By Catherine Donnelly
Jack Kavanaugh, MSW ’15, has dedicated his career to providing direct services to young people.
Today, Kavanaugh serves as the executive director of GLYS Western New York Inc. — the culmination of a series of experiences that focused on supporting youth and building a solid foundation in nonprofit management.
“Service was just part of my life growing up,” Kavanaugh says. “I’ve been involved with GLYS in various capacities since I was a child — my mom, Barbra, was on the board of directors when I was in elementary school, although she may be known to more people as the first openly gay member of the Buffalo Common Council (in 1995).
“I continued to support their programming through high school and college,” he adds. “The opportunity to take the helm of a historic organization in the community was extremely gratifying. I love this organization and the people I work with. I am passionate about creating a future for LGBTQ+ youth where they can feel safe and affirmed.”
Kavanaugh attended Goucher College in Baltimore, where he majored in religion with focuses on African American and women's studies. “I was lucky enough to study closely under Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, a leader in womanist and Black theology,” he says. “Our work helped me to develop a deeper understanding of the systems at play that create levels of privilege and access in the United States, as well as to recognize the interventions and movements that have created change over the last 250 years.”
Returning to Western New York, Kavanaugh began exploring career opportunities as an AmeriCorps VISTA member with the College Success Center at Bennett High School. As he met more people doing the things he wanted to do, he realized that while their jobs were diverse, a common denominator among those individuals was a social work degree.
He turned to the UB School of Social Work because its Master of Social Work (MSW) program offered a strong foundation of general social work knowledge, while allowing him to explore various tracks. His field experiences, for example, included work in the Buffalo Public Schools and at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“I really focused on learning as much as I could from my professors and peers so I could become the best professional possible,” he says. “Some of my favorite electives included ‘Social Work with LGBTQ+ Populations’ and ‘Grief and Loss.’ I am also appreciative of my experiences working in the community with Louanne Bakk and of course in my Interventions class with Sue Green.”
After graduating from UB and earning his LMSW, Kavanaugh worked with Buffalo Prep and MENTOR New York before accepting his current position with GLYS WNY.
“GLYS has been working with the LGBTQ+ community for nearly 40 years. While the name of the organization has shifted over time, the focus has not,” he says.
The organization offers after-school programming, facilitated support groups, individual support and resources for parents and caregivers. In addition, GLYS WNY provides support and guidance to LGBTQ+ student clubs in more than 100 local schools, as well as other training within schools and community agencies.
In his role, Kavanaugh raises funding and supports the staff, who he says do the real work with a diverse population of children and teens in an ever-evolving LGBTQ+ community.
“My career path has given me the skills I need to effectively steward a strong nonprofit,” he says. “I intentionally sought out opportunities to make sure I had a solid grounding in three areas: programming, fundraising, and organizational governance and operations. I encourage all students to broaden their experiences, either through working or volunteering, to become well-rounded in their professional and personal lives.”
In addition to his full-time job, Kavanaugh is a faculty liaison for the School of Social Work, conducting field site visits and providing support and advocacy for students and their field educators and host partners.
“I enjoy working with UB because it gives me an opportunity to connect with students and hear about their experiences, while learning about resources and agencies in our community,” he says. “Increasingly, I’ve had the opportunity to work with remote students doing field placements downstate and it’s been fascinating to hear about their experiences as UB students in New York City or Long Island.
He continues: “The face and reality of social work practice have shifted so much, and the School of Social Work has done a great job shifting with this new world of expectations and giving students opportunities for meaningful experiences in the field.”