LAFAYETTE -- Retiring from her position as executive director of the Lafayette Library and Learning Center Foundation, Kathy Merchant speaks of perspective, persistence and making lemonade out of lemons.
"Here, take this bag, please," she urges, dispensing Meyer lemon-filled ziplock bags to everyone in sight. "Our tree is proliferating and the rats will come if they fall to the ground. Do you know rats can peel a lemon?"
Constant learning and sunny disposition are characteristic of the ageless Merchant, the foundation's director since 2010, who declines an invitation to specify her age.
"When someone puts an age on someone, it takes something away from them. I just don't ever see age. It's a whole new life, every day," she says.
And it will literally be a "whole new life" when the LLLCF passes from her well-connected hands to her yet-to-be-selected successor. After an extensive process, the task force has hired search firm Laura McCrea and Associates to assist in writing a job description, expected to be released in April. The board hopes to name a new director by this summer.
"The emphasis, whoever they find, needs to be on building coalition in the community and enough internal support allowing the executive director to raise the funds necessary to complete the vision," Merchant suggests.
She expects the board will continue the dream she and three other co-founding members had when they began "Open Doors, Open Minds," a $4 million fundraising campaign. The resulting 30,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art library replaced an outgrown, outdated, trailer-home-sized facility in the city's downtown.
"We wanted everybody to feel they had a stake in the new library," she recalls. "Personally, I believe everybody should, in some way, give back to their community. And as they do, people from different backgrounds should blend. It's how you break through stereotypes."
Merchant's approach is less militant than missionary. After graduating with an English degree from Stanford, she earned her master's degree in organizational development from JFK University and ran a consulting business advising nonprofit boards. She and her husband Mike have built a life dedicated to communication and team building.
"My husband might actually see me when I leave this job," she jokes, describing how the demands of her position have made it necessary to tell him, "Let's talk from 8:50 to 9 p.m. tonight!"
The workload has taken a toll, and with new people expanding the board's numbers, Merchant says the foundation is in a good position for a new director who will think strategically into the future.
Friends and associates all speak to her tremendous contributions.
"Much of the hard work took place at her dining table. Her house was taken over by flip charts and markers. I think there was elbow grease left everywhere. She's a great combination of taskmaster and hostess," Richard Whitmore says, remembering his time on the consortium planning team.
"With any startup, the first person to run the organization largely sets the tone for the life of the enterprise," City Manager Steve Falk writes in an email. "Her (devotion, attention to detail and vision) made Kathy the perfect first executive director."
American Chemical Society President Marinda Wu writes of Merchant's enthusiastic support of expanded learning through the monthly Science Café presentations. Current and past board members send overlapping comments in a flurry of emails citing her resourceful, tireless, efficient, kind and caring energy.
Asked to describe the hardest part of her job, Merchant's answer is immediate.
"Having our community understand the scale of fundraising we need to do, just to keep the doors open," Merchant says.
It costs $1.8 million annually, to run the building. The city contributes 6 percent, the county 37 percent, the Friends group 5 percent. The foundation raises 52 percent and pays for weekly facility and staffing hours above a baseline of 35 and programming with the Glenn Seaborg Learning Consortium partners.
"We have to fundraise $530,000 per year, a figure that continues to grow," Merchant says.
Beyond escaping the fundraising's enormity; she's looking forward to reading for pleasure, daily gym workouts, more time with her husband and two adult children, and travel.
"China, Russia and Vietnam. I have a lifelong learning core in me that must be fed. That's why this job has been exciting; it's always expanding, it's multicultural. With travel, you're doing life on a global scale, you're learning new things every day."