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While still in high school Marilee Eckert felt a calling to help youth keep their lives on track. She grew up on a small horse farm in rural Pennsylvania, her free time spent trail riding in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In a nearby town was a well-known residential treatment program for teens struggling with drug addition. Books had been written about the program, and the stories of teens who changed their lives through the program piqued Eckert’s interest. She decided she wanted to be a change agent helping people improve their lives.
During her senior year in high school, her mother died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Eckert started college that year but was too distraught and dropped out before completing her first semester. For the next two years she worked at various jobs and struggled emotionally. Then one day she received what she calls “a letter from God.” The letter was from the university stating she had been re-admitted and when to report for the next semester’s classes. Eckert had not re-applied but the letter made her stop and think about her future. She returned to college, finished her Bachelor’s degree and went on for a Master’s in Counseling Psychology.
According to Eckert none of this would have been possible without the support of many magnificent women who came into her life just when she needed them to help her along the way to her success. “I stand on the shoulders of many strong women who have guided me on the path I continue to follow today,” she says. “It is my responsibility to pass that on to those who come behind me.”
Eckert has spent her entire career helping youth develop their lives in positive ways. She taught children with learning disabilities in New York City, guided university students navigating the transition to independence and directed an inner-city youth employment program in Oakland, CA. During ten summers working at Girl Scout camps she developed her passion for protecting the environment and a deep love of the out-of-doors. “Blue skies, green trees and crisp fresh air make me a better person,” she says.
Since 1992, Eckert has combined her passions for youth development and environmental conservation as the leader of Conservation Corps North Bay (CCNB). Eckert grew the fledgling organization into a $7 million operation that now serves hundreds of youth annually in three corps-owned facilities in San Rafael, Novato and Cotati. The program philosophy and structure designed under Eckert’s supervision supports struggling young people who want to get their lives back on track. Through this program, thousands of disenfranchised youth have received an educational work experience that connects them to their communities and teaches them to become voices for a just and fair environment. In the process, the young workers have improved Marin County’s environment, school curriculum, parks and open spaces.
Knowing that biological diversity is critical to a healthy ecosystem, Eckert applies that same principle in her organizational model. She initiated a charter school at the corps so that participants can earn a high school diploma. She instituted a formal Corps-to-Career program that tracks and supports youth for two years after they leave the Corps. She added programs to serve a larger and a more diverse group of youth, from middle school students through college graduates. Rather than being overwhelmed by the wide diversity of life experiences of the corpsmembers, Eckert welcomes the challenge of helping young people build and maintain a work community of mutual respect. This, she believes, contributes to the positive life transformations reported by so many corps graduates.
Eckert does not limit her focus to local efforts. She is a leader in the youth development and service corps movements in California and nationally, as well as a global visionary who believes that all our decisions and actions have an impact that ripples around the world. “Driving our cars here in Marin County affects the lives of people across the globe. Auto emissions are creating a hole in the ozone that is turning parts of Africa into desert. Increased droughts and flooding combined with the AIDS epidemic are decimating African communities, leaving millions of orphans in countries with no resources to take care of them.”
he awareness of this crisis led Eckert to her decision to adopt four daughters from Ethiopia, which she calls the most rewarding part of her life. “There is nothing more satisfying than watching my children flourish and grow into uniquely beautiful, talented and loving people,” she reflects. ”I have nothing but gratitude for all I have been given.”
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Born in Neptune New Jersey, Maureen was the 10th of 12 children. When she was young, her family moved to Southern California, where she attended school. As a child, Maureen had a brief modeling career–her claim to fame was being featured as one of the Northern Tissue girls. In her teenage years, Maureen showed early entrepreneurial promise, from bagging and selling sand to tourists in Newport Beach, to walking the sands of Santa Monica selling popsicles from a cooler. While a student at California State University, Chico, Maureen worked in leadership at the Residence Halls, Student Activities and New Student Orientation. Moving to Marin after College, Maureen worked at The Alcoholism Council of Marin, Centerpoint, and The California Health Research Foundation.
Maureen has built her career ensuring that young people have a strong voice in public policy and community leadership. She is nationally and internationally recognized as a leading authority in the fields of Youth Philanthropy, Leadership and Development. She had a dream of starting a non-profit organization before the age of 30.
In 1989, inspired by three Marin County teenagers who helped envision an organization that truly put young people at the center, Maureen founded the Youth Leadership Institute (YLI). After incubating for a few years with support, coaching and guidance from Dr. Andy Mecca of the California Health Research Foundation, YLI became incorporated in 1991.
In 1994, Maureen was the youngest professional recipient of the National Association of Alcohol & Drug Administrator’s Career Achievement Prevention Award. The award recognized her national leadership and innovation in the field, and championed the merits of her work here in Marin as a model for communities around the country.
Maureen has navigated the waters of numerous institutions and systems, and knows well that achieving community change means doing the difficult and time-intensive work of building coalitions, cultivating allies and identifying clear objectives—all while having the political savvy, sharp intelligence and flexibility to adapt these objectives to the changing dynamics of the community.
Beyond her commitments at YLI, Maureen served as Chairperson of the California Youth Development Collaborative, and has Chaired numerous Boards, National Task Forces and Commissions on Health, Education and Youth Leadership. An early pioneer in Youth Philanthropy, Maureen started a program in Marin that became a model for many community foundations across the U.S.
In 1996, she started a social enterprise at YLI providing research, training and technical assistance across the U.S. to replicate many of YLI’s model programs and strategies. In 2003, the Youth Council Model, designed by Maureen, received the National Exemplary Program Award from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMSHA).
Maureen is active nationally as a speaker, writer and advocate for the role of young people in public policy, social and community change. She has taught university courses, published numerous articles and contributed to several books. She received the State of California Governor’s Award of Recognition for developing programs that empower young people, a Congressional Award of Innovation for her youth leadership work and in 1996, received an Exemplary Leadership Award from the Office of the President of the United States.
In 2009, she received the California Friday Night Live Leadership Legacy Award. She has testified before the US Congress, the California Legislature and multiple County Boards and Commissions. In 2008, Maureen was selected by the Center for Volunteer and Non Profit Leadership for the Excellence in Leadership Award. In 2009, She presented testimony and training to the Parliament of New Zealand and traveled the country speaking and providing training and strategy work with the Ministry of Youth Development and over 25 NGO’S.
She is a Board Member for the Bay Area Chapter of the Social Enterprise Alliance and The Center for Volunteer and Non Profit Leadership. A graduate of Harvard Business School’s Strategic Perspectives in Non-Profit Management, she and holds an MBA in Strategic Leadership from Dominican University of California. Maureen is the proud parent of three amazing and talented young people, Kaitlin, Kara and Conor Ketchum. Dynamic and fearless, she is as likely to regale you with funny, endearing and bold stories and insights, as she is to inspire you to take chances, challenge the status quo, and improve communities through hard work. Maureen has spent her life as a risk taker, as someone who has never been afraid to speak truth to power with humor, passion and a commitment to join together and work hard to create lasting and transformative change. She looks forward to continuing her inspiring and rewarding work.