For Sandi Frost Parrish, the past five years have marked a series of accomplishments that most of us can only dream of achieving.
Her remarkable journey began in 2006 when voters in the southeast portion of the county chose her as their representative to the Kent County Board of Commissioners. The following year, she was made a fellow of the Michigan Political Leadership Program at Michigan State University. Also in 2007, she started her consulting business and was nominated by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce for the prestigious ATHENA Award.
In 2008, she was re-elected for a second term and was named by the Business Journal as one of the region’s 50 Most Influential Women.
Last year, her peers on the county commission elected her to the board’s No. 2 post as commission vice chairwoman. Last month, she became the third woman since 1969 to be chosen chair, joining Marge Byington and Katherine Kuhn as the only women to rise to the top county spot in the last 41 years. No matter how someone looks at it, being chosen board chair is quite a feat.
“It is, and I’m mindful of the expectation that goes along with that,” she said. “I’m mindful of the role that serves to try to encourage other women to get involved in politics. I’m pretty mindful of all of that.”
It should be noted that Parrish was unchallenged and won the vote unanimously.
“The unanimous vote meant a lot to me from a standpoint of just feeling that the other commissioners had confidence in my leadership. That part is certainly gratifying to know,” she said.
“And I think anytime you have a board as diverse as our board in terms of its thinking — even though it’s not necessarily diverse in terms of gender — it was very rewarding to have the support of everyone, given where everyone is coming from,” she said.
It’s not the only time Parrish has been welcomed into a fairly elite male domain. In 1990, she became the first woman in 61 years to be elected president of the Grand Rapids Jaycees.
When Parrish ran for county commissioner four years ago, she already had 14 years of local government experience, having served on the Cascade Township planning commission for six years and the township board for eight. While she was on the township board, she said many of the issues that interested her, such as land-use planning and inter-governmental cooperation, were really more of a regional nature.
“So it seemed like a really natural next step for me to look for a broader role to try to continue to work on those issues. Because on a lot of those issues, I probably had gotten as far as I could as a township trustee,” she said.
She said lowering the cost of government through cooperation and possibly through consolidation of services is her top priority as county chair. Land-use planning is second on her list. Third is reducing childhood obesity as part of her overall interest in public health.
Commissioner Jim Talen said he became impressed with Parrish’s leadership abilities as soon as he began working with her a year ago, not only on the county board but also on the Open Space Subcommittee that Parrish chaired. That group came up with a three-year plan for using county funds to preserve farmland and orchards, and — for the first time in the program’s seven-year history — commissioners allocated the dollars to do that.
“She just did a fabulous job on the subcommittee by keeping us on track, and I was very impressed with that. I think she weaves in many of the same things in terms of regional cooperation and the importance of the core cities, and is sensitive to all those things. She just has a big, broad prospective, and I think that’s going to do the county real well,” he said.
Talen, in his second go-around as a county commissioner and in his 10th year on the board overall, also likes the energy he feels Parrish brings to the post.
“She also is a strategic thinker and is going to organize the commission and keep us on track. I have a high regard for (former chairman) Roger Morgan. I also understand that he was in his fourth year and he probably started out with the kind of energy that it looks like Sandi has, as well. But I think that, from time to time, new energy is good, and I think she has got great energy and that will be helpful,” he said.
Commissioner Harold Voorhees sees Parrish as experienced and capable of uniting the board to tackle the difficult matters members are facing.
“Sandi Parrish brings a great deal of experience from her own business and from being on the board. She has the type of personality that just includes people, and I think that is what it’s going to take,” said Voorhees.
“My concern was that we were going to turn into a one-issue county commission, with that issue being PDR (Purchase of Development Rights). But I think with Sandi, we’ll see a good blending of us coming together and meeting the very important issues that Kent County commissioners need to make priorities of,” he said.
Parrish is a Grand Rapids native who earned her undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Colorado and a Master’s of Management degree from Aquinas College. How did a Michigan girl get psyched up about Colorado? Well, it wasn’t the skiing.
“My father told me that I could go any place in the country that cost less than the University of Michigan, and I was disinclined to go the way everybody else does, even back then. What was really interesting when I did the research was that for a period of time, for reasons I’m not really sure of, Colorado was subsidizing out-of-state students. They must have been trying to diversify the student body,” she said.
“So I was able to get a pretty reasonably priced education from the University of Colorado. When I started there it was only $1,000 a semester for out-of-state students, and even in 1975 that was pretty cheap for out-of-state.”
Parrish said her biggest career break came 15 years ago when she joined Hospice of Michigan and became its development director. Working at a state level for the first time gave her a new perspective that she would later incorporate into her consulting firm.
“At that point, I had been in fund development for three or four years, and being the statewide development director was really the first opportunity I had to look at statewide systems and try to merge and bring together statewide systems. It gave me a broader look at things, and it helped frame my overall philosophy on organizational capacity building, which is what I do every day,” she said.
Parrish stayed with Hospice for roughly five years and then went to Monaghan Associates Inc. as a regional fundraising consultant. After eight years there, she decided to start Parrish Consulting and set up shop in Cascade Township. She made the leap, she said, because most companies focus on capital campaigns, while Parrish said her real “passions” are directing annual fundraising efforts and building a client’s capacity.
“So going on my own really gave me the chance to focus, and it allowed me to stay pretty much in Grand Rapids. When I was with Monaghan, I was traveling almost every day. Now, most of my clients, with the exception of one or two, are in Grand Rapids,” she said.
Heading out on her own was the right move. Parrish said it has been a very rewarding experience for her, one that has allowed her to work with organizational leaders she admires and with clients that do good things in the community, such as the Salvation Army and Disability Advocates of Kent County.
“It is such amazing work. I’m inspired by my clients, humbled by my clients, and I’m motivated by them. They do great work. It’s an honor and a pleasure to work with organizations and help build their annual capacity,” she said.
“It’s fundamental. By raising more money and building their capacity, they can serve more people, and I can’t think of better work. … I feel very, very fortunate.”
She also is feeling healthier because of another noteworthy accomplishment that she achieved in the last five years. Parrish started running in 2006 — and not just in the political sense. As of last weekend, she participated in her 10th half-marathon since the fall of 2007.
“I don’t run them all because I’m not that good of a runner. But I run and walk. I have run one complete half-marathon. So that’s the other thing. In the last five years, I’ve made a very big change in my own health. I lost a lot of weight and began running,” she said.
“It’s sort of a culmination of everything I’ve learned and everything I’ve done that all came together in a way that has allowed me to effectively serve.
“I really don’t see a big distinction, necessarily, between my political career and my profession, because I don’t consider myself a career politician even though I’ve been in local government so long. I run because I can serve in the position. I don’t run to move myself forward in some sort of political career.”
Besides running, Parrish also likes to travel. She has gone to Africa and traveled throughout the Caribbean. When she isn’t traveling, she said she likes to just hang out at home with friends.
“I like conversing. I like to bring different groups together for dinner at my house, people who have different points of view. And we have stimulating conversations. I enjoy that,” she said.
Whether her immediate future will contain as many achievements and be as rewarding as the last five years is anybody’s guess. But if being on an extended roll counts for anything, her chances look good. And if her chances look good, then so do those of her clients and the residents of the county.
“What I would really like to see in the near future is I’d like to see my clients continue to build their capacity so they can serve more people. At the county level, I would like to be able to move forward on some of the things that we need to do to reduce the cost of government,” she said.
“And personally — I guess I’ll just put it out there publicly,” she said with a laugh — “I want to run a faster than 2 (hour) 25 (minute) half-marathon.”