David Matson and The Children’s Place were, in retrospect, meant for each other. Matson, a successful company lawyer, was looking for a meaningful way to give more to his community, particularly for children like the ones he and his wife, Sue, provided foster care for.
The Children’s Place was a nonprofit on shaky financial footing looking for new leadership so it could continue serving the mental health needs of kids who’d been abused, traumatized or neglected.
That was 13 years ago. Later this year, Matson will step down as CEO of The Children’s Place, located along the Trolley Track Trail in Brookside. After six years on the board of directors and seven more as top man, Matson is credited with turning the agency around. Along the way, Matson and his wife, Sue, provided foster care in their Leawood home to some 30 kids whose family circumstances were so unsettled they needed a temporary home.
“I think they just love kids,” said Marsha Campbell, a personal friend and former Missouri legislator.
That love of children and experience with foster kids definitely helped in managing The Children’s Place, she said.
“When he stepped in, he knew a lot about what the kids were up to,” Campbell said. “He understood they needed help and not to be pitied or fawned over.”
Running an agency like The Children’s Place wasn’t something Matson originally set out to do. A couple of decades ago, he was a company lawyer, having worked at Polsinelli and at Sprint. He and Sue wanted to do more to help their community. They’d heard about the rewards of foster parenting from some good friends and decided to undergo training. They welcomed their first foster children in 1997, when their own kids were 15, 14 and 11.
Even as a foster parent, Matson really hadn’t heard much about The Children’s Place. Most of his foster children came from the Kansas side of the state line. The Children’s Place serves children in Jackson County.
Matson’s association with the agency came about after a job change to the Bernstein-Rein advertising agency. One of the Bernstein family members was about to leave The Children’s Place board of directors and knew of Matson’s interest in child welfare.
Matson spent from 2002-08 on the board, eventually agreeing to fill the CEO spot temporarily when it came open at the end of that time. That temporary posting eventually stretched to a seven-year run.
By many accounts, Matson’s leadership reversed the course of an agency that was headed in a bad financial direction. There were significant deficits when he joined the board, Matson said, but now the operation is financially stable. “That’s something to be proud of in the nonprofit arena,” he said.
Steve Roling, former head of the Healthcare Foundation of Kansas City and a friend of Matson, said Matson turned things around very quickly, putting together a strong staff and a cadre of young people dedicated to the cause who will perhaps end up on the board of directors themselves.
During Matson’s tenure as CEO, contributions at The Children’s Place increased from $650,000 to over $1.2 million and enrollment in two key treatment services — a day treatment program for kids 6 months to 6 years old and an outpatient program — have increased steadily, according to the agency’s figures.
An estimated 600 children are served by The Children’s Place therapeutic and assessment services each year.
Jovanna Rohs, chairman of the agency’s board of directors, gives Matson’s familiarity with the stresses of traumatized children the credit for his success as CEO.
“David is a CEO who is actually present,” Rohs said. “He is there in the classrooms and knows the children. He sees them getting on the bus and off the bus. What I think it adds is it gives him a different way to think about their situation. He knows the situations they’re moving through are not always linear.”
The agency’s work culture has changed as a result. “We’re able to meet budget and are self sustaining. There’s an atmosphere of collaboration, collegiality and people happy to be there,” Rohs said.
Providing foster care and later running the nonprofit have had a profound impact on the Matsons. For one thing, they adopted one of the foster children, Charlie, who is now 16.
It also brought about a career change for Matson’s wife, Sue. She left her job in college admissions to stay home with the foster kids, David said. In fact, she was the driving force behind the family’s interest in at-risk kids, he said.
“She’s was the real hero in all this,” he said. “I would go to work every day and she would stay home with the children.”
She now works for Johnson County Mental Health and is a member of the Blue Valley school board.
Of course, the Matsons didn’t have their 30 foster kids all at once. But sometimes they did have a house full. For about nine months, they provided care for four children under age 3, as well as their own three teenagers, David Matson said. “It was an interesting time.”
Foster parenting also had a big impact on their teenagers’ lives, he said. “My older son says he probably changed more diapers when he was 14 years old than most people do their entire lives,” Matson said. The Matson teenagers also sometimes grew attached to the foster kids, making it difficult when they had to say goodbye, he said.
All that work and all those kids made for some added tensions in the family, but it also drew them closer together and helped the older kids learn about others not so fortunate.
“It’s not a decision I look back on and regret in any way,” he said.
The work at The Children’s Place has been eye-opening as well, he said. Where once he used to judge the parents of traumatized children, he now has a different view. “My learning from this is that the parents aren’t bad people. They’re just struggling and they’re trying to cope in the best ways they can,” he said.
Matson decided it was time to leave the nonprofit to allow a fresh perspective on the long-range plans the agency is drawing up. What’s next, he can’t say for sure.
The Matsons haven’t had any foster kids for a couple of years, and their older children, Emily Hoppe, Kacie and Zachary Matson, have grown and moved to Portland, Ore., Olathe and Lake Havasu City, Ariz., respectively.
Matson, 60, will leave his position in August, but is rethinking his earlier plan to retire. He and Sue have talked about whether they want to volunteer or even start foster parenting again. He’d like to find something else to do consistent with their interest in at-risk children, he said.
“I’ve loved it here. It has just been an incredible experience.”