The theme of life for Tonja Couch has been service.
Out of college, she landed a job at Marian College in Indianapolis as director of community ministry, where she created a program to connect students to service opportunities. He is still active today.
She then brought her skills to Bartholomew County as the director of 211, a free service that connects Hoosiers to help and responses from thousands of health and social service agencies and resources in their communities.
She then returned to her hometown of Seymour to serve as executive director of Jackson County United Way, which fights for the health, education and financial stability of every person in the community.
Now, through her work as a branch administrator for Edward Jones Adam Jackson’s office in Seymour, she participates in quarterly community service projects.
For all she has given back over the years, Couch was recently recognized by Girls Inc. of Jackson County as its 2022 Girls Inc. Champion.
“While I’m honored, I don’t like being in the spotlight,” the 39-year-old said at the Girls Inc. Celebration gala champions ball on April 23 at the Pines Evergreen Room south of Seymour.
“However, I accept this award on behalf of the strong roots that my family, my church, United Way and this community have developed,” she said. “When Dr. Amanda Dick (Chair of the Board of Girls Inc.) asked me about my role models, I had a list of over 30. I’m so blessed that so many people got involved. in me throughout my life.”
She has fond memories of cooking classes, crafts, and the relationships she developed with other members and staff, but she joked that she didn’t do well with dance and dance classes. gymnastic.
“I just loved the atmosphere it provided and the opportunity to learn about myself, to learn about friendships that weren’t in my school…I got to meet different people who borrowed different paths,” she said.
So what about Girls Inc.? The total experience, Couch said.
“It was having adults pouring into my life that I didn’t know but still cared about me,” she said. “It was being able to have these relationships with other girls that maybe I had more in common with than the girls in my own class and just being in a place where you could be a kid and explore and learn. things. It was all of this that made it a truly special moment.
After graduating from Seymour High School in 2001, Couch went to Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, and earned a degree in theology.
She originally wanted to be a youth minister or campus minister, but she got married in 2005 and they were living in Crothersville, and her first job was with Marian.
“I connected college students with service opportunities. It’s a passion I developed at Xavier, and it’s a job I loved,” she said. “At that time, (students) were almost peers. What I saw happen there and what I liked about it was faith based there. Marian is a Catholic college, Xavier is a Catholic college, so I was able to use my personal experience and bring that.
She set up the STARS, or Students Taking Active Roles, program with a close friend who was a work-study student for her.
“Every Friday afternoon around 3 p.m. I would get 12-passenger vans to Marian, load them up with kids, and go out and do a service project,” Couch said. “We talked about whatever social issue we focused on that day, and every week it changed so they had a variety of experiences. The intention was for them to connect to one of those places that they had made a unique visit with.
The result? A community was built around him, and the students really wanted to serve each other and liked the variety of experiences, she said.
“They still do. I think that’s what’s really cool,” she said.
After a year and a half of commuting between Crothersville and Indianapolis, Couch wanted to find a job closer to home.
She worked directly with clients for Quinco for three months, then worked for Jackson County United Way as Administrative Assistant from March 2007 to October 2008, Program Coordinator from October 2008 to September 2010 and added Director of AmeriCorps program through July 2011.
She then worked for United Way of Bartholomew County as Director of 211 until July 2012 when she returned to JCUW as Executive Director.
“I knew serving was important to me and finding ways to help our community was important to me,” she said. “It was natural for me to come back.”
Couch served as executive director until January 2021.
“I would say it’s the honor of a lifetime,” she said, noting that leaving the position was the hardest decision.
“Now, a year later, seeing that the board and staff have pursued a bold goal to help 1,000 struggling families achieve financial stability, I know the job was good, I know we invested the time it takes to get there and that others, be it the board, the staff, the community at large, know that and know that there are eight years left before they potentially change the face of the community,” she said. “It’s overwhelming.”
That’s what a community can do when people come together, she says.
“If the past two years (during the COVID-19 pandemic) have taught us anything, it’s that we need to support, mobilize and defend ourselves to achieve a different end,” Couch said. “It’s not about who is in the leadership position. It all depends on who the leader gets involved.
In his work with Edward Jones, Couch is able to maintain his service mindset.
This long-standing characteristic was noted by Bethany Daily when she suggested to her fellow Girls Inc. board members that Couch be nominated for the Girls Inc. Champion award.
They didn’t just see what she did at United Way. It was also the example she set for young girls in the community. It aligned with Girls Inc.’s mission: to inspire girls to be strong, smart and bold.
While presenting Couch at the gala, Dick shared Couch’s favorite quote, which is from Lao Tzu: “Go to the people. Learn from them. Live with them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. When the best leaders leave, when the work is done, the tasks done, people will say we did it ourselves.
In her acceptance speech, based on Girls Inc.’s mission, Couch first shared how strong roots taught her five things: to be faith-filled, to be family-centered, to demonstrate strong work, lead a community-oriented life and surround themselves. .
Second, smart connections. She said being smart means lifelong learning. When she was at United Way, they had community conversations with members from all walks of life and listening sessions with community partner boards and staff, government and civic leaders, employers and the board. directors and staff of the organization.
“Being able to strategically listen, connect, and then energize and engage people to create new community connections has been the honor of a lifetime,” she said. “Being smart, for me, means making sure I’ve used the greatest gifts and talents of others to bring about lasting community change.”
The third was to be bold. She first encouraged men to respect the girls and women in their lives, whether at home, in church, at work or on the board.
“Women, just like men, have experience, ideas and knowledge,” Couch said. “Allow them to ask questions, challenge the status quo, assume leadership and generate solutions, just as you allow other men in the room. …Men, please stand up to other men who are not creating safe spaces for women to collaborate. Men, be bold for the girls and women in your life.
She also encouraged women to be bold because other women are watching their example.
“Make sure to shamelessly share your experiences, ask tough questions, demand a seat at the table, and work together to solve challenges,” Couch said. “Don’t keep your thoughts to yourself. Your opinion matters and will create new opportunities for your friends, sisters, daughters and all young women who are served by Girls Inc.
Everyone at the gala was celebrating an organization that inspires all girls to be strong, smart and bold, and Couch encouraged them to live the example they celebrate and financially support.
“At the United Way Worldwide Leadership Bootcamp in 2015, I was challenged to develop a four to five word mission statement that we wanted others to know and remember us,” Couch said. “As we stand eight years away from an audacious goal to secure financial stability for 1,000 struggling working families, let this community step into this mission to ensure ‘Together We Made It’.”