Project Place Makes Rare Change in Leadership Position

A caveat of the Project Place organization in the South End has been steady leadership over the years, with Suzanne Kenney at the helm of the critical human services organization for the past 25 years.

Now, she has retired, and Aaryn Manning has taken the helm, coming back to the organization to lead it after having been a critical team member there several years ago.

Manning, 34, takes the place of long-time director Suzanne Kenney, who retired this fall after 25 years at the helm of the organization. Manning started on Oct. 1. She returns to the organization after previously working there as the director of education and job training.

“It’s really wonderful to be back in the community,” she said. “That’s something I’m drawn to and missed when I was gone.”

In fact, Manning said she knew she was in the right place again when she saw a former student at the door recently.

“I recognized him and he recognized me,” she said. “Four years had passed and here we were again at the doors of Project Place. He looked at me and told me that it hadn’t all gone the way he had planned, but he came back. I told him that’s all that matters. It speaks to the work we do. It was just one moment, but it really symbolized the transformative work we do here.”

Project Place, based in the South End, provides services to some of the most vulnerable residents in Boston – those coming out of incarceration, those trying to escape homelessness and those looking to be trained for job skills. The organization has many years of successes, but hasn’t had a lot of turnover under Kenney.

Manning grew up in Montana, but found that the rural life wasn’t for her and moved to Boston. She said the first job she applied for was at Project Place, and she found she loved being a teacher, an advocate and a helper to adult learners.

“I’m an educator and an advocate and come from that background,” she said. “The ability to serve as an educator and advocate in a community environment really appealed to me – especially serving adult learners.”

She served as the director there for five years, and Kenney – who she counts as a mentor – encouraged her to get her graduate degree and see what happens. That’s when she left for Colorado and pursued her education with her husband.

“When I was here, Boston really did become a home to me,” she said. “When we talked about moving here long-term, it just made sense to be back in Boston. This opportunity just came up at the same time we were planning to return. I always said I didn’t have enough room in my heart for another non-profit after Project Place. When I had the opportunity to interview to be the director, I was thrilled.”

Right now, the task has been dealing with COVID-19 and transitioning their clients and students to virtual learning. About 85 percent of the programming is virtual, and 15 percent is in-person. The social enterprises are still running, such as the hot fudge operation that clients work at.

Meanwhile, they also still focus on the hard work of helping formerly incarcerated clients re-adjust to society. That can be incredibly hard, she said, after spending many decades in jail and coming out into the world of technology we have now.

“If they’ve been incarcerated 35 or more years, there’s a lot that’s changed,” she said. “The whole world is different and they have to quickly catch up on that. It can be overwhelming.”

Just like when she first came to Boston, Manning said she finds commonality with those clients in that they both had to learn everything from the beginning – including simple things like how to get on and pay for the bus.

Working with clients like that – and others as well – is one of the key reasons she was ready to lead the organization, she said.

“I have big shoes to fill,” she said. “But I have a lot of energy and I’m up for the challenge.”

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