Sally Snyder can talk a mile a minute, and each mile is worth a marathon. A longtime advocate for health and education, she’s devoted much of her life to making the Peoria community stronger for its children and for residents seeking medical services.
The daughter of Lakeview Museum founder Sally Page, Snyder was raised to give back, and she married a man—the late Skip Snyder—who felt the same. The mother of four girls, Snyder joined the Junior League of Peoria in 1963, serving as its president in the early ‘80s. The Junior League provided a foundation for her volunteer efforts, which continue to this day.
With four kids attending Peoria public schools, Snyder’s passion for education grew over the years. In 1975, she chaired a volunteer campaign to increase the school tax for District 150, an initiative that passed by less than 400 votes. In 1981, she began a decade of service on the School Board, including a stint as president from 1985 to 1986. She was the first woman to serve on the Proctor Hospital board—a position which led her to the Mobile Medic board—and in the early ‘90s, she was a member of the team that brought Andrew Rand to Peoria as executive director of Advanced Medical Transport (AMT)—transforming the city’s emergency services capacity.
Snyder served on the Dirksen Congressional Center board from 1990 to 1996, chairing the board her last two years. She was also involved in the formation of the Hult Center for Healthy Living, chairing its board for a number of years.
In 1995, Skip retired and the couple took off for California, spending half of the year in the sun with friends. When he passed away in 2010, Snyder returned to Peoria and took on the tireless mission to spend her time serving others, in addition to her role as a dedicated mom and grandma. Today, she serves on six boards—Peoria Riverfront Museum, Heart of Illinois United Way, WTVP, Peoria Promise, Heartland Health Services (formerly Heartland Community Health Clinic) and AMT—in her continued quest to improve the education and health of the city she calls her only home.
You come from a family of givers. Tell us about your mother, Sally Page, and her influence on your volunteerism.
There was probably no better leader in Peoria than my mother. She was a thoughtful leader. As chair of the [Lakeview Museum] board, she never went in where she didn’t know what the outcome was going to be—she had done the research, talked to people, and really had all the information. Lakeview, honestly, was my mom. Other people certainly contributed and helped, but she was the driving force… [During the Riverfront Museum move] she’s the one who said, “Yes, it’s the right thing to do—we should move down there.” And I think she did the right thing.
I remember once my parents got an award from B’nai B’rith… Dad got up and spoke first, and he said, “I want to be very brief. My greatest gift to Peoria was to bring Sally Page.” And then he sat down, and she talked. But that’s how he honestly felt. She was wonderful. You have institutions in Peoria that you would not have had without her—the museum being one of them.
She clearly instilled in you this notion to always give back.
It’s just what I love doing. And I was lucky that I married someone who allowed me to have that opportunity.
Did your husband share this passion?
Skip gave a ton. He worked for Commercial National Bank, which is now PNC, and part of his job—part of who he was—was being able to be part of a community, giving back to a community. After he graduated and got his MBA… we spent a year and a half in Williamsburg, Virginia. I got to finish school, and he finished his Army commitment. Then he went and worked for Proctor and Gamble… Eventually, [he] had an opportunity to come back here and work for Commercial National Bank… and so we came back in 1963. Both of us grew up in Peoria, and this was where we wanted to raise our children.
What did you study in school?
I was a double history and English major. Gets you absolutely nowhere! (laughs)
Do you regret that route?
No. I graduated from college in ‘63, so it was a whole different world. But I’ll tell you—none of my girls were history and English majors! (laughs) But, I think education is still my number-one passion… [especially with] four girls going all the way through public schools here.
How did you become so passionate about education?
In 1975, there was a referendum to increase the education tax in the City of Peoria, and I chaired the volunteer committee. I probably worked eight to 10 hours a day doing that. I absolutely loved the people I met, I loved working on it, and it was something I felt passionately about.
At that point, my youngest was in first grade; we also had a fourth, fifth and seventh grader. At one point, we had three under three [years old], which was a really interesting experience. But that was a piece of cake compared to four teenage women and one phone line! (laughs) And when you have three in high school, and you’re on the School Board… that was an interesting prospect for the girls. There were a few choice words! (laughs)
Tell us about your decision to run for the Peoria Public Schools’ Board…
In ’81, there was an opening on the board… and I ran. There were 11 of us running for two seats. It was citywide at that point, as opposed to districts, as it is now… I was lucky and won. I spent five years there, and then ran again in ‘86 and spent another five years. So I spent 10 years on the School Board and loved it. And I think it probably opened some other doors for me.
What were some of the issues and accomplishments during those 10 years?
I was on the board when we decided to go from K-8 [schools] to K-4 and 5-8… pairing schools like Keller and Lindbergh. We thought the rationale for doing it was right. [The schools] were getting smaller, and the population was decreasing… We’d have one first grade… one second grade, and we didn’t think it was as healthy as having two or three first grades, or two or three second grades, because what you’re trying to do in a school is have an assortment of teachers. Some are brand-new and all excited and have 25 ideas; some have been there a while and know what to do with the unruly child; and some are in between. So we thought we were doing the right thing. I don’t know, in the end, if it was the right choice. Now they’re looking at several different configurations…
The other thing that was a huge deal was the Valeska Hinton [Early Childhood Education Center] on the South Side… Our goal was for every single one of the children who went to that school to go onto the second grade as prepared as any child in the district.
Another thing I did when I was on the board was visit every single school every single year. I was lucky because I had the time to do it, and I felt strongly there was no way I was going to know what was happening in the schools if I didn’t do it. In the grade schools, I visited every classroom, at least to stop in. It was more for the teachers; the kids couldn’t have cared less.
That’s quite a show of dedication. I don’t imagine board members typically do this.
I don’t think so. And probably no one wants them to do it anymore…
So why did you decide to step down?
They changed it into districts. There was only one seat open, and the person I was going to run against was Linda Daley. You do not want to run against Linda Daley. (laughs) She’s one of my really good friends… and she was really good, and I had done 10 years! My kids were out of school, and I had gotten involved in some other things.
What sort of things?
A big one for me at that time was the Hult Education Center, now Hult Center for Healthy Living. I was chair when we opened and for the first several years—longer than anyone should be chair—but it just sort of worked out that way.
Patti Bash was the heart and soul of it all—it was her dream. She chaired the first board and when she went on staff, needless to say, she couldn’t chair the board anymore. It was a difficult concept because there hadn’t been anything like this before. What we were trying to do was provide resources for schools… for health education. And it is still critical today because of all the mental health issues, the bullying and all that. You don’t want to be in a community that has one of the highest STD rates in the country—and that’s all part of sex education.
Before Hult, was health just a unit taught in the classroom?
Yes, and many teachers felt unprepared and uncomfortable teaching health classes—especially sex education. Hult used to be an outing; you’d go to the center, and they had fabulous classrooms… Now they’re taking almost everything back to the schools because of time and money, and because we’re so interested in the core curriculum. And I get it—if a child can’t read or do simple math, they’re not going to make it. But there’s this whole other part of [life]… and Hult was trying to fill this need, in cooperation with District 150.
What kinds of metrics are used to gauge success at Hult?
It’s really difficult to measure. You test at the beginning and again at the end, and you hope to find that they learned something, that they get better scores in the end. [There’s been] a lot of surveying to gauge the cessation of smoking… The one they’re doing now is on teeth, and the consequences for kindergarteners and first graders. They’re going back three and four weeks later to test them again, to see how much they really retained: How often are you brushing your teeth? Are you doing the circular motions? And we’re getting the teachers’ buy-in. District 150 has been fabulous because Dr. Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat knows we need these things.
You were also the first woman on the Proctor Hospital board?
Yes, but my husband was chair of the OSF board at the same time! (laughs) I don’t think Proctor realized what they were getting at that point—how involved Skip was at OSF!
Tell us about your involvement with Mobile Medic, and later, Advanced Medical Transport (AMT).
The emergency paramedic ambulance services provider, known as Mobile Medic in the early years, was a joint venture of Peoria’s three hospitals. Organized in 1978 as a not-for-profit organization, Mobile Medic was driven to provide great care and service regardless of an individual’s ability to pay—a core duty that still drives the service today.
When I was first appointed to the Mobile Medic board in 1988, we were studying how to transform it from the responsibility of Peoria’s hospitals into a high-performance model that would be a tremendous asset to the region. We reviewed the state of our local system and compared our model to nationally recognized concepts in promptness, quality of care and financial sturdiness. At the conclusion of the study, three goals would drive the future of the system and ultimately created today’s “AMT.”
We first decided to hire the right kind of leadership for the vision we had. The hospitals were committed to investing in a very modern system—one that could transform service reliability and clinical quality of care. The board hired Andrew Rand, AMT’s current CEO, who was a young and enthusiastic EMS manager from South Carolina, where he stayed after graduating from Clemson University. From a personal standpoint, it’s one of the best things I’ve done. What Andrew has given this community is unbelievable—not just the ambulance service, but all the other things he’s done.
The second thing we did was move the operations out of the hospitals to a new location across town [in Pioneer Park]. Mobile Medic was modernized as Advanced Medical Transport using a singular strategy of having only paramedic-level ambulances respond to all emergencies. Based on the ability to analyze data by time of day and day of week, AMT was able to add more ambulances… when and where they were needed. The result dramatically improved our services overnight and set the stage for numerous improvements that exist today.
The third and final goal was to make the service financially self-sustaining. Over the next three years, AMT grew 300 percent, eliminating the subsidies provided by the hospitals. I think what our board learned was that we were going to surpass our wildest expectations as a result of good planning, execution and the business model. AMT was able to construct a state-of-the-art facility in 1995 to centralize operations—and even secured the financing for the project.
Today, AMT is nationally known as a model not-for-profit ambulance service provider. The team at AMT is something I am very proud of, too. With 250 full-time caregivers, the service provides outstanding care to more than 45 communities in Illinois. Today, AMT is Illinois’ only nationally accredited EMS provider—a tremendous accomplishment—and answers over 51,000 calls every year. The company has an Iowa affiliate, too. As I look back, we had no idea what AMT would become… [but] I knew in my heart it could become the best with the support of our hospitals and our community.
Your background was not in healthcare. Tell us about learning as you went from board to board.
A part of it is just learning by listening well, and I like boards! I like board meetings. I’d much rather go to a board meeting than sit and write a report. I like other people’s ideas and how you put them together to make things work.
How did you get involved with the Peoria Riverfront Museum?
Skip retired in ’95, and our first grandchild was born in ‘95. We spent a lot of time out in Boston when that child was born, then we started spending five and a half months in California. And I will not sit on a board if I know I’m not going to be there half the year. How can you be a responsible board member? So both of us gave up most of our [responsibilities].
Andrew Rand called me in California and said, “Would you come back and be on the Peoria Riverfront Museum board?” Skip was not sick at the time… My mother was still really involved, and I was excited by the opportunity. So we came back early, and I started. Then when he died in 2010, I really got involved, and came back to Peoria full-time. I was on the executive committee and probably spent a part of every weekday there at that point. It became one of the things I really loved doing.
What about Peoria Promise?
I was honest with Jim [Ardis]. I said if I was younger, I’d run for District 150 School Board again, because I am really passionate—but you don’t run for that at my age. And I don’t want to do the running—campaigns are horrible! (laughs) And he said, “Well, what would you think of going on the board of Peoria Promise?” And I love it.
What do you love about it?
I love the fact that what we’re trying to do is help young people get a start on their college education or vocational education, and get what they’re going to need in order to make a difference… Forty-six percent of the students we helped last year are the first ones in their family to go to college.
So, with all these past and current affiliations, how do you prioritize your time?
Probably [by] people, and where I think I can make a difference. United Way, for instance… has so many fabulous people, and I’m helping just a little, but I enjoy it because I like the people and I believe in what they’re doing. When Andrew asked me to go on the PHMMS board [a division of AMT], I was thrilled to be with the ambulance company again.
I started at PRM as a connection with my mom, which was great… [But] she died a year later. Then I just got really caring about it and their educational [mission]… And at Heartland [Health Services], it’s for the health piece—what they’re trying to do is provide the best health services for a lot of people who wouldn’t have it otherwise.
How did you balance all these positions while raising a family?
I had my kids very early. I had four kids by the time I turned 29, and that’s when I did a lot of Junior League [activities]. The Junior League in those days was a totally different organization—no nighttime meetings, it was all young mothers, and it was my chance to get out and do something.
We’d have Junior League meetings while the kids went to preschool. Our meetings would be at 9:15 and they’d be over by 11:15, because we were all picking up and doing. So that was why, in the ‘60s, I did the Junior League almost exclusively. It was a huge organization with lots of opportunities, and I made the most of them. To answer your question, I balanced because I was lucky and had the opportunity to balance. I was lucky because I wasn’t working… My work was my volunteering. I had some ins because of what my mom had done and because of Skip… It’s much more of a balancing act for young women today.
So why have you stayed in Peoria?
This is where my friends are. At the end of the day, what makes life worth living is family and friends. Most of what I do, I do because of the people… it’s what I like to do! I like to play golf and tennis, but I love going to meetings and serving on boards.
All four of my girls have said, “Mom, are you going to move here?” But I don’t have any friends there… This is home. This is where my friends are. My biggest concern since Skip died is not to be a burden on my children… They have kids… they’re working, and they’re trying to do all these things. Their lives are really busy, and the last thing I want is [them to worry about me]. I like to be busy, and this is where I can be busy.
We brought [our girls] up to be independent. My husband had a favorite expression: “You’re not on that committee.” I wanted to be on all my children’s committees. Not only did I want to be on the committees, I wanted to chair the committees so I could give them ideas! He’d say, “Sally, no. You brought them up, now it’s their chance to do what they want to do.” iBi