The Chronicle Person of the Year: Jenny Collins

Chehalis Foundation Executive Director Helps Lead Accomplished Nonprofit Through Challenging Times


According to Jenny Collins, there are a hundred people more qualified for the title than her.

Her family, friends, partners in service and community members beg to differ.

That’s why The Chronicle has chosen Jenny Collins, executive director of the Chehalis Foundation, as the 2021 Person of the Year.

Though Collins being named The Chronicle’s Person of the Year comes after successfully steering the Chehalis Foundation through a pandemic year while upholding its missions as a positive force in the community, it is her entire history as a trailblazing, community-oriented, talented and empathetic leader that makes her deserving of the title.

A mother of seven sons who have all gone through the Adna School District, Collins has volunteered as a school board member in Adna and is currently beginning her third term in the role. She volunteered on the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce board for seven years. Collins spent 10 years at the helm of the Visiting Nurses Foundation, lifting an already active nonprofit into an established driver of good in the community.

Now, she serves as the executive director of the Chehalis Foundation. In just a short time since being hired, Collins has hosted alumni tours to showcase the foundation’s work in the Chehalis School District, seen through the successful completion of the new Penny Playground, raised the Lintott-Alexander Park savings to $100,000 for its maintenance as a safe, family-friendly location and has taken lead on two major active projects to improve the welfare of children in the area.

Chehalis Foundation founding member and former Lewis County Commissioner Joanne Schwartz testified to how deserving Collins was of Person of the Year, saying: “(Collins) loves this community. She has a caring heart. I think that's really important when you work for a nonprofit organization that's trying to raise money — that's what we do is raise money for projects — you have to care. You can't be a phony. I mean, there's not a phony bone in her body. She's authentic.”


Growing Up in Centralia

Jenny Collins, 54, was born in Centralia Hospital.

Her large family is spread across Lewis County thanks to her great-grandparents setting down roots in Doty after emigrating from France.

“As a little girl, we had huge family gatherings and Rainbow Falls. So it was pretty exciting to be a kid in that family,” Collins said. “I have a million cousins here in Lewis County.”

Shortly after baby Jenny came into the world, her father went to serve in Vietnam.

While he did a tour there, Collins and her mother lived in Germany. Collins’ first sister was born there.

“From there, in order to get us out of Germany because it wasn't a great situation for G-Is’ families, (my dad) had to make the decision to go back to Vietnam and do a second tour, which was certainly, I think, a pivotal turning point for our family,” Collins said. “I have a great deal of pride for the sacrifices my dad made to our family to get us back here.”

The family was then stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas, where Collins’ brother was born. When she was in the first grade, they moved back to Centralia and she began attending Jefferson Lincoln School.

Her youngest sibling, Amy, was born four years later. Though the two are the farthest apart in age, the sisters remain extremely close through their shared interests, including cooking and being active community members.

“She encourages me to dream and think big and don't listen to some of the noise out there. So that's pretty inspiring,” Collins said of her sister.

After graduating from Centralia High School in 1985, Collins did “a little bit of college,” she said, while she worked for a check printing company in Centralia. After being promoted to the company’s Seattle office, she left school and never looked back. The company was bought out by Harland, a worldwide check printing business.

At age 25, Collins was offered a position with Harland in Atlanta.

“It was right about the time that the interstate banking laws were changing. So all these banks were gobbling up other banks in other states and making these huge bank conglomerates,” she said. “It was fun work.”

In Atlanta, Collins had two of her sons. As fun as her job was, she was far away from her family. Reflecting on her relationships with her grandparents, Collins remembers moments she said were among the best in her life; she wanted the same opportunity for her babies.

“There was a big desire within me to come back to my hometown. And I wanted to be close to my mom and dad again,” Collins said. “So I came back. … I had a staffing agency, so I had a partner and she kind of ran the business and then eventually she took it over. And I spent a couple of years at home and then I had the wonderful opportunity of going to work for Visiting Nurses.”


Visiting Nurses

After moving her family to Adna, Collins spent a few years pursuing volunteer opportunities, including a position on the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce board, eventually taking the role of board president.

A few years later, Collins began her journey with the Visiting Nurses Foundation, a Centralia-based nonprofit and thrift store chain that funds education and assistance for home hospice care and other at-home medical needs.

“There's private health care and then there's government services and that's great, that can take care of a lot of things. But where are the gaps? There are always gaps,” said former Visiting Nurses Foundation Board Chairman Allen Unzelman, who served on the board for about eight years.

Those gaps, Unzelman said, are where the foundation comes in. Patients may order medical equipment through insurance, but it takes two months to arrive, so Visiting Nurses can provide equipment in the meantime. The organization also funds things that insurance, private or otherwise, does not, such as plane tickets for family members to visit their dying loved ones.

Collins was working as a store manager for one of the thrift locations when the position of executive director became available. It was around the same time her mother began needing at-home hospice care.

“That just really drove me into and helped me to see how that mission, it was really important to this area — the Visiting Nurses mission. And I just felt it was right and I knew what I wanted to do. I knew what additional services I felt that this community needed,” Collins said.

Explaining her mother’s death is still a challenge for Collins.

“She was just a light. People just loved her. They were drawn to her,” she said.

But those who talk with or about Jenny Collins can easily see how she carries her mother’s love and light.

Unzelman said: “Jenny has the ability to connect with people from all backgrounds and in all circumstances, because she has the ability to empathize and connect with individuals and meet them at their level. And to do that in a way that's more transparent and authentic than I think anyone else I've ever seen.”

Or as Tim Sayler, former president of the Chehalis Foundation said: “She’s just so damn nice. Everybody loves Jenny. Everybody that knows Jenny, loves Jenny.”

After spending time as interim director, Collins was promoted to executive director of the Visiting Nurses Foundation, a role she worked in for 10 years.

Her greatest accomplishment while there, she said, was when the board took medical equipment from being available at a low cost to a medical loan bank at no price to patients. Equipment, such as wheelchairs, walkers, beds and shower chairs, was donated or purchased by the foundation.

The program took off. Eight years later, it has never reverted back to the cost model. Within the first week, 35 patients had been helped. Within the first six months, about 600 patients were provided the equipment they needed.

Hospitals began referring patients to Visiting Nurses. In some instances, hospitals could not discharge patients before ensuring they had equipment to be safe at home — the medical loan bank expedited that process, allowing folks to get back to their loved ones sooner.

“(Collins) built a strong allegiance and a strong alliance for people toward that cause, and I think people didn't realize, around the community, how important the mission was until she connected people around the community to the mission,” Unzelman said, adding later: “She is able to do all this without much ego at all. She has confidence and poise and moxie without all the ego, which is tough to do sometimes. And I think that she is humble enough that she always keeps learning.”

Collins was not going to leave Visiting Nurses until it was set up for longevity, she said, and now believes the leadership and new executive director there are thriving.

Then, in the summer of 2020, a big opportunity came knocking.


Chehalis Foundation

Jenny had been helping people in need at the end of their lives. She asked herself: “What if we started in the beginning? And we started young and we helped people with their educational opportunities and gave them better places to play?” she said.

Over its nearly two decades, the Chehalis Foundation had become a multi-million dollar organization leading causes for education and recreation to improve quality of life for Chehalis residents. And it was run entirely by a long list of dedicated volunteers and supportive community members including Sayler, who served as president of the foundation for about 10 years. And Connie Bode served as treasurer until 2020. The Chronicle’s 2014 Person of the Year, Bode championed the Gail and Carolyn Shaw Aquatic Center, among many other noble causes that improved the wellbeing of Chehalians and visitors.

Look at big projects in Chehalis over the last 16 years and it’s easier to count those the foundation hasn’t played a role in.

When the board finally decided to hire a full-time executive director, many qualified candidates applied. But there is only one Jenny Collins.

“I don’t think we could have found anybody better to lead and guide us than Jenny Collins,” said Joanne Schwartz.

Likewise, Sayler said: “Jenny just stood out. It was clear and obvious. Then it became a question of ‘Could we get her?’”

Since landing the role in August of 2020, Jenny’s favorite thing she’s been involved with for the foundation is the Student Achievement Initiative (SAI).

Starting with studying Chehalis School District graduation rates and classroom operations, the SAI set huge goals for the district that it has delivered on year after year. Along with handling scholarships given to graduating W.F. West High School students every year, the foundation also supports career and technical education (CTE) programs.

“In the last seven years, the Chehalis School District increased the percentage of students enrolled in post-secondary institutions from 54% to 73%,” Collins said, adding later: “We're going to continue just hammering at this. It's kind of magical. It brings a sense of pride that you just really only have, as a human being, for your children. So, it's right up there with the most important things that you get to do and have happen in life.”

And though the wheel has been in motion for the initiative long before Collins was brought on, she has, in a very short time, proven herself as an asset to the foundation.

With her extensive background, Collins has built the ability to “mine for donors,” Sayler said. On a board of volunteers, some things slip through the cracks. On a board run by Jenny, not so much.

“What she's done is made us a more professional organization,” Sayler said. “She contacts donors, like you should, and we didn't. Now we do. (She) looks for new donors and all the things that we didn't have time to do. She stepped in. She's found places that we didn't even know we had issues and fixed them. And she's not done, she's just getting started with that.”

One big dream Collins has started stewing on for the foundation is a Performing Arts Center for the school district, which would complement its STEM wing with growth opportunities for students in the arts.

As for more currently tangible projects, Collins is on two of those, too.

The first is a four-court regional tennis and wrestling facility. Currently, there is only one indoor court in Lewis County, while in Centralia and Chehalis, over 100 students turn out for tennis every year. Unfortunately, that means all those passionate players can only practice outdoors for a few months of the year or share the single court with dozens of other kids. Despite that, tennis players in the Twin Cities have made up countless state contenders — and even one state champion doubles team — over the last decade.

Likewise, the Chehalis Middle School wrestling team is a thriving institution that produces skilled wrestlers over the years, but currently has no place to practice.

“Chehalis wrestling is rich with history and passion and wins,” Collins said.

The regional facility both aligns with the Chehalis Foundation’s mission of increasing quality of life for youth in the city and would play a positive role for athletes of all ages across the region. Currently, the closest multi-court tennis facility is about 40 minutes from Chehalis, and it already sees quite a bit of action from local players.

“One of the most important aspects of this project is that we really wanted to build it to USTA (United States Tennis Association) standards so that we could hold tennis tournaments here, which would be a great boost to our local economy,” Collins said. “One thing we know about tennis players is that they’re willing to drive to play.”

The Chehalis Foundation and other nonprofits involved, including the Chehalis Activators and the Lewis County Tennis Association, have raised close to half of the $3 million needed for the facility, which is likely to be built at 0 Bishop Road, next to the decommissioned Olympic Elementary School.

The other project Collins is involved with right now is the renovation of the infield and outfield turf for W.F. West baseball, which will be about a $1.6 million project.

“We've come a long way on both. We're in the engineering phase on the tennis facility and the baseball (turf),” she said.


Volunteerism and Motherhood

The list of Jenny Collins’ accomplishments is long, but if you ask her, being a mother is at the top. Her motivation for volunteering on the Adna School Board is her love of children.

“She cares about kids and she cares about the community, and that's pretty much evident in everything she does. And she’s very generous,” said former Adna Superintendent Jim Forrest, who worked with Collins on the board for about six years.

He emphasized that with or without her, the Adna School Board has always been cohesive and that working with the group was a pleasure. But Jenny’s “natural connection with the community,” he said, gave their team an advantage.

“The biggest thing about Jenny is she brings people together to help resolve problems. She doesn’t back away from those difficult situations, she’s ready to tackle them head-on,” Forrest said.

That statement is indicated in the fact that Adna was the second school district in Lewis County to return to in-person learning after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hearing the lamentations of parents, teachers and students struggling to navigate online school, Collins and other board members were compelled to take action.

“I felt the weight of all of those children and their families in the decision making process. Just thinking about it now creates this feeling in my stomach, like, ‘am I doing the right thing?” Collins said. “But we have an incredible group of teachers and administrators, and they came together with a plan that could work. And it did. And I'm really proud of that.”

As for being chosen as Person of the Year, Collins said she didn’t feel it was right, but that she was “humbled” regardless.

Asked about how she has been able to work with so many diverse groups of people and come out on the end with successful, meaningful projects, Collins said: “It’s not a secret formula. If you just really, truly love people and you have an interest in who they are.”

Though, just as being a mother of seven sons is often a challenge, managing a multi-million dollar organization and working with donors across the scale comes with its difficulties no matter how much she loves the work.

When she was first hired as the Chehalis Foundation executive director, Collins said she spent some sleepless nights wondering how she could possibly contribute to a nonprofit that had already done so much good. Jenny stayed grounded by remembering that at the end of it all, what matters is leaving the world better for her children and being a supportive mother.

“As a mom and as a businesswoman and a leader of a nonprofit and a community member, it all comes back to honestly, it only matters what they think of me. That's the truth,” Collins said. “That’s the truth.”


About the Foundation

The Chehalis Foundation is an active nonprofit in Chehalis that coordinates with the school district, city and community organizations to secure funding for projects to increase quality of life for residents and visitors.

Major projects include renovation of City of Chehalis Parks and Recreation properties including the Gail and Carolyn Shaw Aquatic Center, Chet and Henrietta Rhodes Spray Park, Recreation Park baseball fields, Lintott-Alexander park and most recently, Penny Playground.

In education, the foundation has supported major investments in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum for Chehalis schools including through the purchase of a scanning electron microscope. The foundation also supports career and technical education (CTE) programs.

According to its website, through 2018, the foundation had invested $3.1 million in funds for education. Its Student Achievement Initiative outlines a goal to have 60% of the W.F. West High School class of 2022 go on to earn some form of a post-high school credential. That can mean a bachelor’s or associate’s degree, apprenticeship certification, military service or vocational education. Read more about the initiative’s early markers of success on the foundation’s website.

Through keeping connected with alumni, the foundation has built a well of donors, and aims to continue contributing to the well by assisting with the success of students down the road.

“Do the first thing and do it really well. And then you have the fruits of your labor to show your donors,” said Collins when asked what advice she would give to other nonprofits.

“Yes, we've been fortunate here in Chehalis to have some really smart and successful people graduate from W.F. West, but that's not unique. That's everywhere.”

“We're a regular small town that has had some people who have graduated and have been successful, and it's just the same in every other small town,” she continued. “We have every level of donor.”

Read more about the Chehalis Foundation and its projects at