Betsy Voss Lease
Giving and Connecting Community
by Julia Pearson
Betsy Voss Lease moved to Brown County in 1996 and began to share her talents as an organizer and volunteer almost immediately upon her arrival. Her first volunteer job in the community was working with the development of a transition plan between services for children birth-to-three and their families, and the school system.
Betsy attended schools in Illinois: Roosevelt Elementary School in South Holland, and graduated from the Thornton Township High School in Harvey. With an undergraduate degree in special education specializing in deaf education, and a masters in speech and language pathology from Illinois State University, Betsy has had a rich career.
As Program Director for special education programs in the 55 school districts of South Cook County, Betsy excelled and garnered much attention in the field. She received many personal, state, and national awards for outstanding work and programs for children with all types of disabilities in birth-to-three, early childhood, and communication development.
The joy of her personal life was raising her children. Her daughter, Kimberly Paarlberg, who is an architect/engineer, lives with her husband, Eric Wespestad, in Carmel, Indiana. Her son, Todd Paarlberg, a pharmacist, and his wife, Leann, reside in Manhattan, Illinois.
Following an intensive career and raising her children, Betsy decided that her retirement would be a time of new adventure. After finding Brown County, she challenged her daughter, Kimberly, to design a new home that her granddaughters would want to visit. For a year, Betsy and Kimberly came down to work with Bill Root on the house. In 1996, Betsy officially moved in with her long term partner, David. The house has been featured in the Indianapolis Star and was on the Log Cabin and Country Home Tour sponsored by the Psi Iota Xi Sorority to benefit Brown County literacy, art, music, and speech and hearing.
David was a strikingly elegant and talented gentleman, despite being a paraplegic as the result of polio. Slats Klug memorialized David in a lead song on his album entitled Lies and Love Songs. This wonderful soul died of post-polio syndrome.
A visitor to Betsy’s home will hear the quiet spirit of the house humming. And it is truly a living spirit. It is easy to understand why Kimberly, the designer, is one of the leading experts on accessibility codes and standards in the world. The house is completely accessible to all. It is decorated with a lifetime of creations and love. Stunning art pieces were created by the hands of family and friends and Betsy herself. Brass rubbings, baskets woven from reed and waxed linen, and a collection of hand-painted porcelain dolls were all completed by Betsy. Works from local artists and artisans throughout the house show her love for the distinctive art of the region. An outstanding cedar piece that was carved by her brother, David Bruce Voss, is a totem pole depicting Betsy’s life and family.
Betsy’s four granddaughters stayed with her in this house during the summers while they were growing up. Ashley, the eldest, is her son’s daughter, and now teaches high school math. Kimberly’s daughter, Crystal, is currently working on her doctorate degree in seismology geophysics at the University of Wisconsin. She is also a competitive ballroom dancer. Courtney, daughter of Todd, is a senior at Illinois State University majoring in special education. The youngest granddaughter, Willow, is a senior at Carmel High School and is a member of the national championship guard team. The girls participated in many Brown County activities, studying art with Dixie Ferrer and Ron Elkins. Elkins said they were his only teen-aged students. They learned to play golf; tack up their own horse; and took lessons in baton twirling, dancing, and trumpet and piano, to name some of their summertime endeavors. Volunteer work was also part of the summer—working in the State Park, Brown County Fair, and fundraising for Christole, Inc. and Brown County Community Foundation. Crystal and Willow also worked on a study to evaluate the accessibility of Nashville’s downtown area. All the girls continue this strong family tradition and volunteer in their schools and communities.
Brown County has filled Betsy’s life with work on multiple boards: Brown County Community Foundation (BCCF); Christole, Inc.; Thrive Alliance; Step Ahead; Purdue Extension; First Steps (Birth to Three) Regional Council; Friends of Brown County State Park; and the Brown County Arts and Cultural Commission.
She led strategic planning for the BCCF, Brown County Chamber of Commerce, Christole, Inc., Brown County Literacy Coalition, and the TC Steele Historic Site. The Brown County Partnership, BCCF Emeritus, and Fabulous Fifty were initiated under her tutelage.
Fabulous Fifty is a circle of women that share a desire to give back to the community, through a goal of collectively raising more than $10,000 annually, and in conjunction with the BCCF, use the jackpot approach to give the funds to a non-profit organization offering service to the community.
Betsy was a major contributor to the original grant for the Access Brown County and the Career Resource Center. She has worked tirelessly for many committees with the emphasis on governance, and has written policies for many organizations.
Brown County has recognized her contributions with many volunteer awards, including the BCCF, Rotary, Purdue Extension, and Peaceful Valley. In 2012 she was the Grand Marshall of the Spring Blossom Parade. It was also that year that she was presented with the Indiana Commission for Women Torchbearer Award, the highest award for women in the state.
Three years ago, Betsy reconnected with Fred Dornheim. They had worked together at Atlantic-Richfield and dated in 1956. They had not communicated with each other since. Betsy indicates this is a miracle and a new adventure.
No doubt, her love and service to Brown County is a legacy that will continue through her granddaughters and others inspired by her commitment.