Communications director Jennifer Sykes has helmed Health Forward’s communications for 15 years. She has seen the organization through some significant projects, including strategic planning, logo redesigns, website development, our 10-year and 15-year celebrations, our name change and rebranding in 2018, and media campaigns around important issues like tobacco prevention and Medicaid Expansion.
While Jen’s role often has her hard at work behind the scenes, she focuses on how we communicate with and engage the community around our work. No one has thought more about how we tell our story as a funder and how we in turn can amplify the voices of our partners. I got to sit down with Jen and talk about her tenure at Health Forward.
What are some of your favorite memories of Health Forward?
In the early days we all ate together in the front office on 18th and Prospect. Some days were healthy options and others were pork tenderloins from Benton’s Market. Often Graciela Couchonnal would bring everyone Panera, and we always celebrated Taco Tuesday. As we’ve grown, impromptu lunch gatherings have become complicated, but we still try to always make time for Taco Tuesdays.
After a few years at our original home on 18th and Prospect, the KIPP Endeavor Academy moved into the first floor of our building. It always put a smile on my face to see the students during my walking breaks (or walking meetings) down the hall. However, I do not miss my office being directly upstairs from band practice.
Over the years we’ve spent lots of time together outside of work, like ladies’ night at the K and Royals and Sporting KC tailgates with our families. It’s been fun watching each other’s families grow.
How has Health Forward changed during your tenure?
When I started at Health Forward, my son was two years old. My daughter joined our family the next year. They are now 14 and 17. Just as I have watched my own family grow, the same is true about Health Forward. I joined the organization as we were just a baby — trying to figure out the very basics to operate as a funder. As my kids grew, so did Health Forward, adding amazing new co-workers and growing in our leadership and advocacy work.
Just like raising kids, it is hard to pick out what phase of development has been my “favorite.” With each phase came many opportunities. It’s been a privilege to watch us grow from a startup into a significant regional funder and advocacy voice. And while we have grown and changed over the years, our dedication to the mission remains steadfast.
Today, we are experiencing the joy and struggles that are the teenage years, building on the new beginning and figuring out who we want to be when we grow up. I’m excited about our future direction and look forward to sharing our new purpose and strategies with the community next year.
If you had not ended up at Health Forward, what do you think you would be doing now?
I would still be doing communications and still be working in the nonprofit space here in the region…. Unless my pipedream came true, and I became the owner of the Denver Broncos. (My Health Forward and Chiefs-loving coworkers would be disappointed if I didn’t work the Broncos in here somehow!)
Where do you think Health Forward will be 15 years from now?
We will see systems, organizations, and people working together on securing health equity for our region. Health Forward will have a leading voice in that work. We’ll see in our communications and throughout our communities a focus on changing the narrative and talking about our work and our communities from an asset-based perspective. We will see Medicaid expansion in Kansas. And we’ll be doing it all from our new, permanent physical home.
On Jen’s 15th anniversary, we also wanted to give her colleagues the chance to share some thoughts, stories, and memories about Jen.
- “I truly appreciate working with Jen as a collaborative partner. She has always impressed me with her willingness to partner internally as well as externally. The job of communicating the work of this foundation is a big one…which Jen has done in a transparent and inclusive manner. She has a great sense of humor and a realness about the work.”
- “Jen is a committed team member. I feel like she’s often the voice reminding us of historical perspectives: whose voice should be at the table, and who is missing from the conversation. She’s open-hearted and fun to talk to. She’s also always open to share what’s going on with her family.”
- “I truly admire Jen’s ability to bring people together at Health Forward. Being on a team Jen is leading is great because she invites varied perspectives into conversations and work and creates space for everyone to contribute. In an organization that can be siloed, she does a fantastic job pulling us together around shared goals and projects. Jen is also someone you can count on to follow through and communicate well. And she does a great job of affirming colleagues in a way that inspires us all to do more and be our best.”
- “My first memory of Jen is from my interview. She was 15 minutes late because she had suffered a neck injury when a gust of wind blew a pool umbrella into her head. When she arrived at the office, she couldn’t make the tight turn into the parking garage. With no neck mobility to see where she was going, she ultimately had to have someone park her car for her. She told me, a relative stranger, all of this before asking me a single question. What does this say about Jen as a colleague? It exhibits her grace under pressure, her sense of humor, her penchant for sharing a good story, and that anyone who meets her can expect nothing less than full transparency.”
- “One of the things I find the most remarkable about Jen is that she is utterly unflappable. No matter how busy the work or stressful the situation, Jen always handles it calmly and efficiently. It’s a characteristic I sincerely admire and envy. The other thing is that she’s fun to go on outings with. Although she may get a speeding ticket on the way there or not be able to find where she parked her car when it’s time to leave.”
- “Over the years our kids have tailgated at Royals and Sporting KC, ate pizza after a Health Forward video shoot, and always ran into each other at our old building. The kids grew up together. They were all in grade school when I started at Health Forward some 14 years ago, and Maggie was a toddler.”
- “Jen has always been approachable and easy to talk to. I know she does so much for the organization.”
- “I’ve had the great pleasure of working closely with Jen for nearly two years. Within our leadership team, akin to the dynamics of informal roles within a family system, I affectionately call Jen ‘the responsible one.’ A smart, dutiful, conscientious taskmaster and guardian of the brand, who allows absolutely nothing to slip through the cracks.”
- “I remember Jen dragging us kicking and screaming to produce a new logo back in the 2000s, during our HCF days. We all sat together at the back table as she tried to convince us and get us through the process. And then her husband Mike made us all t-shirts to promote it.”
- “I am always grateful to work on a project with Jen. She is focused, calm, and efficient. She also makes everyone feel valued and heard. Plus, she’s a lot of fun, which is a great bonus.”
- “Jen is a super sports mom and has a real love for other mums. I always find her stories amusing when she shares about running her kids to tournaments, rehearsals, and competitions. She really finds balance, and I’m inspired by the amount of attention she gives her kids.”
- “Jen may hold the record for officing in the most places at the foundation. She had three different offices at our old building, including the infamous middle/windowless room that she shared with two colleagues. It also had a leaky ceiling and rain would sometimes come in.”
- Jen is about as real as it gets. She’s exactly the person you want to work with: someone who’s calm and competent in meetings and at work, and a total blast outside work. She quietly brings Health Forward staff together with her advice, wisdom, and sense of humor.