We recently sat down with Cassie Burns and Carol Pelino—the co-chairs of Opportunity’s Board of Governors. Cassie and Carol are dedicated Opportunity supporters working to grow, engage, and encourage the Governors community. We loved getting to know a little bit more about them, and we hope you love meeting them, too!
Why (and how) did you get involved with Opportunity International? And why have you chosen to stay involved?
Cassie: My parents were both small business owners, and at about the same time they were selling their businesses, they were invited to a brunch hosted by Mark and Kim Thompson. Having been entrepreneurs, they were looking for an organization to get involved with that aligned with their values, and they were introduced to Opportunity International. The mission of Opportunity and the microloan model immediately resonated with them and they were hooked.
Over the next few years, they went on Insight Trips and loved everything they learned. They both became Board members, and my mom eventually went on to become the Chair of the Board. She was the Chair of the Board of Governors at one point, too!
As I began my career, I started looking for organizations that aligned with my own values. I found that empowering women and helping others achieve their potential was very important for me, which is exactly what Opportunity does. And the fact that the loans are recycled, sustainable, and create long-term empowerment—that is the hook for me.
In 2012, my mom and I went to Rwanda together. It was so powerful to experience that together. It was remarkable and incredibly uplifting to see the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. The people we met had the strongest faith I had ever seen.
Our clients have inspired me more than anything I could ever do for them.
Carol: What a great story, Cassie! In some ways, mine is similar—but in other ways, it’s totally different. I am relatively new to the organization; I would call myself “first generation.” But even though I’ve only been involved since 2014, I have as much passion as someone like you who grew up knowing about Opportunity. The power of the story and our clients is the same, whether you’re a long-time friend or recent adoptee.
I had worked for IBM for 25 years and served in a number of sales and management roles. When I stopped working, I began looking for volunteer opportunities and ways that I could give back. I helped launch a community choir for children and served on its Board of Directors for the first 4 years; the choir is now in its 15th year! My two daughters attended a Catholic school, so I took on leadership roles there, serving on the Board of Trustees for 6 years. It was always about the kids.
As my term as a Trustee was coming to an end, I received a phone call from [Opportunity Vice President of Philanthropy] Lillian Covington. I must have donated to Opportunity at some point and appeared on her list, so she called me as I was in my car driving to visit my daughter at Notre Dame.
I’m sure she expected me to hang up graciously, but instead, when she asked if I’d like to get more involved with Opportunity, I said, “Yes! You've been on my radar and I’ve been looking for new ways to get involved!”
It was a total God thing for me—she called just as I was exploring new volunteer and engagement opportunities. We met for coffee and I learned more about Opportunity’s work. That fall, I went to the Summit and was hooked.
I was new to all of it and I was a sponge—hearing the stories, meeting clients, realizing the power of Opportunity’s work. Whether you’ve known about Opportunity for 25 years or are brand new to it, it strikes a chord in your heart.
In 2016, I also went on an Insight Trip to Rwanda and Tanzania, so I share Cassie’s same experiences of bearing witness to reconciliation. I was in awe and felt shameful about our society of division here at home. To be able to see these countries through the lens of our clients and field staff was an experience I will never forget.
That trip—and all of my experiences with Opportunity—reminded me of one key thing. I looked at all these other women and thought, “We are exactly the same.” Sometimes, it takes you going halfway around the world to see that we are ALL children of God and we all want the same thing. We want to give our children the opportunity to be all that they can be.
This, to me, is the pulse of Opportunity. It’s the children. It’s the changed trajectories of children’s lives because their mothers have the dignity of a job, can provide for their children, can be role models for them. Being a mom is one of my favorite roles in life, and it’s so special to get to support other moms who are just like me.
How do you spend your days when you aren’t volunteering for Opportunity International?
Carol: On Thursday afternoons, I volunteer on the hematology/oncology floor at Chicago's Lurie Children’s Hospital with patients and their families. It is one of my favorite places to be.
Besides that, I like to explore! And I never want to stop learning. To me, travel is a great way to learn and see the world. I try to take a trip every year to explore and experience a different culture.
One of my favorite trips—besides my time in Africa with Opportunity—was to Machu Picchu with Backroads Travel. It was a hiking and biking trip, and we were in Peru hiking with llamas. I remember walking through a prairie thanking God for just being there. To get to know people from all over the country, to see Machu Picchu and the ruins….it was just incredible.
I also attend events at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, who offer great programs on international and domestic issues. You'll also find me on the golf course, walking my golden retriever, and spending time with my two daughters—Kathryn, 26, who lives here in Chicago and Megan, 24, who lives in Florida.
Cassie: I work as a financial advisor, providing holistic planning for individual and families. My passion is empowering women and clients who are charitable. As with Opportunity, my purpose is to help others achieve their full potential.
Outside of work, my husband, David and I have three teenagers who are athletes, so we spend a lot of time watching them play hockey and lacrosse. Our oldest son is 18 and headed to college to play lacrosse, our daughter is 17, and our youngest son is 15.
In addition to my role at Opportunity, I’m also on the Board of the Abbott Northwestern Hospital Foundation and involved with our church – St. Martin’s-by-the-Lake.
Both of you seem like lifelong learners. Are you reading anything good right now?
Carol: I’m almost finished with a historical fiction book called Before We Were Yours. It’s a harrowing book about the Tennessee Children’s Home and a woman who capitalized on vulnerable families. We are reading it for book club and it’s a New York Times Bestseller, but it’s not the happiest book!
The other thing I’m currently reading is called The Happiness Hack. It’s by a woman who spent 25 years in Silicon Valley, and she talks about happiness through the lens of digital and social media. She discusses how they are designed to addict us—and it’s so true!
Cassie: I tend to read three books at a time!
One of the best books I’ve read in years is Bigger Than Me by Ward Brehm. I’ve given it to everyone I know and highly recommend it
I am also reading The Road to Character by David Brooks. And I just picked up a book called Mountains Beyond Mountains about Partners in Health founder, Paul Farmer. He traveled around the world to advance healthcare.
Other than that, I like reading fiction to unwind. I just finished Me Before You.
You can read with Cassie, Carol, and the Opportunity team as part of the Opportunity Book Club!
Besides reading, is there anything else you are hoping to learn?
Carol: I want to learn Spanish! A third of the patients at Lurie Children’s are Spanish-speaking. A lot of times, the kids speak English but their parents don’t. I’d love to learn the language so I could communicate with them.
Cassie: I’m trying to learn to unplug more, to let go. I want to be more fully present.
What is your favorite thing about each of your home cities? We love Minneapolis and Chicago—and would love to hear what you recommend to visitors!
Carol: I have three. First, the Art Institute. It is fabulous and I could be in the impressionist gallery every day of the week. Next, even though it’s kind of touristy, the Wendella Architecture Boat Cruise is one of the best ways to see our beautiful city. I do it every year, and I learn something new every time. And finally, Lurie Children’s Hospital does amazing things. It is the home of so many breakthroughs and is filled with great hearts and souls—both our patients and our staff.
Cassie: The Twin Cities is ranked as one of the most philanthropic communities in the country, so there’s no surprise that there is such a deep group of committed Governors here. Minnesotans tend to be down-to-earth, hard-working, generous people. Minneapolis, St. Paul and suburbs are beautiful and culturally rich—we have lakes, parks, theaters, museums, GREAT dining, and great areas to explore just outside of the city. I would recommend that visitors walk around a lake, visit MIA (Minneapolis Institute of Art), the Sculpture Garden or the Guthrie Theater.
What do you value about the Governors community?
Cassie: For me, the being a Governors provides an amazing opportunity to get to know and spend time with like-minded people. We are fortunate to have a lot of Governors gatherings in Minneapolis. Every time I go to one, I have the sense that I am walking into a room where I belong. There is a warmth —I am among people who care about the same things I do. For me, that is the biggest draw; being part of a group of passionate people who share a desire to make the world better for others.
Carol: I totally agree. And I would love to see what Minneapolis has created replicated in other parts of the country. Cassie is right—it is the energy of being with like-minded people that makes the Governors so special. You know you have something in common, even if you are just introducing yourself.
What are you excited about in the year ahead?
Cassie: I’m super excited to work with Carol—and to take a robust group of dedicated people, grow it, and focus it. I think we can really energize the Governors of all ages around the country
Carol: I am excited for the Summit in Minneapolis this fall! I’m glad that people will recognize that Opportunity is so much bigger than our headquarters in Chicago. We get to acknowledge and applaud what has happened with this long history of support in Minneapolis, and I’m excited for my fellow Governors from Chicago to get to be in Minneapolis to witness that.
Speaking of the Summit, what advice do you have for Summit attendees?
Carol: Here is my best advice: 1. Commit and attend. 2. Be mindful while you are there. 3. Enjoy the city that you are in. Take the time to see the city and understand the place. If you are going to be there, get to know the city, too!
Cassie: Great advice, Carol. Mine are: 1. Rest up before you go. 2. Be fully present, engaged, and connected while you are there. 3. Meet 10 people you have never met before.
The greatest opportunity the Summit provides is the chance to go deep with people you’ve never met. Don’t go and plan to be there on your own. Maybe even leave your phone in your room!
Carol: Yes! Great idea, Cassie. I recently took my daughters to a spa where they had “cell phone sleeping bags”! They encouraged us to leave our phone in our rooms—and I think the Summit is the same thing. It’s an annual opportunity and it’s only two days—so make the most of it!
Is your life today different than the way you imagined it would be?
Carol: Mine is! I think it’s really been since I raised my children. My parents, and many of the parents of my peers, didn’t really model how to create purpose and opportunities for lifelong learning—it was all about retiring and playing golf. My favorite role will always be as a mom and friend, but in this new "chapter" of my life, I'm blessed to have organizations like Opportunity where I can invest my time, talent, and treasure...and get so much back!
Cassie: I have been blessed with opportunities I never could have imagined. Being involved with organizations like Opportunity and being inspired by people all over the world, having incredible kids and a career that I am passionate about…it’s better than I could have imagined.
Thank you so much, Cassie and Carol! We loved talking with you and cannot wait to see what exciting plans you have for our Governors community!