NEW PORT RICHEY — He's been here only three weeks, and Mark Wickham is pounding out letters like an old-timer.
"As CEO of Youth and Family Alternatives, Inc., I can assure you that our board, staff, partner agencies and volunteers are dedicated to protecting our community's children and doing all we can to ensure more kids are in safe, permanent homes," the newcomer from New York wrote to the Tampa Bay Times in a letter to the editor. "We ask you to join us in urging our legislators to make courageous decisions that will better protect our children. It's time for statewide collaboration, change and commitment. The time is now, before one more child's life ends in tragedy."
In Tallahassee, Wickham has to employ these guerilla tactics. His clients, mostly children from troubled backgrounds, can't afford to hire the people in expensive suits who big business pays to protect its interests. For years, those families depended on George Magrill, who headed the New Port Richey nonprofit for more than three decades, to look out for them.
Now that the legendary Magrill has retired, they will rely on Wickham to oversee and defend Youth and Family Alternatives' $20 million budget and 350-member staff that operates runaway shelters, substance abuse programs, adoption services and other child welfare programs in 13 counties.
And lest anyone characterize Wickham's agency as a provider of handouts for the lazy, he's quick to set the record straight.
"Our clients are working," he said. "They are the working poor."
Wickham, 53, was chosen from among three finalists to lead YFA. He worked as CEO for two social service organizations in New York. His last job was at the Catholic Family Center in Rochester, an affiliate of Catholic Charities that served 40,000 people. He oversaw a $26 million budget and 80 different programs, from adoption, mental health, and children and youth services.
But he prefers to talk about his early days working as a camp counselor for kids with disabilities that put him on a path to a social service career.
"I knew that I was meant to help people," he said.
At first, Wickham thought that meant in the classroom, and he got certified to be a special education teacher.
"But I didn't like the politics of it," he said. And so he got his MBA and turned toward administration. Later he served a term on the school board of Penn Yan, a small village in upstate New York.
During his career, Wickham made affordable housing a particular focus. That's key, he said, to alleviating many of the problems that many clients face. At a mental health services agency, Wickham helped develop 120 housing units in six counties.
Not having a safe place to live, he says, "is one of the first things that contributes to trouble in school."
Wickham's experience both in the executive suite and on the front lines, along with his mild-mannered personality, made him the top pick among the search committee members as well as the agency's staff.
"He's easygoing, soft-spoken and not easily excitable," said assistant Pasco schools superintendent Ray Gadd, who served on the committee and who served as CEO of Gulf Coast Jewish Services. "He's come from the bottom up. He can come right in there and honor the past and start looking for new things in the future leading to new service lines."
Rich Bekesh, a former YFA board chairman who also interviewed Wickham, said his thoughtful and deliberate responses made what could have been a tough choice easy.
"All of us were very concerned we pick the right guy," he said. "He has such an impact on the lives of children and families in our area."