Bilyeu Working to Lead School into Sunny Future

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Since becoming executive director of the Benton County Sunshine School in Rogers last July, Cyndi Bilyeu has enjoyed leading the organization that serves more than 500 individuals and families each year.

With more than 150 employees, the school represented a big leap from her previous job at an agency of about 25.

“We’re a pretty decent-sized employer here in Rogers,”
she said. “I don’t think most people know that.”

Bilyeu was about one year into a job as executive director at HOPE Inc. in Springdale when she was named to the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class of 2004.

HOPE, which stood for Helping Oncology Patients Excel, was a nonprofit that helped cancer patients with prescriptions and other needs, and helped develop clinical trials in Northwest Arkansas.

Bilyeu led the agency until September 2009, when HOPE merged with the Northwest Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute to form Hope Cancer Resources.

In the new organization, Bilyeu’s position changed to vice president of patient services. While she enjoyed that job, which included some of her former duties, she says she missed the executive director role.

“I was missing that variety of activities that you get to participate in — staff development, fundraising and organizational planning,” she said.

But she took her time waiting for the right opportunity to come along. The first time the job at BCSS was posted, she passed it up. Then a short time later, it was posted again, and she decided to apply.

“I kept getting called back to it,” she said. “There was something about the place pulling me a little bit.”

After a lengthy hiring process, she was offered the job, and then had to make the difficult decision to leave HCR.

“It’s very hard to leave when you’ve been somewhere for so long,” Bilyeu said. “But I was ready to take on a new challenge. I really thrive on being challenged, and felt this would definitely be that.”

At BCSS, she works with the board of directors to lead the overall strategic direction of the organization. Because of the large staff and variety of programs, the job entails making sure all the school’s programs align with its mission to develop people’s lives.

“We’re known for our preschool, but we really serve individuals from birth to end of life,” Bilyeu said.

Uncertainties regarding Medicaid funding pose perhaps the biggest challenge for Bilyeu and the school. Medicaid currently provides about 75 percent of the school’s budget, she said, but cuts to the program are anticipated over the next few years.

“We’re at a real pivotal point with Medicaid funding, and we’re really working to create strategies to become less dependent” on it, she said. “Because I don’t think it’s an ‘if’ it happens, I think it’s a ‘when’ it happens — we’ll be able to absorb that blow and continue for the long term.

“We’re really looking to have a more balanced approach, so that we’re not too dependent on any one source of funding. So we’re looking at new grant opportunities and new community partnerships, definitely a combination of those things.”

Bilyeu has shared her years of experience managing nonprofits by volunteering for about three years with Northwest Arkansas Emerging Leaders. As this year’s chairman of the legacy workgroup, she recently facilitated the annual board certification training that prepares young professionals to serve as board members for nonprofits.

A longtime alumna of Leadership Fayetteville, Bilyeu is enrolled in Leadership Benton County’s current class. She’s also a member of the Rogers Noon Rotary.

Her free time is devoted to her two children, ages 10 and 15, “doing just the normal baseball and Girl Scouts kind of stuff with them,” as well as spending time with her extended family.

Five years from now, Bilyeu said, she’d like to still be at BCSS, continuing to lead the school in a new direction.

“Our board has some big visions,” she said, “and we’ll have some big announcements that’ll come out this summer of some new things for us, so really my focus is professionally just working to bring about some fun, exciting changes here at the Sunshine School.”

The legacy she’d like to leave there, or anywhere she works, is “that long-term sustainability,” she said, “so that we can continue to do what we do long into the future — as long as there’s a need, that we’re here helping meet that need.”