Making a career of service: The Oldenkamp file

We know that 50,000 times a year, we are touching peoples’ lives,” Oldenkamp said.

Reprinted with permission from Dakota Wesleyan University. 

Like many Dakota Wesleyan students, Betty Oldenkamp ’82 came to DWU from a small South Dakota town.  Today, her work as the president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services (LSS) touches the lives of fellow South Dakotans across the state.
When Oldenkamp first encountered DWU, it was through theatre professor Darryl Patten ’60 who was judging an oral interp contest in which she was competing.  Later, she attended a church youth group event on campus, and ultimately made the decision to attend DWU as a speech and theatre major.
Oldenkamp’s decision to change the focus of her studies to psychology and sociology was the first step in a successful career of serving vulnerable populations.
The first years of Oldenkamp’s career were in direct services, working at the adjustment training center in Pierre and then as a residential supervisor in Madison.  She was promoted within that organization, then was hired by the South Dakota Department of Human Services in the division of developmental disabilities, where she eventually became the director.
In 1997, Oldenkamp became the director of the division of mental health at the South Dakota Department of Human Services.  At that point, she was overseeing 11 community mental health centers that provided services for about 14,000 people.  Her first challenge as director was to relocate the agency from Yankton to Pierre and to re-establish its infrastructure.  Some of her accomplishments include developing the medication program for the needy and providing disaster-related mental health services in the wake of the Spencer and Oglala tornadoes.
In 2001, then-Governor Bill Janklow appointed Oldenkamp cabinet secretary for the South Dakota Department of Human Services.  She appreciated Janklow’s commitment to her department.
“He was fun to work for, very dynamic,” Oldenkamp said.  “He had a real soft spot for people with disabilities.”
At the end of 2005, Oldenkamp got a call from a search firm looking for a new executive for Lutheran Social Services, based in Sioux Falls.  She put off returning the call, thinking she didn’t have any candidates in mind for them.  When she finally talked to the firm, they made it clear that she was the candidate they were most interested in pursuing.
Now, with more than 10 years of service at LSS, she reflects on the great change the organization has seen during her tenure.  The staff across the state has grown from 325 to more than 500.  She and her board have experienced a decline in residential services and have had to explore new options for existing facilities.  She’s particularly pleased with a partnership with the Pennington County detention center, whereby LSS created shelter care – a short-term group care facility for youth – and reception services where law enforcement can transport youth to wait in a safe environment to be picked up by a parent or guardian.
“Our goal is to connect kids with services and support,” she said.
Oldenkamp says that the services LSS provides are valued and appreciated by thousands of people, but like most large organizations, there are misconceptions.  For example, individuals do not need to be Lutheran to receive services.
The range of services offered by LSS varies by community and is based on local service needs in any given place.  Overall, the list is extensive and touches on all ages from youth to elderly, from adoption services to pregnancy counseling, from fatherhood and re-entry counseling for incarcerated men to resettlement services for new Americans, as well as disaster response, foster care, youth mentoring services – and more.
“We know that 50,000 times a year, we are touching peoples’ lives,” Oldenkamp said.
Although Oldenkamp’s position is administrative and requires much travel and typical office work, her face lights up when she talks about connecting with LSS clients.
“This fall, some of our teens we're stuffing our Christmas mailing,” she said.  “And I received a call that some of the girls wanted to meet me because they had seen my name on the letters, and they were curious.  It was so fun to visit with these young women.”
Oldenkamp also finds time to serve as a mentor to a high school student through the LSS mentoring program.
“I began in direct services, so no matter how busy I get, it’s still nice to have the opportunity to interact directly with those we serve.”
• Governor’s Award for Employee Excellence (twice)
• Distinguished Service Award from the Rocky Mountain Council of Community Mental Health Centers
• DWU alumni award for Distinguished Service to College and State
• Larry Oppold Memorial Award from the Sioux Empire United Way Boards
• South Dakota Board of Nursing (term ended October 2016)
• Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce (term ended October 2016)
• Sioux Falls Development Foundation
• Lutheran Services in America
• State Council of Juvenile Services
• Dakota Wesleyan University Board of Trustees.

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