Feature

With a mother, father and younger sister who were psychologists, it was almost inevitable that Rebecca Thomley, PsyD, would become one too. But she envisioned herself in a small, private practice, not working in--let alone running--the family business of Orion Associates, a company that provides, among other things, services and vocational training for people with disabilities.

"I grew up in a family that worked in the human services industry," says Thomley. "Although at one point I wanted to do anything but work in this industry, this field was my home."

Thomley liked the idea stepping outside the world she'd always known and forging a unique career path. However, her interests kept leading her back to familiar ground, first as a rehabilitation counselor, then as a services coordinator at small company and finally to a leadership role in the family business.

A family affair

In Thomley's family, volunteering was part of the fabric of daily life. Her mother was a social worker and her father supervised vocational rehabilitation services for central Minnesota, and the work they did carried over into home.

"We never had a Christmas or Thanksgiving where we didn't have someone [in the house] who didn't have any other place to go," says Thomley.

When Thomley's mother started the first volunteer organization in their county, the whole family pitched in. Thomley's tasks included delivering meals on wheels, candy-striping, assisting a physical therapist and working in a retirement home. Because she was exposed to so many different vocations as a volunteer, Thomley entertained thoughts of various exciting and exotic careers such as archaeology--until she realized she didn't really want to dig in the dirt, "with all those bugs," she laughs.

And the work she grew up with kept drawing her in: She ended up helping out at a group home in college, and went on to earn her master's degree in rehabilitation counseling.

"You can't hide from who you are," she notes.

After earning her master's, Thomley went straight to work in her father's field, working for the state of Minnesota as a rehabilitation counselor for people with disabilities seeking meaningful employment. She administered assessment, personality and vocational interest tests and worked with individuals to come up with vocational goals.

After three years, Thomley went to work as the director for Cooperating Community Programs (CCP), another disability services organization. When she started, there were 30 employees and by the time she left, she was the chief operating officer and there were 500. During her tenure, she developed the company's in-home services, established several residential facilities and established a vocational training program. Thomley would later take the company-building skills she learned to Orion, along with what one former co-worker describes as a passion for changing things for the better.

"Rebecca's really good at getting people to step outside their comfort zone," says Mary Anderson, who worked closely with Thomley at CCP. Anderson, who now oversees all vocational training there, credits Thomley with pushing her to advance her skills and professional training. Without Thomley's "nudging" Anderson would never have completed the masters'-level management courses that have helped her move up in the company, she says.

While Thomley was working at CCP, she was building a private practice with the intention of counseling full-time some day. In the meantime, her mother, Marya Hage, was busy establishing Meridian Services--which would later become Orion Associates--from her basement. The company provided such support as budgeting help, meal planning and grocery shopping to several of the disabled clients in Hage's private practice.

"Whatever they needed to stay independent," says Thomley, whose father joined in the effort once he retired. In 1992, after Thomley had earned her clinical psychology doctorate, she started working there part time as she continued to grow her practice and raise a family.

She probably would have remained a full-time practitioner, if both her parents hadn't fallen ill.

Responding to a crisis

In 1992, both Thomley's parents were diagnosed with cancer--her mother with breast cancer and her father with leukemia. Though her mother recovered, her father, Orval Hage, died in late 1999. All agreed that it made the most sense for Thomley to take over.

"It was hard: I really liked what I was doing and had a successful practice," she remembers. "And it was a significant drop in income, which was difficult with having a family and a mortgage to pay."

Although she sometimes thinks her life would be simpler if she'd stayed in private practice, Thomley relishes the opportunity to help such a large number of people.

When Thomley took over, she wanted to move the company into additional areas and created Zenith Services, a vocational services company. She also decided to move Meridian's administrative and personnel functions, along with all of the company's officers to a separate organization--Orion Associates. Orion originally provided management services to just Zenith and Meridian, but Thomley and her team saw an opportunity to provide services for other companies that couldn't or didn't want to handle things like human resources or finance. Meridian continues to offer the kind of services it had in the past--case management, arranging in-home help for families with disabilities and administering group homes. Orion Associates is an umbrella organization that continues to diversify into areas such as managing disability funds for families and disaster relief services. Cheryl Vennerstrom, Orion's chief operation officer, ascribes this growth to Thomley's skill as a leader--and as a psychologist. "She's always looking for new ventures and ways that we can diversify," she notes. "Her insight and background make us approach relationships differently than a lot of other service providers. One of those ways is how we approach the people we serve. Working with so many families and disabled individuals, you have to be nonjudgmental and accepting."

Thomley has continued to practice on the side and hasn't given up on her volunteering. In addition to working with Hage on the Red Cross's local disaster response team, she has encouraged employees at Orion to do community work and has committed the company to help rebuild at least five houses in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans as part of what the organization has dubbed the "River of Hope" campaign. Thomley and her team--which includes Orion employees, her mother, who is still on the board of directors at Orion, her brother, who also works at the company, and other family members--have traveled to New Orleans six times since Katrina and are preparing for their seventh trip.

And as with any project she takes on, Thomley has ambitious plans.

Orion is currently rebuilding a donated building in the Ninth Ward for a weekend mental health center that would be staffed by volunteer mental health providers. Thomley is concerned that since Katrina has faded from the headlines, the still-pressing needs of many of New Orleans citizens will be forgotten. She envisions a multiyear effort to help residents clean up and get help.

"That is her--Rebecca will persist longer than anyone else," says Vennerstrom.