Changes at Cope Family Center

Michele Grupe, right, is the new executive director at Cope Family Center, taking over the job from former Executive Director Joelle Gallagher, left, who has become executive director at First 5 Napa County. Grupe formerly served as associate director at Cope.

J.L. Sousa, Register

Similar to a game of executive director musical chairs, two well-known Napa nonprofits announced three key leadership changes.

Sally Sheehan-Brown, longtime First 5 Napa County executive director, retired on March 31.

Joelle Gallagher, a 16-year Cope Family Center veteran and the agency’s current executive director, will become the new executive director of First 5.

Michele Grupe, currently the associate director at Cope, has been promoted to fill Gallagher’s shoes.

Cope Family Center’s mission is to prevent and address the root causes of child maltreatment through an array of programs and services. First 5 is funded by Proposition 10, essentially a tobacco tax. It provides resources to support a system of services that ensures children ages 0-5 enter school healthy and ready to learn.

“It has been a great 17 years at First 5, and I am so very grateful to those original commissioners who offered me a job back in February 2000,” said Sheehan-Brown.

However, “It’s time for someone else to do this work,” she said. “Joelle has lots of ideas for the agency going forward.”

“I am very excited to work with the First 5 Commission and staff,” said Gallagher.

After working at Cope and running an agency that provides direct services to the community, “I’m very interested in pursuing more of the policy, advocacy and system-building side of an agency,” Gallagher said.

Grupe said her many years of work at Cope with Gallagher and a succession plan will ensure a smooth transition. “I’m honored to lead the Cope team in the next stage of the organization’s development,” she said.

Sheehan-Brown recalled the beginnings of First 5 Napa County, which she started from the ground up.

“Those early days were exciting and a little terrifying,” she admitted. She did not come from an early childhood education background, “so my learning curve was steep at the time.”

“The impact of First 5 has been huge and the influence we have had statewide is greater than any of us could ever have imagined,” Sheehan-Brown said. “I am so very proud and privileged to have been a part of it.”

Gallagher said she was attracted to the work that First 5 does “in terms of taking a look at all of the different components that play a part in early childhood and creating a system that works for young children and families. And I thought this was a great opportunity to move in that direction.”

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The two agencies are markedly different in size. Cope has an estimated 30 employees. First 5 Napa County has the equivalent of about five full-time employees.

“Joelle brings a lot of experience and enthusiasm to the work that is planned for First 5 Napa County as we embark on a journey that will shift how we accomplish the organization’s work,” said Debbie Peralez, executive director of Child Start, Inc. and president of the First 5 Napa County Commission.

“We intend to actively engage the community in planning for this change, and Joelle will help lead this process, ensuring that our future is aligned with the needs of Napa’s children and families and reflective of the changing vision of the commission,” Peralez said.

Under Sheehan-Brown’s leadership, the commission has weathered many storms, including threats to funding during California’s lean state budget years.

Sheehan-Brown “kept her focus on what is good for kids and families and helped lead the commission to create funding strategies that could best meet their needs. We will miss her at First 5,” said Peralez.

Gallagher noted that Grupe has already been associate director and development director at Cope. “She has a very good handle on all pieces of the agency. She’s entirely well equipped to take on this role,” she said.

Because Grupe is also a member of the nine-person First 5 commission, she recused herself from the First 5 executive director recruiting process, she said.

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Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.