For the first time in more than 29 years, Susan McManus will not be at the helm of Learning Champions.
In May, McManus retired from her position as president and CEO of the Collier County Educational Foundation to pursue her own education, which involves completing her doctorate and returning to teaching. .
“It’s part of me, part of the organization, and always will be,” McManus said. “It was a truly wonderful experience. I will always be very supportive of Champions For Learning”
McManus was a founding member of the Champions For Learning board in 1990, which was then called the Education Foundation of Collier County. Three years later, in 1993, she became Chief People Officer, which evolved into President and Chief Executive Officer.
“It’s a wonderful organization and it’s been a big part of my life,” she said of her 32 years with the foundation. “I just want to make sure it stays that way.”
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When asked what it was like to work with McManus, board members and volunteers said “incredible leader”, “big heart”, “welcoming”, “attracts people”, “one of a kind”, “made a huge difference in the community” and “no one can say no to him”.
Beverly Feagin has been with Champions For Learning for eight years. During this time, she was a volunteer and a member of the board of directors.
She said that as far as McManus is concerned, students and teachers are at the heart of everything she does, and her passion has brought community members together to support education in Collier County.
“She just had a way of drawing people in and making them want to get involved,” Feagin said. “And to me, the ability to inspire others to join her in her work is the mark of a true leader.”
Over the past 32 years, McManus has been a mainstay in many programs created by Champions For Learning.
These programs include teacher appreciation, community-funded classroom grants, student mentorship programs, scholarship programs, and college readiness.
But it all started with the Golden Apple Teacher Recognition Program.
“I think teachers were really central to our mission when we started,” McManus said. “There’s a huge emphasis on helping this teacher be the best in their class, be innovative, and do some of the things they think about.”
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From there, the foundation evolved to focus on student success based on feedback received from teachers.
“They felt like there were students and families that didn’t have the same advantages,” McManus said. “And so we started looking at mentorship programs.”
This is how the foundation became involved with the Take Stock in Children program, a nonprofit organization established in 1995 that provides mentorship, college success services, and scholarship opportunities to deserving low-income youth.
“We now have a building that the students come to, so we’ve been able to engage a lot more volunteers, coaches, and mentors,” McManus said. “This direct support to students, I think, has become one of the main goals of Champions For Learning, and that makes me really proud.”
Alan Horton, who was a founding board member in 1990 and is involved with the foundation to this day, said it all comes down to the kids.
“Everything Learning Champions does produces better outcomes for children,” Horton said. “Not better results for teachers themselves or principals or schools, but better results for children. Everything else will follow.”
Dianne Mayberry-Hatt has been involved with the foundation for 20 years. She currently mentors students in the Take Stock in Children program, but has also served as a board member and president and led the Golden Apple program.
Throughout her time at the foundation, she said she was amazed at the number of students and teachers they were able to help under McManus’ leadership.
“She’s like the Energizer Bunny. She has so much energy and is so committed to the mission of the foundation,” Mayberry-Hatt said. “She has this fearless ability to fundraise. And she also has this extraordinary ability to convince potential volunteers to come and join the team.”
Through it all, Feagin said, McManus has been humble.
“She’s always quick to give others credit, but Susan made a huge difference here,” Feagin said.
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For his colleagues, McManus’ retirement is bittersweet.
“I will miss her as part of the organization, but I can say that working with her over these years we have become friends and I certainly expect to keep in touch,” Feagin said. “I really congratulate her on her tremendous career.”
Mayberry-Hatt said she was surprised when McManus announced her retirement, but is happy for her.
“We talked about retiring at one point, and I guess you never think that’s really going to happen,” she said.
When Horton first heard about McManus’ retirement, he said his first thought was, “Oh no.”
His second thought was, “Oh my god, what do we need to do to make sure his legacy lives on?”
“I think Susan is doing everything she can to make sure the future of the foundation is bright,” Horton said. “They have tremendous support in the community. They are the trusted leader for the future of Collier County.”
Although McManus knows she wants to complete her doctorate and return to teaching, she has made no concrete plans about what school she will attend or what she will teach.
“I’m very interested in the connection between social entrepreneurship and education,” she said. “I’ve been so busy and with COVID over the past two years there have been a lot of challenges. It was just my opportunity now to stop and look back.”
Prior to joining Champions For Learning, McManus taught fourth grade at Saint Ann’s Catholic School in Naples.
She called herself a “lifelong learner”. But she still hopes to connect with Champions For Learning.
“I just want to keep learning myself,” she said. “It’s (Champions) something that will always be in my heart, and the students, families and teachers I’ve worked with have been amazing.”
The board hired Terrie Mitev, who has held leadership positions in the Collier County School District since 1997, as interim CEO until they find a permanent replacement for McManus.
Mayberry-Hatt said that because the foundation is well organized, has a strong board and programs in place that are well received by the community, they will be fine without McManus.
“Like any organization, there is always evolution,” she said. “I think we’ll see it will definitely be different because she’s not at the helm, but I think her spirit will be there.”
Nikki Ross covers education for the Fort Myers News-Press and the Naples Daily News. She can be reached at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @nikkiinreallife.