Sam Beals spent half of his childhood in Africa, where he was exposed to “just about every possible injustice there is.” Courtesy Sam Beals
As a child, Sam Beals witnessed enough trauma for a lifetime.
But a lifetime of trauma is what his career ended up offering him, and oddly enough, he has no complaints about it. In fact, he’s grateful, and so are the thousands of children he’s helped.
Beals is CEO of the nonprofit Samaritas, formerly Lutheran Social Services of Michigan. Beals, who spends Mondays-Wednesdays working out of Detroit and Thursdays-Fridays in Grand Rapids, has numerous masters’ degrees and years of experience working hands-on with trauma victims. Now leading one of Michigan’s largest faith-based nonprofits, he said he’s glad he has both the education and the experience to do the job and balance a nonprofit’s two worlds.
“I was very grateful for the training I got,” he said. “I think for people who lead nonprofits, (leadership) is looking for someone who has the clinical background and the business management background who can manage the two.”
Beals was born in the small town of Ippy, Central African Republic. His father, an interdenominational missionary, was working there to develop children’s education. Beals’ two older siblings — a brother and sister — came to Africa with his parents, while he and his younger brother were born in Africa.
“My dad’s goal was to be in a school to meet the educational needs of children and families, but also pastors as they led churches,” Beals said. “His goal in that work was educational services. One of his best friends went about the same time and headed up a medical clinic not too far from where we were. I was born at that medical clinic.”
Beals spent the first eight years of his life in Africa, and said he saw great injustices born from extreme poverty. Even at a young age, the experience made him not only deeply aware of social injustice, but of how people “hold ourselves back by not addressing” the issues. He also learned how to stand for social justice by watching his parents and doctors advocate for medical care and education for the people.
“The significant piece for me was being born in that context, living half my childhood in that context, I was exposed to just about every possible injustice there is, and at a very young age,” he said. “On one hand, that was difficult, traumatizing. It was also a great opportunity for me to see role models step up to provide services to help those people, meet those injustices head on. Role-modeling really impacted my future education.”
His father moved the family to Grand Rapids so he could study at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. Beals attended Northview High School, graduated in 1973, and then went to Calvin College, where he received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology.
He said he knew from early on that he wanted to help people take control of and transform their lives, although he wanted to do it in a more social services context than religious, as his father had.
After Calvin, Beals spent two years working in foster care at D.A. Blodgett, followed by two years as a counselor in trauma care at Spectrum Health.
“What people need (after trauma) are a safe person in a safe environment to talk to about what they’ve experienced and begin the conversation, so they can learn and move on and not be conquered by that trauma,” he said.
“People who get through it have a history of meaningful relationships and role models. … Even if they made a bad decision, they can get back into a good system because they know what it looks like.”
Beals went back to college to get a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Wheaton College in 1984. He returned to D.A. Blodgett as a supervisor in foster care programs before leading the adoption care program for eight years, mostly overseeing adoption cases for special-needs children. When he left, he’d helped more than 3,000 children get adopted.
During that tenure, from 1985-90, he also attended Aquinas College part-time on weekends, eventually earning a master’s degree in business management.
A father to two small children at the time, he said he got through those busy years thanks in part to a men’s accountability group he’s been associated with for more than 20 years. He also exercised rigorously, which “burns off any stress.”
It was important to Beals that he never let his work own his life, he said.
“It’s a matter of having intentional boundaries and internalizing the fact that you didn’t cause these issues and you’re not responsible for how they respond,” he said. “You’re there to facilitate … to help them take over their lives.
“If you internalize it as if it’s your responsibility, it’ll kill you.”
In 1993, Beals became executive director of the Christian Counseling Center, which has since merged with Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services. He spent 13 years there before becoming president and CEO of Wedgwood Christian Services in 2006.
Beals emphasizes continuous learning. He has a certificate of senior project management from Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management; a certificate of executive leadership from Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management; a certificate of fundraising management from the University of Indianapolis; a certificate of nonprofit executive management from the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business; and a certificate of executive management from the University of Notre Dame’s Medoza College of Business.
Beals is a lifelong learner and said it has helped his career immensely.
“It’s important to be intentional and strategized and disciplined in learning,” he said. “So as I’ve gone through my career, I’ve realized I need to learn a lot of things. It’s really enriched my opportunities.”
Beals was recruited by Lutheran Social Services of Michigan in January 2015. He saw the job as an opportunity to make a greater impact for the state of Michigan. When he arrived, he initiated the rebranding that turned it into Samaritas. It’s more ecumenical that way, said the son of man who was once an interdenominational missionary.
“Our sense was — and the feedback we were getting — is that by having a singular denominational name, we are limiting our services and funding capacity. With the change, we’re confident we’ll have more contract and grant opportunities and more opportunities to secure support from foundations and churches that aren’t just Lutheran,” he said.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity. I was very grateful for the training I got… And no, I don’t see myself retiring anytime soon.”