like most nonprofits, there is a lack of capital which makes it difficult to take every risk and be entrepreneurial.
That said, we are still innovating. This past year, we merged with Niles Home for Children. This organization has been a vital part of serving the urban core of Kansas City, Missouri for 134 years, and it was in danger of going away. Merging with Niles and working with community partners to raise funds for a $1.4 million renovation and elevate the quality of staff and care is a game-changer for children and families in Kansas City.
We’re also developing the nation’s first college for youth emerging from foster care. Each year, nearly 30,000 youth age out of foster care without a permanent family or home. This lack of support puts them at high risk of homelessness, unemployment, illness, incarceration, early childbearing, and being unable to reach their full potential. We’ve acquired a campus in West Virginia and are pursuing funding to help shift the trajectory of negative outcomes for these young adults.
Beyond this, the biggest challenges in our day-to-day work are the nationwide staffing shortage for social work and related fields and the opioid crisis. We’re taking the workforce issue seriously and taking action on several fronts to address it. As a parent, husband and CEO, I find this opioid crisis terrifying – it’s unlike anything we’ve seen. We’re actively exploring ways to expand addiction recovery services in underserved areas.
How do you choose and prioritize KVC’s initiatives?
I’m not going to be the guy that sets the priorities alone; our entire leadership team is going to do that. There’s this saying, “To evolve, you have to involve.” This is true with clients – we need client voice and choice so that the solutions really address their needs. And it’s also true as it relates to our internal strategies and programming. We have an amazing leadership team.
When I started in this role, I went on a nationwide listening tour at each of our 35 locations. As an executive team, we want to influence our culture in a positive way. Every time we visit one of the states we’re in, we spend time with our people and make sure they know we care about them.
Our next priority was integrating key leaders into our strategic planning and budgeting. We want to be more deliberate and inclusive about how we operate, communicate and envision the future. We have six strategic focus areas and the first one is making KVC a great place to work.
So now we’re a year into this new approach to strategic planning and we’re happy with its direction. Each business unit has its own strategic plan and takes ownership of its future. At the end of the day, I still have to sign off on plans. But I want deeper engagement from our entire team around big initiatives. That will set us up to be a winning team with greater impact.
Who has had a big impact on your life and in what way?
My Mom, in the biggest way. I grew up in a difficult neighborhood and she was a single mother and a fighter. She believed in living life right – be honest, work hard, do the right thing. I’ve always been motivated to live a life that would make her proud.
I also had two coaches that gave to me tremendously. My high school coach grabbed me and asked where I was headed. He made me realize I had potential and convinced me to go to college. My college coach is the person who convinced me to come to Kansas. He was like a father to me and taught me a lot about life. He instilled a winner’s mentality, which means giving your all, studying the game, and competing so that you either win or you learn something.
And of course Wayne Sims and Anne Roberts who led KVC for 35 years. Wayne encouraged me to never make a decision that was primarily fiscally-driven. We make decisions with the best interests of children and families at heart. They taught me what it means to be responsible for an organization, for a team, and for each child in our care.
With all these serious topics, how do you relax and have fun?
I love to help coach my kids’ soccer as much as possible. I love the game and I love to be around them, have fun and teach the game that has given me so much.
Family time is important to me so I work hard to be present. My wife is great at challenging us to live every day in the moment and my kids just inspire me to be a better person.
How can people get involved in what KVC’s doing?
If we want our communities to enjoy health and prosperity, we have to ensure that every child is safe, connected to others, and has the opportunity to develop a healthy brain. Every child needs to have at least one caring adult. Whether you focus on being present with your own child or become a foster parent to other youth in your neighborhood, make time to talk with children, ask questions about their interests and show that you care. These positive interactions help build healthy brains and resilience.