The way Dr. Greg Meissen figures it, he’s been connected to Saint Francis most of his adult life. They’ve grown together – and although he’d no doubt be humble about his own contributions, the truth is Saint Francis and Dr. Meissen have influenced each other in ways both subtle and fundamental for nearly three quarters of the ministry’s 75-year history.
“On a personal level, it really formed my thinking as a young adult. I came to understand the power of a great faith-based organization and the notion that staff could rally around a common cause, what even then we called ‘Therapy in Christ.’”
As a community psychologist, Dr. Meissen has always understood the necessity of community-based programs for youth. That’s why, after recently retiring from 40 years of teaching psychology at Wichita State University, he continues to serve on the Board of Directors of Saint Francis, where he’s also been active for nearly four decades. But his relationship with Saint Francis extends even further back.
He first volunteered in 1972. Then, in 1973 and shortly after his 21st birthday, he took a two-year hiatus from his undergraduate studies at Wichita State to join the Saint Francis staff, working with Passport for Adventure, an outward-bound type of program serving at-risk and troubled youth. His own mother had died when he was young, so he grew up in a single-parent household. Through that experience, he felt an affinity with the kids he served and found meaning in the mission of Saint Francis.
“Even after I did those two years, I kept coming back for different things, and when I went off to graduate school at the University of Tennessee, I chose to study community psychology. My connection to Saint Francis influenced that decision. I had learned the importance of community-based programs for youth. So, it wasn’t long after I’d returned to Kansas to join the faculty at Wichita State that I also joined the Board of Directors of Saint Francis.”
His position on the board and as a community psychologist have provided him with a perspective that highlights the uniqueness of Saint Francis as asocial service organization.
“I think, beyond the faith-based approach, there’s a dedication to doing work of the highest quality, which can be really hard. There’s an attention to what the latest research and best practices tell us. Lately, I’ve seen a hunger in Saint Francis that demands again and again, ‘How can we be better at what we do?’ I think that’s what’s enabled us to grow in the last few years and extend services into other states. It’s been remarkable. It’s about taking that quality of service and sharing it in places beyond Kansas, wherever it’s needed.”
The possibility of taking Saint Francis’ expertise, innovation, and vision into previously underserved areas of human need excites him most as a board member. As the nation grapples with issues of racial justice, Dr. Meissen sees Saint Francis playing an important, contributive role within the intersection of social justice and healthy children and families.
“I think, five years from now, Saint Francis will be doing a number of things that are more nested within the community, with the hope that there will be fewer kids entering the foster care and criminal justice systems. The opportunity is in front of us – to figure out how to reach a higher level of equality in this country, and for Saint Francis to become a national model for how to work with children and families.”
And where does Dr. Meissen see Saint Francis in 25 years, when the ministry will celebrate a full century of service?
“I’d like to see a Saint Francis that is not only recognized on a national level but is an innovative international ministry. We’re already doing some incredible things in Central America that we can’t yet do in the United States. We’re creating settings where children and families can grow in healthy conditions and where communities can find their way out of poverty by becoming economically empowered. So, when it comes to prevention, we can start thinking about going upstream, if you will, and figuring out how all these kids are winding up in the river that Saint Francis then fishes out and tries to help downstream.
“It’s part of my hope for this ministry’s future, one in which Saint Francis is a sophisticated organization in terms of how it operates, yet is still a faithbased, down-to-earth ministry that works with people right within their own communities. That’s darned exciting to me.”