Mary Muliett may have taken a roundabout path into social work, but looking back on her early years, she realizes she was always drawn to working with children and families.
Muliett stepped into the role of president and CEO of the Grand Rapids-based social services nonprofit D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s (DABSJ) in December, bringing to the table 23 years of experience in the health and human services sector.
A native of metro Detroit, Muliett was born to loving parents who she said would have had more children if they were able. Her mother poured herself into raising Muliett and working as a special education teacher — then later a director and a principal — for children with developmental and cognitive disabilities. Muliett spent much of her time after daycare and school in the classroom with her mother, learning from her and absorbing her love of children and families.
“Unfortunately, she passed away unexpectedly years ago, but I learned so much about being a leader from her selflessness,” Muliett said. “Everything she did every day was just looking at what do others need, and I think that’s really the servant-leadership model that I embraced. I’m here to support everyone else. That’s really my job. … (Mom) just always lived down to earth and supporting everybody around her, family and work-wise, so if I could ever be the leader that my mom was, I will have obtained my life goal.”
During high school, Muliett expressed her love for people and animals through her earliest jobs — serving frozen yogurt at TCBY, being a nanny/babysitter, and giving horseback riding lessons and working at horse camps. Muliett began riding at the age of 6 and considered becoming a veterinarian until she started taking science classes and realized it wasn’t her thing.
Muliett’s father was an artist who sculpted clay models of the exterior of cars for General Motors’ Technical Center. Over the years, he moved into supervisory and leadership roles at GM. Muliett said she inherited his creativity and love of art, which is part of what led her to study art education at Western Michigan University. She said she is grateful for the example and support of her parents.
Organization: D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s
Position: President and CEO
Residence: Battle Creek
Family: Partner in Battle Creek; extended family on both sides of the state
Business/Community Involvement: Advisory board member, Beer City Dog Biscuits; board member, Michigan Federation for Children and Families
Biggest Career Break: Landing the job at D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s; having the opportunity to build an art program for children with severe emotional disabilities at Family & Children Services in Kalamazoo, which set her on the path of earning a social work technician license and pursuing a Master of Social Work degree to follow her bachelor’s degree in art education
“I had an amazing, supportive upbringing, and I think that’s the thing that motivates me is supporting kids and families so that they can have the best possible childhood and families can have the most support to be successful and to be able to support their kids and keep their families intact. That’s really been my driving force in the work with kids and families.”
Instead of attending her father’s alma mater, Wayne State University, or another east side university, Muliett said she chose Western Michigan University after visiting and falling in love with the “green space” and vibrant diversity of the Kalamazoo/West Michigan area, as compared to the concrete jungle that is metro Detroit.
While a first-year student in Western’s art education program in 1997, Muliett got a part-time job at Family & Children Services in Kalamazoo, where she worked with kids with severe emotional disabilities (SED).
“The supervisor for that program asked me to stay on when I graduated (in 2001) and build out an art program for youth that were struggling being in general community environments. They just hadn’t built enough skills to know how to navigate all the things (like loud noises or people walking by). … For our kids, that was just triggering, and they were really struggling. We wanted to create kind of a middle option for our kids who were really struggling with going out bowling in the community, for example.”
Muliett was given a budget and built the art program from the ground up with the goal of helping children with SED be able to navigate sensory issues and re-enter the full community.
“It was wildly successful,” she said. “The organization, years back, last time I checked, still was running that part of their program because it was so helpful for kids who are struggling out in general community settings.”
Muliett found working with children more rewarding than the art education aspect of it, which led to her continuing in the field of social work, earning her social work technician’s license — an accreditation that no longer exists but which she earned on the job with supervision.
In 2002 and 2003, she was program director for the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center in Augusta, which melded all of her passions — horses and students and adults with disabilities. While there, she found herself craving more clinical experience. She accepted a position that opened up at Kalamazoo Community Mental Health (now called Integrated Services of Kalamazoo) and worked there until 2005, at which point she decided it was time for further education. That fall, she enrolled at Western in the MSW program and thereafter earned her Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) credential.
Muliett then returned to Family & Children Services as a home-based therapist, was team leader at Calhoun County Juvenile Home, and from 2008-20 held increasing roles of responsibility at the nonprofit Samaritas, most recently as vice president of community services, overseeing a $13 million budget, 12 programs and supporting almost 400 employees across 40 sites in Michigan that served 6,000 individuals and families.
Muliett said she owes a lot of her growth and leadership development to Samaritas, where supervisors, colleagues and friends mentored, supported and encouraged her for well over a decade, as well as to some of the earlier nonprofit organizations she worked for.
She recalls fondly moments of deep personal and professional fulfillment, such as when a nonverbal child she was working with for months and months finally began to speak, or when leaders she coached and worked alongside stepped into higher roles of responsibility and started advocating for systems change, or when families she was serving hit small milestones that led to big family impact.
Muliett said she is honored and thrilled to have been hired as the top leader for DABSJ.
“This organization is so strong, with such heart, and so many people that work here just have an amazing passion for our mission for kids and families. It’s a really cool place to land at this point. I just am so excited to be here.”
She said she views some of her natural leadership strengths as authenticity and transparency and encourages others on her team to strive for that as well, to build a better organization.
Looking ahead, Muliett is planning to continue to position DABSJ for growth in the areas of family preservation and behavioral health alongside child welfare services, foster care, adoption and temporary residential care.
“We do believe kids do best at home with their family — when they can be safe — and so if we can be a service provider that supports a family so that their children can remain home with them and just get them back on their feet, that’s what we want to see happen,” she said.
This year, DABSJ will be breaking ground on a new building that will allow the organization to consolidate all of its operations into its Knapp Street campus and close and sell its Leonard Street campus. A $10 million capital campaign, Together for Kids, launched in 2019 to support that effort.
Also on Muliett’s priority list is strengthening the organization’s focus on building equitable systems, procedures and processes to shape a more diverse and inclusive workforce to better celebrate and meet the needs of the diverse children and families the organization serves. DABSJ is currently in the midst of launching a three-month DEI assessment process with the Alliance for Strong Families & Communities, which will lead into a 12-month DEI development plan with the alliance to create positive systems change.
“I really do think we have a strong continuum of care for kids and families in the West Michigan community, and this organization exists, from way back when, our history is ‘existing to meet community needs,’ and that’s continually what we’re looking at today, is what needs are in the West Michigan community for kids and families, and how can D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s support those needs in the community.”