Joe and Mechelle Adams work together collaboratively in their roles as nonprofit heads to make a difference in the community.
Joe and Mechelle Lawrence Adams meet every morning for coffee at 6 a.m. to talk about their exciting work with the nonprofits they head–Joe as President of Discovery Cube and Mechelle as Executive Director of Mission San Juan Capistrano.
“We give each other support ideas and feedback,” Mechelle says.
The two have been in each other’s corners since 2008, when they were married in the Mission’s historic Serra Chapel. They met in 2004, when a partnership between Discovery Cube and the Mission was augmented for children’s summer camp programs.
Their relationship grew to talking about marriage, and Joe, who, at 39, had never been married, had a reqeust. He wanted a child, and Mechelle wanted to keep her life in San Juan Capistrano intact.
Both readily agreed, love prevailed, and a partnership was born.
Joe was born in San Diego, where his father Lloyd was a Navy Vietnam vet, who worked as a manual arts therapist for the local Veterans Administration. His mother Mary was a school teacher. When Joe was five years old, the family moved to San Antonio, Texas, where his two brothers and sister were born.
“I had a wonderful childhood,” Joe recalls. “I attended church, played piano from age six, and in high school, I played saxophone in the jazz band and was president of the Math and Engineering Clubs. In other words, I was a geek.”
Two people influenced Joe growing up: his piano teacher, Karl Graff, who taught him the importance of service to the community, and his high school guidance counselor, Mary Lou Fisher, who suggested he attend the University of Notre Dame, something he never would have considered.
After receiving his Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Notre Dame in 1990, Joe held project engineering jobs building and operating power plants with Diamond M Offshore in Houston and, later, at San Antonio City Public Service. Six years later, Joe was hired by the Walt Disney Company to help build California Adventure and became one of three Program Managers for the Resort Development Division.
Because Joe’s boss at Disney knew the chairman of the board at Discovery Science Center (Discovery Cube today), he got a job interview for president. Hired shortly after receiving his MBA from UC Irvine, Joe took the reins of the center in 2003.
“Leading DSC gave me the chance to set a new vision for the fledgling, but promising, entity, and it brought me back to serving the community,” Joe says.
Mechelle was born in Pomona and given the last rights within hours of her birth, since she was only three pounds. When her younger brother Garrett, also a premie, was born four years later, it motivated Mechelle’s mother Daisy to leave an abusive marriage with no money, their “stuff” in her aunt’s van and no place to live.
Her mother kept them afloat with public assistance and waitressing at Denny’s. She later moved the family to Orange County to work as a dispatcher for OCTA.
Their lives changed when Daisy visited the Santa Ana Zoo and met James Funk, her future husband and the kids’ future father.
Funk, a Vietnam vet and county planner, was viewed by Mechelle as her father immediately.
The family settled in Seal Beach, with Mechelle attending Huntington Beach High School, where she was student body president and attended Girls State, a huge honor. Mechelle credits activities director Darrell Stillwagon for steering her to public service.
“He saw something in me and my abilities to connect with others,” she says.
While attending Cal State Fullerton, Mechelle was on the debate team and worked three jobs, but did graduate in 1989, debt-free, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science.
After graduating, she landed internships with the cities of Laguna Niguel and San Juan Capistrano in their city planning departments. Later, Mechelle was a planner and Economic Development Manager for the city of San Juan Capistrano for 12 years.
“I worked on business retention projects, downtown revitalization and fundraising for the city” (Mechelle ultimately secured a $250,000 donation to build a stage downtown at no taxpayer’s expense).
While working on preservation projects for the city, she completed her Master’s degree in Management at University of Redlands. When she heard Mission Director Jerry Miller was retiring, she applied and was appointed its new executive director in 2003.
The two dynamos have taken the nonprofits they represent to new heights. Mission visitors now total nearly 300,000 annually, with 77,000 field trip students and more than 4,500 members. Historic preservation milestones have been reached, and vibrant new programs added to generate care for the 240-year-old landmark.
Among the past decade’s milestones were the Great Stone Church Ruins Stabilization Effort, the Serra Chapel Conservation Project, the South Wing Project, the West Wing Building Upgrade Project, and the Gate House Preservation Project.
The Discovery Cube increased annual revenues from $2 million to more than $22 million; annual attendance from 160,000 to 1 million; children’s in-school programs from 12,000 to 330,000 students, and the Cube now has a bigger regional footprint today with centers in Orange County and Los Angeles. And, there is a new center in Newport Beach called Ocean Quest, where, as Joe puts it, “We are looking to bring our magic and touch to renew the educational impact and charm to the Fun Zone and Balboa Village.”
The White House US Medal of Service was presented to the Discovery Cube in 2013 for its innovative initiatives in healthy living, environmental stewardship, science proficiency, and early learning in schools.
The couple credit their hard-working staff and impressive boards of directors for their entities’ success.
“I think it’s cool my husband is leading a modern science center, and I am stewarding a historic landmark. Together, our endeavors reflect the best of Orange County.”
The collaboration between the two was particularly visible at last year’s Discovery Cube gala, where Mechelle was keynote speaker and gala co-chair with longtime supporter Janet Ray. She also lent the underwriting techniques that she has put in place at the Mission for use at the Cube, and, as a result, an additional $150,000 was raised at the gala. Mechelle returns to do the same at this year’s September gala.
Likewise, because of the Cube’s larger regional footprint, Joe meets people each day who are interested in preservation and history that he is able to connect to the work Mechelle is doing at the Mission.
“We have found many people with passions and interests that overlap with what our two organizations are doing,” Joe says.
In the end, those coffee dates reflect this caring couple’s passion for making a meaningful impact in the community. The time also gives them a chance to talk about what matters to their three children–Dylan, 23, and Lisa, 17, from a former marriage–and Jack, 4. (Joe got his wish!)
While their days are full, they admit their responsibilities allow them to be idealists and live a life together they hope makes a difference.
The daily coffee dates continue…