Springfield, MO

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2012 Most Influential Women Honoree: Dorothy Knowles

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An early leadership decision put Dorothy Knowles on course for a decades-long career working as an advocate for senior citizens.

“Working on a factory floor at age 23 as a single mother, I realized it was up to me to lead my life in a better direction,” Knowles says. “I don’t think you can become any kind of a true leader for others until you are that bold with yourself.”

In 1972, she applied and was hired as a secretary and bookkeeper for Southwest Missouri Office on Aging, which at the time was a newly formed senior service organization.

Since then, Knowles says an appetite for learning and a heart for helping the agency progress have driven her to greater responsibilities. She has served the organization as a director of social service and associate director, and in 1999, she became the organization’s second CEO, and she continues in that role today.

“I find joy in the work every day – listening, advocating for our seniors, with state legislators and funders, finding ways to make funds go further, creating new programs that do the work better, mentoring 150 … employees, finding solutions within the creativity of staff and maintaining agency confidence through major funding upheavals,” Knowles says.

Working with an annual budget of more than $10 million, Knowles and her team manage 38 senior centers and provide meals, transportation, information and care management to senior citizens in 17 counties. Knowles served a key role in passing senior tax levies in 10 of those counties.

“In Greene County, the tax levy provides $2.5 million a year for critical senior services,” she says. “In the other nine counties, the levies provide about $1.9 million yearly.”

Knowles has worked with senior tax boards to identify priorities, and she’s also conducted town hall meetings and served on numerous committees and boards. She describes herself as a relentless advocate at the legislative level to deal with senior-related issues such as strengthening elder abuse laws, and restoring funding for senior wellness.

“One of the greatest honors of my work has been giving people who didn’t have a lot of confidence a chance, often young people applying for their first jobs or people putting their lives back together, giving them work and watching them thrive,” she says. “The good of this investment reaches out beyond imagination.”

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