Jenifer Vargo-Okamura, Director of Development for Hospice Area of Calumet, has always had the heart for working with and for people. Her career in human services has taken her in many different directions, but for the past four years, Vargo-Okamura has brought her expertise and compassion to Hospice of Calumet Area and the Northwest Indiana community.
Vargo-Okamura was born in Gary, Indiana, where most of her family lived and worked for years.
“My grandparents laid their roots in Gary,” Vargo-Okamura said. “My grandfather and my father worked in the steel industry and then later, my family extended into other parts of the Region, like Hobart and Munster.”
She attended Hobart High School, where she had an athletic four years, running track and cross country, playing soccer, and was the team manager for the Junior Varsity and Varsity basketball teams.
After graduating from high school, Vargo-Okamura continued her education at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, where she received a degree in Communications and Theatre Arts. She then went on to receive her Masters degree in Public Communications from Ball State University, before starting her impressive career in Chicago.
“I moved to Chicago and I lived and worked there for 12 years,” Vargo-Okamura said. “I worked for a number of different places. I started out at Association House in Chicago, which was my first professional job. I taught children who were wards of the state social skills.”
From there, she was promoted to a corporate volunteer recruitment position, and because of the experience she received from Association House and her education, she was able to adapt easily and quickly.
“I was able to adapt easily to give presentations and work with corporate volunteers and match them with programs at Association House,” she explained. “Then I learned a little more about development work and began writing grant proposals and my career in development work started there.”
After a number of years working for Association House, Vargo-Okamura moved on to Ernst & Young and worked for their marketing group, and in the process learned more about development work in an atmosphere that was nothing like she had ever worked in before.
“I learned a lot but I knew my heart was in human services,” she explained. “From there I was able to transition easily to the Illinois CPA Society, where I ran their public interest programs. So I helped link professional volunteers to nonprofits, management workshops, as well as doing taxes for low income individuals.”
After an absence from the organization, Association House invited her back. For eight years, Vargo-Okamura worked as the Director of Development, until a personal loss lead her to where she is today.
“My father became ill with Mesothelioma,” she explained. “So I was doing a lot of driving back and forth from the city to Indiana and was trying to help him with his illness. He then became a patient of Hospice of Calumet.”
This was Vargo-Okamura’s first experience with Hospice of Calumet, but it wasn’t the last. In 2013, her grandmother also became a patient of the organization, and during this difficult period, Vargo-Okamura grew more and more impressed with the organization and its ability to provide comfort for everyone.
“It was so impressive and the volunteer support was impressive,” she explained. “It ran like clock-work; there were no surprises and the support was always amazing. They cared about me just as much as they cared about my grandmother, and I thought that if there was ever an organization that needed my skill sets like this, I would be all over it.”
Four months later, that opportunity arose and she couldn’t refuse. A coworker reached out to her and informed Vargo-Okamura that Hospice of Calumet was looking for a Director of Development. She applied, went through the interview process, and the rest is history.
“It was more of a calling,” Vargo-Okamura said.
As Director of Development, she runs all of the activities for private fundraising. That includes direct-to-mail campaigns, communication pieces like newsletters, and working with Hospice of Calumet Area’s marketing director and their fundraising auxiliary, Friends of Hospice.
“I really just track our fundraising efforts and make sure we’re sound and we’re doing everything ethically,” she said.
Working for Hospice of Calumet Area has been as rewarding as a job can be for Vargo-Okamura. For many people, death is seen as scary and chaotic. In order to combat that fear that surrounds families in a trying time, Hospice of Calumet offers calm, strength, and support.
“Death is a natural process,” she explained. “Hospice of Calumet Area provides comfort, care, and services to families to help that time not be chaotic, help them understand what is going on, and help make that time much more memorable.”
Hospice of Calumet Area offers many services for families and patients to make this time easier and more focused on them. From transitional programs for patients who receive a terminal diagnosis, to counseling programs for anyone who has suffered a loss, to non-denominational spiritual counselors, Hospice of Calumet Area truly is there for anyone who needs them, regardless of who they are or if they can afford it.
“One that we pride ourselves is that we never turn a patient away because they are unable to pay,” Vargo-Okamura said. “The majority is covered by insurance, but there’s times when insurance doesn’t cover everything and the family doesn’t have it in their budget. We work with the family and the donations that I help to bring in help cover that charity care and make sure that we honor that value of never turning someone away. It’s very motivating to do the work that I do.”
When Vargo-Okamura isn’t fundraising and helping families and patients of Hospice of Calumet Area, she is spending her free time in the great outdoors, biking, hiking, paddle boarding, and spending time with her husband, Jeff, and their 8-year old Doberman pincher, Roxie, who the couple rescued from a shelter.
“That’s something that both Jeff and I feel strongly,” Vargo-Okamura explained. “The pets that we have are all rescues. There are so many animals out there that need good homes, so we always make sure that we adopt from a shelter.”
The couple also loves to travel and recently went to Ireland. For Vargo-Okamura, the country was beautiful, but the real beauty came from the people.
“We left there just really loving the interactions with the people,” she explained. “It’s a really cool culture and a really laid back environment to be in. We just love to go to new places and meet new people.”
That is not surprising of a person who has spent their professional career working with and helping people in need. Jenifer Vargo-Okamura makes it her mission to provide comfort for a family in a trying time, just like Hospice of Calumet Area did for her and her family years ago.
For more information about Hospice of Calumet Area, go to www.hospicecalumet.org.