Dorine Houck shares her talents ‘the united way’On the very day when local thermometers dropped to 17 degrees below zero, Dorine Houck waded out into ankle-deep snow to raise the “heat” on another thermometer. As new executive director of the Carlton County United Way, Houck was exceptionally pleased to add a couple of new “degrees” to the agency’s giant thermometer in Cloquet’s Fauley Park, which means the totals for the 2010-11 campaign year had kicked up another notch.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
On the very day when local thermometers dropped to 17 degrees below zero, Dorine Houck waded out into ankle-deep snow to raise the “heat” on another thermometer. As new executive director of the Carlton County United Way, Houck was exceptionally pleased to add a couple of new “degrees” to the agency’s giant thermometer in Cloquet’s Fauley Park, which means the totals for the 2010-11 campaign year had kicked up another notch.
“I don’t like to come out and raise the thermometer for small increments,” she said. “I’d rather have it be a big enough jump so people will notice it.”
Houck said despite the latest increase in the campaign’s overall numbers, they are still lagging behind where this year’s goal needs to be – at some $210,000. Houck’s boundless enthusiasm and excitement over “making an impact” leaves her undeterred by the latest financial shortfall, however. She has, after all, come a long way herself....
Houck, whose maiden name was Heikkila, grew up in Cromwell and attended Cromwell-Wright School.
“I come from a wonderful family that has a proud Finnish heritage,” she said. “Cromwell is a great community and I’m glad we have roots there. You go to a function there and you know everybody.”
Her husband, Tim, also grew up in Cromwell and after graduating from high school he went into the United States Air Force, working in aircraft maintenance and maintenance management.
When he and Dorine were married, Air Force life took them to a number of different places, including Tucson, Ariz.; the Panama Canal; northeastern Arkansas; northern California; and eventually, Grand Forks, N.D.
“The military does a great job of helping you move and making sure everything gets from point A to point B,” said Houck of the family’s frequent moves, “but it’s always the struggles of starting a new household, making new friends and getting used to new jobs and new schools that can sometimes get to you. If you put those sorts of day-to-day things aside, though, the opportunities were wonderful. We always tried to play tourist and see all the highlights and hot spots, taste the local fare and be a part of the
Along the way, the Houcks began their family of two boys, Tim, Jr. (now 27) and Matt (now 20).
When it came time to move with the Air Force for the last time, the Houcks requested to be sent to Grand Forks.
“They thought we were absolutely nuts!” she added with a laugh. “We wanted to see if we really did want to live back in snow country, and we wanted to bring our kids closer to our families. At that time, Grand Forks was the nearest air force base that would allow us to do that. With both my husband and I growing up in such a close-knit community, it was important for our kids to have that same opportunity.”
Houck re-entered the work force after her kids started school, working as assistant director of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Grand Forks. Earlier, she had earned an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management through Arkansas Northeastern College and a Bachelor of Science degree in management and human resources through Park University in Parkville, Mo.
She later became the distance education coordinator for the University of North Dakota’s division of continuing education.
The Houcks lived in Grand Forks for five years until Tim decided to retire from the Air Force in 1999. They moved home to Minnesota and built a house in Esko, where both of their sons graduated from high school.
Tim worked for St. Scholastica for a time and then as a technician for Duluth-Superior Communications. Dorine started out as the administrator of The Center for Economic Development at the University of Minnesota Duluth, which focuses on helping small businesses throughout the seven-county region.
In 2001, she got her first taste of Habitat for Humanity.
“I had gone through the Leadership Duluth program,” she explained, “and one of my cohorts, Carla Miller (who now works at Members Cooperative Credit Union in Cloquet), was with Habitat at that time. The Duluth group was putting up four houses in the Gary New Duluth area, and one of them was a dedicated ‘Women Build’ project.
“One Tuesday night Carla said to me, ‘Let’s go out and build!’ so we did, and we stuck with it for quite some time after that. I had never done anything like that before in my life, other than projects around home. We did general labor – anything having to do with a shovel or a hammer or whatever else needed doing. We were generally there on Tuesday evenings from 6 until 9 p.m. There was a wonderful project manager on the site, and he was great about giving us instructions and walking us through the process. Some of the women who were building on that project I see yet today, and that was almost 10 years ago,” she added. “It was a real bonding
Once the project wrapped up, Houck started getting more involved in the Carlton County Habitat for Humanity organization, helping to work on a house being built for a family on Kelly Avenue.
“I was helping with the painting, and one thing sort of led to another,” she related. “I started going to the board meetings, and that evolved into, ‘Would you be interested in taking over as president?’ I thought about it and talked with them to get more
information, and I took over in that capacity in 2005.”
The role of the president– a volunteer position – was to make sure the entire organization ran as it was intended to run.
For Houck’s first four years, until 2009, the Carlton County Habitat group was run entirely through volunteers, unlike the larger Duluth group.
“In Carlton County, we had to make the best with what we had,” said Houck. “Our board members, most of who had been there for a long time, had a lot of history, a lot of dedication, and were great individuals to work with.”
During Houck’s time at the helm, the Carlton County Habitat group built a couple of houses and in late 2008, they decided to initiate talks with Duluth about the possibility of merging and becoming one large Habitat organization.
“We wanted to continue to carry out the mission of Habitat for Humanity here in the county, but it was the decision of the board itself that it was time to move on,” said Houck. “The talks evolved into not just a merger but an overall territory expansion. It was renamed Western Lake Superior Habitat for Humanity and it includes Carlton County, southern St. Louis County and Lake County, and they’ve since built two houses here in Cloquet.”
She stayed on with the board until she was assured that everything was being operated as intended, with the funds raised in Carlton County staying in Carlton County and Carlton County remaining as part of the organization’s overall mission.
In the meantime, Houck had earned her master’s degree in liberal studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and had gone to work for the United Health Group in Duluth.
“Liberal Studies is a program where you really look at the human condition – the psychology or philosophy of politics, economics, all sorts of things,” she explained. “We had a lot of really interesting discussions in those classes.”
After working her way up with United Health, from site manager of recruitment services to operations manager of domestic and global claim processing sites, Houck left there in April 2010 to look at other
“I really looked inwardly and asked myself what it was I wanted to do,” she admitted. “Then this position [as executive director of the Carlton County United Way] came up and I thought, ‘This is it, my chance to really make an impact, to share my knowledge, to run an operation that can affect so many people – the residents of Carlton County.”
She was hired for the position vacated by former Carlton County United Way Director Carol Longseth and started work on Nov. 8.
“The first month I spent getting a good handle on the operation and foundation of the local organization,” said Houck. “It’s one thing to come in and say, ‘I’m going to change this,’ and ‘I’m going to change that.’ But that’s not how I operate. I want to understand how things work today, what’s worked in the past, what makes sense and what direction we take in the future.”
She has been assisted along the way by interim director Colleen Bassett.
“Colleen has been a great asset, as has [administrative assistant] Florence Williams, who has been with United Way for 10 years,” said Houck.
“I have learned so much in the last couple of months,” Houck attested. “The mission of United Way Worldwide is to become a change agent and facilitate that change – not concentrate solely on fundraising and allocation of resources. It doesn’t mean that won’t be a key part of it, but we’ll be looking at how we can truly make a difference by finding out what the issues are and helping identify and develop strategies to tackle the costs. Learning about that, and really embracing it, is what makes me really energized. I’m looking forward to moving into that next step.”
In 2010, 14 agencies and 21 different programs benefited from funding from the United Way of Carlton County, and in January, the agency allocation process begins all over again.
“My goal is to get out there and meet with agencies to see if they meet the qualifications and what their mission is,” said Houck, with new ideas percolating as she went along. “Even if they don’t get funding through United Way, we can see if there’s an opportunity for a partnership or some sort of collaboration. There are other ways that we can help out as well. For example, there’s the United Way’s annual Day of Caring, which comes up in June. I’ve already had conversations with Western Lake Superior Habitat to see if there’s a way that we can partner with them on some projects they do through their ‘Brush with Kindness Day,’ which offers help to homeowners when they need it. Maybe we can bring that concept into Carlton County and work together on larger projects, whether it’s in terms of funding or volunteer efforts. For example, if someone is handicapped and needs to get access to their house, where does the funding or the volunteers come from to build a ramp? We could combine forces between the two agencies to help with projects such as that.”
It’s little wonder that Houck was pleased to see the local United Way’s campaign thermometer inch up this week, but at only 40 percent progress toward the overall goal, she’s hoping things will continue to “heat up” in time for the start of the United Way’s new year.
“I want to build up partnerships so we can have more of an impact,” she said, “either by touching more lives, building a better project, or whatever it takes.”