Amy Brennan: Using a Communication Degree to Realize a Custom-Tailored Career

amy_brennanIn 1982, Amy Brennan arrived at UK from Ft. Thomas, Kentucky, determined to begin her journey toward a physical therapy degree. An excellent swimmer, she became part of UK’s first women’s swim team, worked with trainers and visited the weight room regularly, and was active in UK’s Kappa Alpha Theta sorority.  And while it was true that Brennan loved the idea of being a physical therapist, she realized that juggling the diverse schedule she had made for herself was not conducive to the rigors of the program she thought she wanted. She changed majors four times in total before she found “her place.” “I worried for awhile that I might never find the right place for me. But when I found Communications, I made straight A’s—and I loved going to school every day because it came easy to me. I think that when you finally find your place, then it’s easy…or easier, and if the culture doesn’t fit you, don’t try to make it fit you.” Thus, Brennan’s academic career began with a desire to help people, and led to a life of doing just that, “just not how I originally intended.”

Amy Brennan’s career has also followed a rich and winding road along the way, and she credits her degree with this luxury of flexibility. “I have the utmost respect for people who stay in the same profession for a lot of years—that’s just not who I am. So I selected a field that could grow and change with my interests. I think [for] a lot of areas in communication, you can take some different turns throughout your career and experience different things without having to start all over.” And those turns brought her from corporate communications to graphic design, to owning her own business, and then to non-profit management, which she’s called home for much of her career.

Although she proudly “bleeds blue” through and through, Brennan has lived in South Carolina for over twenty years. She and her husband started their family in Georgetown, a small community on the northern coast of the Palmetto State. They are parents to two now healthy children. However, her son’s early months were precarious. “Our second child had some issues that meant that he couldn’t be in daycare for his first year. Since I had skills in graphic design, we just decided that I would do my business from home.” Still other challenges were around the corner, when Brennan received the frightening diagnosis of her first brain tumor. Rather than becoming crippled by anxiety, these struggles pushed her to be more active in her church and community. She wanted to make a difference. “A group from our church thought that it was a good idea to engage middle school and high school aged young people to help them understand this idea of an ‘ethic of service.’” And so began “Service Over Self” (SOS) in 1996, a grassroots effort which saw immense success during Brennan’s tenure. In seven years the program grew from six youth volunteers to over 600.   And with that came growth in awareness of some particular struggles within the Georgetown community.

One such struggle was the issue of homelessness, to which Brennan answered with Friendship Place, a resource to “help those that are willing and capable move from crisis to self-sufficiency.” The organization is still strong to this day.

Another pressing issue was the high incidence of drowning deaths in Georgetown County, an area in the coastal Carolina wetlands that is surrounded by water. So in 2004, the college swimmer accepted the position of director of the town’s first YMCA. From the beginning, she had to tap into her skills in communication. “Every YMCA is built for its community, and my biggest challenge in Georgetown was educating a community that had never had a YMCA about what it would mean for the community, from an economic standpoint as well as an educational standpoint. For a lot of people, if they knew about a YMCA, they knew about their grandfather’s YMCA, these old cinder block buildings that maybe were an eyesore. The newer facilities are amenities to communities. So I had to draw that picture and help people understand how it could benefit their community. That was a real strategic challenge and we did it.” In addition to the enormous challenge of raising capital and planning all of the details a 21,000 square foot facility, Brennan was able to use her strong relationship with the school district to get children into swimming lessons and out of danger.   “We worked together and established a partnership so that every second grader as part of the school curriculum learned to swim and learned basic water safety skills. That’s the thing I’m most proud of: even after my departure, the program continues. That’s why we built the Y: because people were drowning and people need to learn how to swim.”

Brennan and her husband moved to the Charleston (South Carolina) area in 2012. He continued his work as a high school teacher. She served in senior leadership roles in development for The Citadel Foundation at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina.

But in the summer of 2013, Brennan learned that Charleston’s Center for Women was looking for a new director.   She admired the Center’s mission to empower and educate women, providing training, guidance, networking opportunities and advocacy. Again, she dove in, and from the very beginning, it just felt right. “I said in my interview that I was uniquely qualified, and the stars aligned for me to be at the right place at the right time.” So in September of 2013, she joined the team there as Director. Brennan knew that there were problems for South Carolina women, and she has gladly joined the Center’s efforts at chipping away at those issues. “The Center for Women, just broadly speaking, has three program areas. One of the program areas is Entrepreneurship and Financial Security, which includes the Women’s Business Center, started a few years ago with a grant from the Small Business Association. Leadership and Development make up the second area, and Awareness and Advocacy is the third area.” At the Center for Women, she gets to work a lot of different muscles. One of the first projects after her arrival was a strategic re-branding, to better convey to the public how the Center’s programs all fit together. She also continues to do work in development for the non-profit, and just before this interview saw gifts totaling over $27,000 as part of the one-day annual Lowcountry Day of Giving.   Her public speaking classes continue to be valuable, and Amy makes appearances in front of corporate groups, college students, women entrepreneurs, and the state’s lawmakers as she seeks to guide, inspire, and effect legislative change. Yet it seems that one of her biggest strengths is her ability to relate to those who come seeking help. “I had such a unique combination of experiences that prepared me to take this on.  I can identify with probably just about anything that anyone’s going through, because I’ve probably been through it! I’m a mother. I’m a wife.  I’ve had a very sick infant. I’ve been divorced. I am an athlete. I’ve had very serious illness. I’ve lost my mother. I’ve been pushed out of an organization. I’ve been laid off. I’ve been promoted. I’ve been through all those things. I’ll probably get to go through more.  In this role, and in life, people need to know that you can identify with them and that you truly understand their circumstances.”