After a decade working at Compassion International and another decade running a communications and marketing consulting firm, Larry Yonker felt ready for a change.
As a marketing and development executive at Compassion, he helped raise millions of dollars to help needy children around the world. His consulting work helped other nonprofits raise millions more for worthy causes.
In 2008, Springs Rescue Mission hired his firm to help raise funds for a building to house its New Life Program, a residential addiction recovery program. That’s when something clicked.
“When I got a chance to walk among the poor in our city, and meet people broken with homelessness, substance addictions, sexual addictions, and so many other challenges, I realized these are the people I want to help,” said Yonker.
SRM hired Yonker in 2011, and named him CEO in 2013. Under his tenure, SRM has quadrupled its annual budget to $8 million and expanded its reach through an expanding campus and new programs to help people transition out of poverty.
A former VW-driving, nuke-protesting hippie and seeker of truth and meaning, the 69-year-old Yonker is now more conservative in his views. But he’s happy to forge partnerships with people, businesses and organizations across the political spectrum.
SRM has worked with the Springs’ Republican mayors Steve Bach and John Suthers for the Springs’ Initiative to End Homelessness, and with Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper on the state’s “One Congregation—One Family” initiative encouraging churches to adopt children and help needy families.
Now, Yonker is passing the torch to Maj. Gen. Jack Briggs, the former director of operations for Headquarters U.S. Northern Command and a 1986 graduate of the Air Force Academy. Briggs will take over as CEO Oct. 15.
A calling to serve the city
One Springs community leader asked over lunch one day, “Larry, why the hell do you do what you do?” Yonker’s answer paraphrased the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.
“My faith tells me that the greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself, and that’s what I want to do.”
At a time when many prominent Christian leaders are culture warriors, Yonker has been a peacemaker and bridge-builder.
“Many faith-based organizations only engage with those of similar spiritual perspective, and that’s unfortunate,” said John Ashmen, president of the Springs-based Citygate Network (formerly Association of Gospel Rescue Missions), an association of more than 300 crisis shelters and life-transformation centers throughout North America. “Larry has been a stand-out leader because he fully understood the power of collaboration and employed it early on in his tenure for the benefit of poor and powerless people in El Paso County.
“Larry is secure in his beliefs — and he has made sure that the Christian gospel remains central to Springs Rescue Mission — but he also understands that providing the full array of life-transformation opportunities for people is impossible to pull off without strong partnerships and alliances. To make that happen, you have to willingly work across political and theological lines like Larry has done.”
Ashmen says he has brought rescue mission leaders from across the country to Colorado Springs to see the SRM work firsthand.
Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs, praised Yonker’s professionalism and care.
“Larry has been a dynamic, inspirational force at such an important era in our city’s efforts to serve people experiencing homelessness, transitioning the organization strategically and leading bold yet vital capital campaigns to ensure better facilities that serve more people with compassion and dignity,” Edmondson said.
“Larry cares deeply about the people SRM serves, but he also cares about our city and its people at a personal level. He always asks me how I’m feeling and how things are going, and he takes a genuine interest in the well-being of his colleagues and friends throughout the community.”
Moving on, not away
Yonker said he is relieved to be passing the SRM leadership torch to Briggs. But the man who started his philanthropic work on his first day of kindergarten, when he gave his belt to another boy who didn’t have one, isn’t going away, and he hopes to continue addressing problems that keep people physically and spiritually impoverished.
“I don’t want to waste my contacts, my knowledge of nonprofits and my experience serving poor people,” he said.
“God loves these people more than I do, and he’s going to figure out what I should do. All I know is I want to continue being a justice guy for the poor in Colorado Springs, but now I can broaden my scope a little bit.”