usergroup Behind the Mask: a UKFCU Blog

We all have stories that make us who we are. Our new series, "Behind the Mask", highlights our employees and those moments that make us who we are behind our masks. Connection is a powerful force at the heart of our guiding principle of "people helping people", and we hope you find that sense of connection in the stories we share in this series.

Join us each month as we share a new story from one of our team members, and connect with us as we learn about the special moments that lie behind the mask.

checkmark Episode 9 | February 2022

"Saying Yes to C.O.O." - Michelle Bliffen, Chief Operations Officer

Paths are not always linear.  My journey to Chief Operations Officer has certainly had twists and turns along the way.  If someone had told me when I was growing up that I would someday be the Chief Operations Officer at a $1.25 billion credit union I am sure I would have laughed out loud!  I am a shy introvert by nature, how would that ever happen?   

Upon graduating from college, I had hopes of going into Marketing Research.  Fortunately, that did not work out as planned and I started my professional career as a bank teller in Richmond, Kentucky.  Early on in my career, I made a pivotal decision to say “yes” to everything I was asked to do, even if it was not in my job description.   As I moved through various roles in different industries (banking, retail, horse farms, nursing home administration, car dealerships, and higher education) I continued to say yes to all of the opportunities that came along, and each time, I learned more about every role I had.  

Education and experience are vital to any role in management, and I’m sure mine is similar to many who have worked for 30+ years.  I knew I needed to earn a Bachelor’s degree and was encouraged to earn an MBA.  I joke with people that I want to have every letter of the alphabet after my name.  As I have worked on various certifications, I am getting closer to that goal.  It is something that I encourage others to do as well.  While my education gave me an initial opportunity, what matters more to me are the relationships I have built over the years with mentors who were willing to pour into me, my professional development, and my career. 

The influence of these professors, supervisors, and other leaders along my path has taught me many things I attribute to my journey.  Life and leadership lessons:

It is more important to be kind than to be smart. - Dr. Bernie Kokenge (a literal rocket scientist)
If you want to do something with excellence, there are no shortcuts - Dr. Jack Dyer
The importance of critical thinking and verifying everything.  - Dr. Ward Wright
Being the person who can be counted on to do things right.  - Dick Barbella
The best decision is not always the popular one - Dr. Phyllis Nash
Leading with compassion will take a team further than you ever thought possible - Dr. David Hardison

When I came to the credit union as the Vice President of Human Resources, I was confident in my HR knowledge, but I knew I had a lot to learn about the credit union industry.  A few years ago, our President/CEO, David Kennedy asked me to take on our Call Center and e-Branch.  The Call Center was struggling with high abandonment rates and with providing a consistent experience for the members.  I did not know about Call Centers, but I said “yes” again and jumped in to learn as much as I could.  I partnered with a great Director who had expertise and together we redesigned the Call Center experience for the employees and the members.  If I had said no, I would have missed out on an opportunity to learn more about our business.  I hope you’ll say yes in your journey to see where it leads you.  I often speak about the importance of encouraging employees to continue to develop and grow, even if that means they eventually outgrow the credit union.  That is something I am passionate about.  If someone wants to earn a certification or a degree, it is important to support them in that pursuit.       

So here I am now as the first Chief Operations Officer at the University of Kentucky Federal Credit Union – still saying yes.  I know that I have a responsibility to influence the next generation of leaders.  My bucket has been filled along the way with wonderful mentors who have helped shape and guide me through my career.  My goal is to make sure that employees who come to work at the Credit Union have the support and encouragement they need to do the best they can with the skills and abilities they have.  I hope that someday I am on someone else’s list of people who helped shape their career.

hockey Episode 8 | December 2021

"A Mindset to Succeed" - Ryan Fleming

Growing up, I always dreamed of being a hockey goalie. Everything about hockey goalies seemed to fit me so well. The cool pads, the attention they receive, the pressure of being the hero or the scapegoat, and even the generalized stereotype of goalies "being a bit odd." In my mid-twenties, the opportunity to play goalie arrived. I had to take it.

Adult rec-league hockey teams do not hold practices, so I learned to play on the fly. I was lucky enough to be drafted to a great team that made it to the championship game my first two seasons, losing the first one and winning the second one. This championship became my benchmark for success. I started chasing that trophy every season after that. I continued to improve my technique and physical abilities as a goalie, but mentally, I was going the wrong way.

I was afraid to make mistakes. Every goal I let in was a sign of failure to me. My hobby, the escape from the real world, was becoming a mental and emotional drain on me. The fun was disappearing along with the wins.

Last season after injuring myself in a game, I sat out a full three weeks. While recovering, I spent those three weeks thinking about if I even wanted to go back to the game I love. Ultimately, I decided to finish the season, but not take it too seriously. I did not want to re-injure myself. I focused on bonding with my teammates and playful banter with my opponents. Hockey was starting to feel fun again. Subsequently, the scoreboard reflected that fun and we ended up making it to the semi-finals.

Over the summer, I reflected on the end of the previous season. I was able to focus on having fun and realized that playing goalie has become second nature to me. Mistakes on the ice stopped being a fear. I began to laugh at and learn from them. Also, all goals were not mistakes. Some were just really good plays from the other team.

I decided to come back this current season with my new mindset and have played some of the best hockey of my life. More importantly, I've made new friends and translated this mentality into my everyday life. I am learning to trust my skill sets and not be afraid of making mistakes, but to laugh at and learn from them. This is how I have decided to start measuring my success, not by wins and losses on the scoreboard, but by how much fun I have.

Legendary goalie Bernie Parent once said, “Every time a puck gets past me and I look back into the net, I say ‘Uh-oh’”.

usergroup Episode 7 | November 2021

"Family and Community" - Laura Thompson

From a very early age, I recognized that family and community were paramount to me. At each corner, it was clear that helping others would play a vital part in my life. My family put a strong emphasis on giving back to the community through service to others.

My mother perfected the art of working and volunteering to support our family and care for my father. My father had been a firefighter when an accident sent him home, leaving him with a chronic illness and unable to return to work. My school day afternoons were filled with duties of caring for my disabled father, while my mother worked. However, she always found the time to volunteer at our church, my school, and our local community.

Summer vacations would be spent in Rhode Island visiting my great-grandmother. I watched as she took care of my great grandfather, Poppy who suffered from Multiple Sclerosis. I could see the joy she received from helping others.

When Poppy moved into a nursing home, I would accompany my great-grandmother on her visits to see him. Poppy was never short on visitors thanks to our large family on the east coast, but I noticed that other residents were not as fortunate. Some residents went weeks or several months between visitors. That inspired me to volunteer at the nursing home.

I fondly remember the weekly visits. A volunteer would play songs on the piano and I would sing off-key while carting around my cookies and lemonade. I loved the interactions and the stories the residents would share. Getting to know them and the smiles on their faces were priceless to me.

As a young adult planning a career, I decided that giving back was my purpose and chose social work as a path. While pursuing this, I quickly learned the demanding emotional toll and attachment that this career path held. I needed a change but wasn't sure what the path to making a difference would be.

Enter credit unions into my life. Each day from apartment to campus, I passed a building labeled "Credit Union". Unfamiliar with the term, I did a quick internet search for this credit union. Words on the screen like "help, people, and community" jumped out at me. Soon enough, I showed up to that exact same credit union I had driven by an endless number of times for an interview as a teller. I quickly began to work with members and their financial needs, truly enjoying the relationships created. Later, I transitioned into a role where I assisted members to improve their credit scores and helped them through difficult times. I shared in the joy of their first car, their first home, or the vacation of a lifetime. It brought me so much joy to help. Although my career didn't go where I thought it would in the path of social work, I am happy for the opportunities to serve it has brought me today.

Credit union members have helped define me both personally and professionally. I get to come to work and not just serve but also be surrounded by a team and co-workers who are dedicated to helping others as well. I have been able to fulfill my passion and dreams of making a difference through service. An added bonus- I get to now share my mission and stories with my husband, son, and soon-to-be 99-year-old great-grandmother!

tip Episode 6 | July 2021

"Taking Chances" - Roy Wagner, CFP® CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™

I was raised in Pineville, a small town in Eastern Kentucky. For me, Pineville was safe. It was a familiar place and I was always so comfortable there. I had the freedom to spend time with friends and as long as I was home by dark, everything was okay. Most of the time I felt like I didn’t have a care in the world. As years passed, I lost touch with most of those childhood friends but I always feel a bit of joy when I think back to my childhood in Eastern Kentucky.

The safety and comfort of Pineville that I had grown to love so much made it difficult to leave when I graduated high school and decided to go off to college. Leaving home was scary, exciting, and ultimately worth the risk. College introduced me to new friends. Friends that were different than me and with who I shared some of the best times of my life.

While in college at a music festival, I heard a person speak about taking chances. He spoke of an experience describing a group of elderly people that had been gathered to discuss life. When the topic turned to biggest regrets, many individuals in the group regretted they had not taken enough chances in life. This resonated with me, and to this day I have never forgotten the way I felt hearing those regrets. While not all risks are worth taking, that story motivated me to pursue a “go-for-it” attitude and to continue to challenge myself outside of my comfort zone.

I now have three sons who are all currently under the age of ten. We enjoy lots of outdoor activities and I often get questions from them that are ultimately about risk. It may be something as simple as touching the fish we catch or hiking up a steep hill. They start to worry as they think about facing the challenge in front of them. I try to tell them that it’s okay to take a chance, even to fail. I explain that if they fail at something, it just means they are pushing themselves to the limit. We have to take risks to find that limit. Coming out of the pandemic, I have even more excitement to foster this attitude. Let’s take chances, go for it, and find out where our limits might be.

dumbbell Episode 5 | June 2021

"Gains and Losses" - Amy Deskins, Commercial Credit Analyst

I’ve struggled with my weight for as long as I can remember. In my early twenties I had high blood pressure, cholesterol issues and my sugar levels were borderline diabetic. I was overweight and miserable. A few years back I started working on my diet. Losing weight felt amazing! I started feeling so much better that I joined the YMCA, and over a period of about 3 years I lost 125 pounds. I was so proud of myself for achieving one of my biggest goals. My accomplishments were definitely challenged in 2020.

The thought of going through a worldwide pandemic never crossed my mind before 2020. What a terrifying experience. During that time our local YMCAs were closed to members and instead, offered childcare services to healthcare and frontline workers. We all had to get creative and find a new way of doing practically everything. All while wearing a mask!

I started getting creative at home since I wasn’t able to go to the YMCA. I had worked so hard to get healthy. At first, my workouts consisted of a mixed set of dumbbells and basic cardio moves. Often, I used a weighted jump rope and a bench for step ups. I found some great kickboxing videos online and practiced the new moves in my backyard. I hope I didn’t scare any of my neighbors!

As a previous indoor-only runner, the pandemic set a new challenge and suddenly I began running outdoors. I met all the horses in the park at Masterson Station and even a few groundhogs that would often bask in the sun near the indoor riding arena. I never pet the groundhogs.

I was constantly looking for ways to keep it moving. Eventually, a group of friends and I would gather on a zoom meeting and workout together. They were a great source of motivation, support and encouragement. I needed them as much as they needed me, and now I call them my “pandemic sisters”. They will always have such a special place in my heart.

As I reflect back on 2020 it reminds me of a quote by Vivian Komori:

"Life is not about how fast you run or how high you climb, but how well you bounce."

Last year I was forced out of my comfort zone. I continuously searched for new ideas and ways of keeping my mind and body healthy. It wasn’t always easy, but we all have struggles. Change was good for me and I’m grateful for an experience that I will never forget. Discovering a new way of living taught me so much about myself. I can do anything and so can you! Leave your comfort zone. Bounce. Don’t be afraid. Find your “pandemic sisters”. Have fun, be good to yourself and show kindness to those around you.

heart Episode 3 | April 2021

tyler polley with his dog

"Ruth to the Rescue" - Tyler Polley, Risk Management Analyst

We often think of rescuing an animal as setting a pet free or helping them find their forever home, but, for many of us in isolation during the pandemic, our pets have saved us more than we saved them. During the first months of COVID-19 isolation, all our travel plans and fun events were getting canceled. At the same time, we were all stressing about the well-being of those around us. 

I’m fortunate enough to work from home, but there were months at a time that I never left my house except for the occasional trip to the grocery store. I passed the time by reading, working on projects around the house, and taking long jogs around my neighborhood. With all of this free time, my wife and I decided to rescue a dog to accompany our two cats, and so began our search.

We got in touch with a rescue in Michigan that specializes in saving Doodles from around the nation. After interviewing a half dozen times and waiting for six months to find the right dog, we were finally matched with a “Newfiedoodle” puppy, a mix between a Newfoundland and Poodle. Once we learned of our match, we seriously couldn’t wait to make the nine-hour drive to Michigan to pick up our new family member.

Our new puppy, Ruth, was six weeks old, weighed eleven pounds, and had been sent to the rescue from a breeder after her entire litter was born with a mild birth defect that would require surgery at an early age. She was so sweet, and we knew she would be the perfect companion to go with our two older cats. 
Ruth is now seven months old, fifty-five pounds, and brings so much fun and excitement to our family. We often find her cuddled up with our cats before playfully chasing them around the house and forcing them into much needed exercise, only to have the cats return the favor later in the day. 

The lonelier pandemic days at home have been brightened by her big smile and bursts of energy. Ruth has come to our rescue and has turned what would have otherwise been long boring walks into peaceful adventures of new smells and endless bird watching.

She has turned my search for new books into long games of fetch in the backyard. She has also turned my home projects into finding ways to protect my garden from her digging (still working on that.)  

map Episode 2 | March 2021

"Roadmaps" - Chase Oliver, Director of Human Resources

I believe we draw strength from those who came before us - from the examples they set, lessons they taught and the love they gave.

I don’t remember much about my grandfather. He passed away when I was young, but I know the stories passed down about his love for family.

A veteran of the 2nd World War, he left a small farm in southern Ohio to meet the sandy beaches of Normandy, France on Tuesday, June 6th 1944. D-Day. He was 26 years old.

After surviving Omaha, he pushed through the hedgerows of France and marched on through Europe. His weary campaign finally culminated at the battle of Leipzig, Germany in April of 1945.

He was awarded numerous Presidential citations and a Bronze Star for bravery in combat.

As the war was winding down, his brother got to pay him a visit in Paris. It was now July of 1945, less than a year before he would marry my grandmother. A strong, remarkable woman whom he’d share his life with for the next 40 years.

His brother wrote back home to the farm of his experience visiting with my grandfather.

An excerpt from his letter reads:

“Bob has changed, but not too much. He talks more, but that is just nervousness that will soon pass. His eyes are tired and sad, but thank God they don’t have that stare – like a beast of prey – that I have seen on so many of our troops. We can all feel proud of him, for he has walked in hell, fought in hell, and walked out the other side the same man. That took more than just guts.”

Whenever I have a tough day, I look to that letter as a reminder of what a tough day really looks like.

I am told that he never spoke much of the war. The horrors besieged on that generation were usually not willingly revisited. He simply came home and set out to provide the best he could for his family. For all that he endured, he never stopped moving forward - though he undoubtedly carried the echoes from that shoreline in France for the rest of his life.

Years later, he would provide the opportunity for his children, including my mother, to get something he never could - a college education.

We stand on the shoulders of so many who came before us, and I am eternally grateful for that.

When times are tough, remember there are those who braved them before you - who showed us a roadmap on what it means to sacrifice, persevere, and move forward.

They did it.

So will we.

home Episode 1 | February 2021

"The House that Built Me" - Sarah Baker, Marketing Communication Specialist 

I grew up in the woods.  As in, IN the woods. Gravel roads, a mirage of deciduous trees, and a wildflower lined path to the lake.
Progressive for the 80’s, our home had large panes of glass sweeping across the front separated by beams, reminiscent of railroad ties.  It was our full-time tree house.  

It’s home to incredible geographical landmarks named by my sisters and I.  Really thoughtful and distinguishable names like: The Rock, The Point and The Tree. I guarantee we could lead you right to each of those places today even though they are surely grown over and nature has had its way with them.

It all held a sense of peace.  A peace that allowed freedom and independence. Our minds were free to experience imagination, and we roamed in play all day. 

It was where my mother taught me the importance and joy of growing your own food, where she fried the squirrel and rabbit that the boys brought in from the morning hunt.

It was a place where our Ukrainian neighbor Fedosi would visit, regularly bringing treasures from his farm and offering a warm “Good Morning Folks”.  Sometimes he brought a calf or baby lambs! It was always an adventure with him. My mother loved him dearly, even when 3 puppies were the gift.

It was a place where being an adventurous eater earned you stripes.  “Smurf Spaghetti” was born.  Tuna gravy reigned with utmost respect, while the threat of Dad making his famous Garlic ice cream always wrinkled our noses. 

A place where fishing was a true sport: Friends and family would visit from miles around to join us for summer time “Noodling” aka Hand fishing. Those are the days of legend.

 It was a family affair.  I often held the stringer….because the fear of sticking my hand in one of those catfish holes can only be described as excited torture.  I saw the damage it did to a 6ft 225lb man, and early on I made a decision that I wasn’t going to test my luck.  

It was a house that taught me the best privacy curtains are trees and distance, and the only sound machine we needed was our screen door to hear the spring peepers calling.  One night, even through closed doors, those pond frogs seemed to all be screaming at once and I thought sleep would never come.  Today, I treasure hearing the warning sounds of spring when that first little peep arrives after a long winter.

As I reflect, I hope my children one day see the beautiful freedom that a few trees and a little space can give you.  That loving your “neighbor” means loving them no matter what they gift you with.  Fish are not always caught with a pole.  Creativity is a talent and should be untethered. Who knows, maybe one day they’ll think Smurf Spaghetti is cool.