On a mission

Jesus Center names new executive director

Laura Cootsona previously worked as assistant director of the Jesus Center for three years.

Laura Cootsona previously worked as assistant director of the Jesus Center for three years.

Photo by Ken Smith

As a 20-year-old undergraduate volunteering at the Berkeley Emergency Food Project in the 1980s, Laura Cootsona had an epiphany that helped shape the direction of her life.

“I hung out at the drop-in center a lot, got to know people, helped write résumés and anything else I could do,” Cootsona said during a recent interview, before assuming her new role as executive director of the Jesus Center this week. “I loved the people and the work, but I was pretty naive and not super useful.”

Cootsona’s moment of clarity came after accepting an invitation to join that organization’s board of directors: “From that vantage point I could think strategy and look at the larger issues. It was a real turning point in realizing what role I’m best suited to fill. I wasn’t meant to be a social worker, but my gifts were more along the lines of strategy, bridge-building and fundraising, so that’s the direction I took.”

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from UC Berkeley and a master’s in nonprofit administration from the University of San Francisco, Cootsona started working as a consultant, eventually launching her own business in 2004 called LRC Consulting. Her firm focuses on assisting nonprofits with fundraising, marketing, executive coaching, strategic planning and board development.

Cootsona describes herself as a person of faith, and said she regularly jokes that God brought her family to Chico (they moved here because her husband, Greg, was offered a job as a pastor at Bidwell Presbyterian Church).

Shortly after moving to Chico, she became involved with the Jesus Center, and served as assistant director there from 2003 to 2006. She left to focus on her own business, but said she’s excited to return to the organization and apply the wealth of knowledge she’s acquired through consulting. In the interim, she has remained a regular volunteer at the center, and as a consultant she’s worked locally with the Torres Community Shelter, Catalyst Domestic Violence Services, Youth for Change and other groups.

Cootsana’s appointment comes after the sudden departure of previous director Bill Such, who held the position for 10 years. The Jesus Center announced his leaving in an Oct. 12 press release, citing a difference in opinion on the future vision and direction of the organization.

Ryan Vaught, president of the center’s board of directors, said he could give no further details about the change in leadership or other future changes at the center during a phone interview Tuesday (Oct. 27). He did, however, praise Cootsona’s extensive experience.

For her part, Cootsona said it would be premature for her to discuss any changes at the Jesus Center before stepping into the position, speaking with stakeholders and conducting her own evaluation from the inside. She said her first goals are to identify the most pressing issues and conduct a thorough triage of the organization’s financial situation.

“I’m obviously going in with a lot of questions, because I haven’t been intimately involved in the conversation lately,” she said. “I don’t have solutions up my sleeve yet, I have to figure out what the actual problems are. But I’ve got time to listen well and make sure I get all of the contours and perspectives.”

Cootsona did share her personal thoughts on homelessness: “I think the mark of a good community is one that really embraces everybody,” she said. “If something is good for you and me and not for another part of the population, then it’s not good.

“Certain behaviors aren’t culturally acceptable, so we need to discourage those behaviors, but also give people a break and be in a community with them. Just because someone wears a backpack and sleeps somewhere other than a home doesn’t mean they’re not human.”

Religion helps shape her views toward homelessness. “God’s love for the poor is all over the scriptures,” she said.

“During the interview, they asked me, ‘How are you going to bring Jesus to the job?’ I said, ‘Well, the good news is Jesus is already here.’

“I’m a Presbyterian and we’re not into a lot of outward signs of spirituality … but when I go to the Jesus Center I feel something there that’s real and palpable. God is there. I felt it the first time I walked in years ago, and I felt it when I walked in yesterday.”