By Denise DePaolo
They are the new generation of changemakers. When we asked readers to tell us about the young professionals making a difference in their communities and workplaces, like years before, we were impressed with the group they brought to our attention. These are people looking out for at-risk youth, pursuing advanced degrees while working full-time jobs, promoting wellness, influencing policy, bolstering their local economies, and inspiring those around them to do better every day. Meet 605 Magazine’s Young Leaders of 2016.
Making life better for women and children has long been at the heart of Susan Kroger’s work. After earning a degree in counseling, she began a career in the nonprofit sector as a mental health therapist for women and mothers. After transitioning from direct service to the administrative side of nonprofit work, she recently took on the role of executive director for NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota, where her focus falls into the realm of policy advocacy.
Kroger says that the term “reproductive health care” can be seen as a dirty one in an overwhelmingly Republican state, because to many, it simply means “abortion.” Continued access to safe procedures, she believes is an important part of the conversation, but it goes much further.
“I think it’s also important to talk about the full spectrum of reproductive health care,” Kroger emphasized. “There’s the issue of contraceptives being affordable, women being able to go to work and not be discriminated against when they’re pregnant, and paid parental leave, which is a hot topic right now. So I think the issue is being condensed down to one word in South Dakota and that’s not really giving people a fair view of the issue as a whole.”
Female entrepreneurs are more connected and more visible than ever before, and Sam Ellis has played a big role in making that happen. In September 2014, she launched The OWN, an idea born out of what she saw as an absence for women in the Rapid City business community.
“The OWN was really founded on those principles that there should be something for women where the rubber meets the road on a daily basis to get their businesses going, expand their businesses, and just really make life easier, because we all have enough to deal with,” she explained.
After a stint at a local architecture firm, Ellis was working as a freelance project manager. With encouragement from a mentor, she decided to launch The OWN to try and connect female business leaders like herself. And although she felt the idea was a great one, she began small with the attitude that if it didn’t catch on, no big deal. But it did.
Luke Jessen isn’t your average 23-year-old. While many of his peers are just graduating college, moving back in with Mom and Dad, or trying to figure out whether they’re mature enough to own a cat, he is leading the marketing department at one of Sioux Falls largest property development companies.
Jessen, who grew up splitting his time between Canby, Minnesota and South Dakota’s Lake Cochran, graduated at 21 from Augustana College (now Augustana University) with an internship at Lawrence and Schiller under his belt, and quickly landed a project manager job at Lloyd Companies. He says after that, all the stars aligned, and after a year, he was offered the position of marketing director, which encompasses more than he could have anticipated.
Jessen says he’d rather bite off more than he can chew than be bored, which has kept him at a dead run both personally and professionally. When he first took on the marketing director role, he worked long hours to make sure everything got done. Now, although he has a team around him that he can delegate some of the work to, his evening and weekends are consumed with graduate school and organizing an annual triathlon at Lake Cochran. He also heads up Lloyd Companies’ Community Events Committee and sits on the state triathlon board.
Reina “Boots” Parker
Reina “Boots” Parker doesn’t blend in, and that’s just fine with her. It only makes her more visible to those she’s trying to save through her place on board for The Center of Equality.
“I am my own human. I completely claim being weird because I’m an individual,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I think it’s important that everyone is the truest form of themselves. I prove that by example and that leaves me a very happy person.”
But that happiness has taken Parker a long time to attain. Growing up in a Jehovah’s Witness household wasn’t easy, and led to a lot of self-loathing, confusion, and anger – both at home and at school.
It all came to a head, Parker says, when she attempted suicide. She shows the scar on her wrist, and explains that although she survived, she went into a dissociative state, during which she was raped, became pregnant, and suffered through a miscarriage. That was her turning point.
Since then, Parker has spent her time working on herself, focusing on being the best mother she can be, and working with LGBT youth through The Center for Equality. When she was a teen, The Center had a youth group that got together once a month, and she remembers it as the only time she felt she could be herself. It’s what she credits with saving her from attempting suicide earlier – a problem that is shockingly pervasive amongst LGBT youth.
(*EDITORS NOTE: After publication of the January issue, Ms. Parker made 605 Magazine aware of the miscarriage following her sexual assault. Her child was conceived in a consensual relationship with a friend.)
To read more about 605 Magazine’s young leaders of 2016, pick up the January issue or click here.