Back Story

Carrie Vanderbush

Executive Director, Volunteer Kalamazoo

Carrie Vanderbush knows a little something about volunteering, and not because she oversees an organization that matched more than 22,000 volunteers with local nonprofits last year.

When Vanderbush was growing up in Higgins Lake and Gaylord, her mother instilled in her and her four siblings the value of helping others. “There was never an option for us not to help someone if we could. My mom helped our neighbors with things like raking leaves, and we were encouraged to help the people around us.”

Back then, Vanderbush probably couldn’t see that all of this helping out of others would someday lead to a job, but it did.

How did you get where you are today?

Actually, I have done volunteerism my whole life. I was initially influenced by my mom, and when I was in high school I was involved in a lot of clubs and was president of my class and National Honor Society, which all had a volunteer component. In college at Lake Superior State University I was in a sorority and volunteered through that.

When I moved here, I mentored a girl from third grade to her graduation from high school. After my husband and I adopted our first child, I took some time off from working to be at home but quickly realized I needed something else, so I joined Junior League and eventually served as its president.

It was through Junior League that I learned about an opportunity at Pretty Lake Camp and became the camp’s marketing manager. Then the opportunity at Volunteer Kalamazoo came along, and it really fit my lifetime of volunteering and desire to ignite the passion in others to give back to the community. It was the perfect job for me.

What do people say when you tell them what you do?

Because Volunteer Kalamazoo has been around for 50 years, I hear a lot of stories about how people connected with us way back when. Most people are excited to tell me their volunteer stories, but sometimes people feel a need to make excuses to me for why they aren’t volunteering, like they think I’m keeping a big tally in my office of non-volunteers (she laughs).

Who or what has most influenced who you are today?

My family. My mom died when I was 11, and I have two brothers and two sisters, and we became very close.

I think my mom’s death was a defining moment — it was a big change in my life and I had to grow up fast and be independent. I helped raise my twin brothers, who were a year and half when she died.

I was the first in my family to go to college. My dad was a school bus driver, and he remarried a woman with seven kids, so I knew my parents wouldn’t be able to pay for college. I worked hard to get good grades and ended up with a full scholarship to attend Lake Superior State.

What is your most memorable volunteer experience?

I was a fortuneteller at the carnivals we had for the kids at Pretty Lake Camp. My friend and I came up with these whole personas — I was Zelda — complete with dressing up in these great costumes. It’s amazing what kids will tell someone if they are just willing to listen. We’d ask, “What do you want to know?” And a lot of them would say, “What am I going to be when I grow up?” You can see clues, like one boy had a basketball painted on his cheek, and I’d say, “You want to be a basketball player.” And he said, “How did you know?”

Our biggest message as fortunetellers was always “Stay in school.” Sometimes we’d see the same kids year to year, and they’d try to test us by asking, “I was here last year and what did you tell me?” I’d answer, “I told you that you needed to stay in school.” And they’d say, “How did you remember?”

Speaking of fortunetelling, where do you see yourself in five years?

This is my first executive director job, and I am hoping I will move on to another executive director job. I really enjoy being an executive director because I don’t have to only know one thing. I have to know bits and pieces of everything.

What’s on your bucket list?

My husband will die when he hears this, but I want to climb a mountain. Kilimanjaro maybe. Not an Everest, where you have to wear oxygen, but still a significant mountain. I don't know if it’s ever going to happen, but it seems like a cool thing to do.

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