Inside Track: Ensink ties together diverse strengths

New executive director of Dégagé to lead nonprofit through changes, leveraging experience in varied fields.
Thelma Ensink listened to the stories of homeless patients who were riding in the back of her ambulance. Courtesy James Horton

Thelma Ensink may have a more varied resume than some nonprofit leaders, but she said concern for marginalized groups is the through line in everything she’s done.

Ensink, a native of South Africa who moved to Michigan at the age of 12 with her family, has worked in paramedicine and education while staying involved on boards and in ministry at various times in her career. In January, she was appointed executive director of Dégagé Ministries, a 54-year-old nonprofit agency that serves homeless individuals in downtown Grand Rapids.

She succeeds Marge Palmerlee, who led the organization for 23 years. Although Ensink did not know Palmerlee well before she applied for the job, she now considers her one of her mentors and biggest cheerleaders in her new role, meeting weekly with her to ensure a smooth transition as the organization enters its next phase.

Growing up in South Africa during apartheid, Ensink said she learned from an early age about discrimination and marginalization based on skin color and ethnicity, and it left a deep impression on her. Her father, a physician, took her on rounds, and she had the opportunity to see firsthand the conditions in rural African hospitals.

“Just really seeing those disparities made a big impression on me as a child,” she said. “At that time, you don’t realize it, but now looking back, you’re like, OK, that’s where the seeds got planted in terms of me just really having a heart or having a passion for the marginalized and the oppressed.”

Ensink’s father worked for a national company in the late 1980s that was originally going to place him in Florida, but at the last minute, he was sent to Zeeland. Ensink said this was a culture and climate shock for the whole family.

“I never had a winter coat before,” she said. 

Dégagé Ministries
Position: Executive director
Age: 45
Birthplace: Pretoria, South Africa
Residence: Wyoming
Family: Husband of 23 years; three children: 14-year-old boy, 11-year-old girl and 8-year-old boy
Business/Community Involvement: Safe Haven board member, served as adjunct faculty member at Hope College last semester, just finished serving as a trustee for the Christian Schools International pension board
Biggest Career Break: Biggest success was co-founding Ambassador High at Grandville Calvin Christian School three years ago, a program that focuses on community-based learning and internships.

English was also not her first language, and she faced tumultuous times in her family that made coming of age in a strange place even more difficult.

After high school, Ensink attended Calvin College (now Calvin University) to study education, fully intending to return to South Africa after graduation, but then she met and married her husband, and they stayed.

Despite her father being a doctor and her mother being a nurse, Ensink had no intention of entering the medical field until an opportunity presented itself to work in patient registration at Spectrum Health while enrolled at Calvin. From there, she was encouraged to become a medic with American Medical Response to pay her way through college. She didn’t intend to work on an ambulance, but she said it was a valuable experience that she grew to love. 

“I got to carry individuals who were experiencing homelessness in the back of my ambulance,” she said. “One day, we were in a little bit longer transport, and I asked this man about his life and background, and he really opened up. It shocked me, because you have your stereotypes or ideas about what homelessness is, but then you meet someone, and you hear their story. I then started to ask more homeless individuals who I had in my ambulance, and I started to see patterns, that wow, these individuals’ lives were often like mine. They were married, owned a home, they were working, and then they had some kind of traumatic event — it might have been divorce, it might have been the death of a loved one — and all these things set their lives on a different trajectory.”

She said being a medic also opened her eyes to the socioeconomic disparities in Grand Rapids. One day, she might be called on to care for someone living on the streets, and the very next call might be to the home of a millionaire. Ensink said she realized no one can escape disease, but her experience as a medic showed her people in poverty are impacted by those tragedies exponentially more.

In addition to her work as a paramedic, Ensink worked as an office manager at Ionia Family Medicine from 1998 to 2001, during which time she did house calls and met rural families who lived without phone service or electricity in their homes — yet another disparity.

After having all of these experiences, Ensink said she had a growing awareness that young people of privilege in schools today aren’t being taught about what’s happening in the world among marginalized groups. So, she then became a social studies teacher and educator during the next two decades, and she worked to design curricula that would spread awareness of social justice issues, such as homelessness and poverty. At the same time, she was learning to understand the individual challenges that underprivileged students faced that impacted whether they would succeed in school, such as domestic abuse, hunger or other stressors.

“You always want a teenager to have hope. You always want them to know it can get better, because your worst fear is that they will give up if they think things can’t get better,” Ensink said. “I think that’s still the passion that drives me here, too. Every patron we meet with is facing what seems like insurmountable issues. ‘I don’t have housing. I don’t have income. I’m facing addiction.’ (It’s rewarding) to be able to say, ‘It can get better. There is hope. How can we walk alongside of you? What’s the next step you can take toward that goal?’”

By the time Ensink left Grandville Calvin Christian Schools, she had been a middle school principal, a high school principal, co-founded Ambassador High — which gives students real-world internship experiences at places like Dégagé — and was head of school, which she said is a lot like being the head of a nonprofit, answering to a board of directors, fundraising and setting strategic direction for the organization.

She said she will take the lessons learned from practicing paramedicine and being an educator and apply them to her current role — especially the lessons about collaborative leadership and helping people reach their full potential.

In addition to her background as an educational leader and medic, Ensink is a certified trainer in restorative practices (RP) — a tool to build community and repair relationships when harm has been done.

“I did extensive work with RP in the school setting,” she said. “Now, I am very excited to bring RP to the shelter and homelessness program setting. We are training our staff in RP and using it to help reduce suspensions and improve outcomes for the people we serve.”

Dégagé Ministries kicked off an expansion in 2019 and has about $1 million left to raise in its capital campaign. The expansion entails building a new three-story structure in the place of the former historic Carriage House at 139 Sheldon Ave. SE, as well as renovating two adjacent buildings facing Sheldon Avenue, along with renovating the headquarters and connecting all of Dégagé’s buildings to allow passage between them. The expansion will give the nonprofit:

  • A larger dining room to serve 90,000 meals a year (a 50% increase in capacity)
  • A day wellness center providing 1,000 to 2,000 new wellness visits per year
  • A workforce development center with expanded programming to serve 900 to 1,000 attendees per year
  • An expanded Open Door Women’s Center, including rooms for women and their children, providing 3,000 to 3,500 new overnight stays per year

Ensink said with her background in health care, as the nonprofit’s new executive director, she is excited to continue partnerships with Cherry Health, Mercy Health and other health providers to offer vaccination clinics, screenings and tests for patrons. Also, via the new wellness center, she is looking forward to being able to give homeless individuals a place to recover from injuries, surgeries and procedures, as well as to teach the community preventive care, health and nutrition, and other wellness skills.

Her educational background will be useful when it comes to workforce development, Ensink said. Just as in education, every student gets an individual learning plan, so at Dégagé, they receive individual career plans.

“We walk side by side, especially in our workforce development program, with each patron and really say, ‘What are your gifts? What are your passions? How can we walk alongside to help you be successful and reach your goals?’ So I think there’s a lot of parallels there to the educational role. I also think that my leadership style is deeply influenced by being an educator because I believe in coaching the people that I work with, having really clear expectations, walking alongside, facilitating (and) guiding you. That’s what education has moved toward, and I think that’s also, for me, one of the best styles of leadership.”

Ensink said she is proud of the progress that’s been made since she started in training Dégagé’s 44 employees in best practices, evaluating current programs to make sure they are meeting strategic goals, expanding the hours of the Life Enrichment Center, reinstating quarterly meetings with other downtown agencies that serve homeless and disadvantaged populations, and working with them to create a campaign that will educate the community on the problem of homelessness and the role local agencies play in the housing crisis.

Two things keep Ensink excited to wake up and come to work each day, she said: the progress that patrons make toward their goals each day, and the growing success Dégagé is having in its workforce development efforts, which were accelerated by the pandemic.

“I’ve been here just five months now, but it really has been an awesome experience,” she said.

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