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VIProfile: Sheryl Chesnutt

By Lee Rennick
Sheryl Chesnutt began as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Rutherford County a few years before the pandemic hit. But when the pandemic came, with a background including serious crisis management, she immediately sprang into action.

“One of my strengths is leading a team of leaders through a crisis,” said Chesnutt. “I always have a plan B. I was lucky enough to have a great team. And, an amazing board of directors. All servant leaders.”

When COVID hit, the first thing she and her team did was decide to feed the community. Initially, it was a way to make sure that the food they had in their freezer and pantries for the kids who were no longer coming didn’t go to waste. Then, restaurants, banks and Nourish got involved. Starbucks provided milk, Nourish gave them dry goods and Chick-Fil-A began providing dinner two times a week. This occurred for about six to eight weeks. They ended up serving 17,000 meals during that time.

“Banks and individuals were buying food for us to feed the community as a way to support local restaurants.” explained Chesnutt. “We did it all drive-through, using CDC guidelines, even though they were always changing.”

As soon as quarantine shut-down was over, Chesnutt and her team got the three clubs under their management – Murfreesboro, Smyrna and Shelbyville – reopened to take care of essential worker’s children, all under the guidance of her board who came together as a team that included a doctor and a nurse.

“We opened before the schools reopened,” added Chesnutt. “So, when kids went back to school, our kids were leaders. They knew all about masks, not sharing toys and handwashing.”
Now, the Club is working to get back their pre-COVID numbers. They are currently at about 70% of those numbers.

Chesnutt came by her crisis management skills by working for 26 years in the hospitality industry at Gaylord Opryland. She went through their ownership changes and the many hardships the hotel experienced, including the flooding in 2010 that did severe damage to the hotel when the Cumberland River rose over its banks. The Atrium and convention halls were severely flooded by 10 feet of water. The flooding did $200 million in damage to the hotel and shut it down for six months. As a member of the executive team, she helped guide the hotel through the storm.

Having started working at the hotel right after graduating from Harding University with a Bachelors in Business Administration, she has great memories of her time there. As a matter of fact, she met her husband, Ted, while working as an entry level manager.

“He was working his way through school as a bellman,” said Chesnutt. “We have been together for 32 years, have three children and two grandchildren.”

In 2016, however, Chesnutt retired from the hotel. The business was changing and she wanted to do something more. Maybe, she thought, something in the nonprofit world. She took a couple of weeks and updated her resume and Linked-In pages. It was her children who saw that the Boys & Girls Clubs of Rutherford County was looking for a new CEO.

“I wrote an introductory letter and let a couple of community leaders I knew know that I was interested,” said Chesnutt.

She has been guiding the organization to new heights ever since. Or rather, currently, rebuilding at a slow and steady rate.

They are also adding new features. The Smyrna Club got its first playground, a Kaboom Playground, thanks to a grant from General Motors Spring Hill. Then, over four days, 80 volunteers worked together to build it. And, the Murfreesboro Club will be getting a Pump Track built this winter so kids can learn to ride bikes in the spring.

“Our Smyrna Club is the largest in Tennessee,” said Chesnutt, “but they have never had their own playground. Now we do.”

They kept the Teen Centers closed down and used the space for the younger kids through much of the pandemic, but are currently working to update the teen spaces. As the Clubs remodel their Teen Centers, they are asking for the kids to help with the design. These spaces are more than a place for the kids to hang out or do homework, they also provide teens with leadership skills training, soft skills training and college skills training.

“Many of our kids have never been out of Middle Tennessee,” said Chesnutt, “so we are resuming our out-of-state college tours. We have taken our kids to Florida; Virginia; Washington, DC; Ohio and Indiana in the past. They have seen the campuses of Notre Dame and Georgetown. We have had kids go to Flagler and Nova Southeast near Miami. They get to have fun on these trips and have life experiences. Our alumni tell us that these trips are one of the most impactful things we have done toward their future success.”

Another program they have to help their kids succeed is a STEM Academy for their first through eighth graders in partnership with First Shot. They currently have space for the program in Murfreesboro and are working to expand it to Smyrna.
“We love the nonprofits in the county,” noted Chesnutt, “and how we all work together. Help each other. We all love the community.”

Working with business partners, they are developing programming on workforce development for their teens, including internships. And, staying on top of the newest business technology trends, they will be creating a virtual reality career exploration program for middle and high school kids.

It takes funding to make all of this happen. Jay Leno was the speaker at their most successful Steak and Burger night fundraiser in the history of the club this year.

“He was amazing,” noted Chesnutt. “He was a hoot.”

“We have been a community supported Club for 36 years,” said Chestnutt. “And, before I retire, I want to get us set up for success for another 36 years. We are planting seeds today that we will not see an impact from until the future. We are nurturing the county’s next doctors, lawyers, city council members and Rotarians. I feel like I have a responsibility to help in all of the right ways.”

A lover of wildflowers, Chesnutt says that she finds all flowers beautiful, but they take care and if they are cared for well, they reseed. Her Boys & Girls Club children are like her favorite flowers.

“It all comes down to my faith,” added Chesnutt. “I am here to serve God’s children. To cultivate them, care for them and watch them grow.”

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