Making A Splash

As Lauren Conaboy ’05 proves, one small ripple can change the world

Laura Gehrman Rottier | Profiles | March 16, 2021

Photo courtesy of Centerstone

They say if you throw a pebble into the ocean, the small ripple it creates can become a tidal wave on the other side of the world. For Lauren (McGrath) Conaboy ’05, that adage comes with a twist. Her ripple started not with a pebble, but with baby sea turtles—creating a tsunami of compassion and action on behalf of others that began in childhood and rolls on to this day. 

Lauren grew up in Melbourne Beach, Florida, surrounded by lush, tropical vegetation, with the ocean only a block away. The setting, she says, gave her a “wonderment of playing in wild spaces and appreciation for nature.” Encouraged by her parents as a child to get out in the world and make a difference, she participated in trash cleanups organized by her mom and volunteered to do chores for neighbors. 

One of her most poignant childhood memories of making a difference involves going to the beach with her dad and sister to help sea turtle hatchlings make their way to the ocean. 

“I remember seeing discarded trash and fishing line that had entangled hatchlings,” she says of those early morning trips. “Some we were able to save via cutting out of the fishing line, some we were not. I vividly recall being quite sad about the fact that someone’s carelessness would mean that these endangered animals had even less of a shot of having healthy populations.” 

Young Lauren, posing with Floridian local

That realization had a profound effect on young Lauren. As a result, while in elementary and middle school student, she logged many volunteer hours for conservation groups. She recalls going door to door with a friend collecting donations to benefit, among other organizations, the Sea Turtle Preservation Society. 

When she was in her teens, Lauren’s commitment to the environment was put on pause after her family had moved north to a suburb of Chicago. The experience was a challenge for her. 

“I really struggled during that time, “ she confesses. “Living in a populous, competitive suburb for the first time, I didn’t know how to connect to nature and felt a little emotionally detached.” 

More than that, she learned what it felt like to be an outsider as her she encountered fellow students who bullied her for, among other things, her conservationist ideals. “For a couple years, I stopped engaging at all,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to stick out.” 

Things got back on track when her family moved to Janesville, Wisconsin, where she found it much easier to connect with her surroundings and classmates. “I felt more myself and started getting involved again,” she says. 

She started attending social activism training sessions in Madison, and by senior year, she was invited to teach an environmental justice class every other week at Craig High School. She also took part in an effort to plant trees on school grounds. 

“By the time I graduated my fellow students voted me ‘most likely to change the world,’” Laurens says, “although I’m not sure I’ll ever meet that designation as an individual. It was … the mentoring and support of teachers that gave me the confidence to stand out as a leader again.” 

Lauren, with her mother and sister, at her highschool graduation

From there, Lauren enrolled at UWSP. During her first year, she lived in Knutzen Hall, known on campus as “Eco-Hall.” She was thrilled to be “surrounded by other likeminded students,” she says. 

As a member of the university’s student environmental council, she became acutely aware of a seeming disconnect between Point’s standing as a natural resources education leader and certain environmental practices and policies on campus. 

“At that time, although there already was some focus on energy efficiency, there was not significant emphasis on building design and clean energy sources,” she says, pointing to the coal-powered boilers of the George Stein Building—whose smokestack, she notes, was clearly visible from Knutzen—as an example of that claim. “As student environmental leaders, we wanted to change that.” 

With this in mind, she and other council members created the framework for a sustainability task force that would help shape and drive future planning decisions on campus, ensuring that sustainability was built inherently into the system. The task force helped set the stage for UWSP earning the distinction of being named a Green Campus several years in a row. 

After graduation, Lauren worked with a number of organizations whose mission was to create societal change, including Save Our Cumberland Mountains, the Center for Victims of Torture and the Sierra Club. She also served as a community advocate in rural Appalachia and an HIV/AIDS peer educator in South Africa Noting her incredible accomplishments within 10 years of graduating, the UWSP Alumni Association honored Lauren with its first-ever Trailblazer Award in 2010. 

In her mid-twenties, Lauren went through a period of self-reflection that led to her enrolling at the University of Louisville and obtaining a dual master’s degree in clinical social work and marriage and family therapy. Becoming a therapist “seemed to align what I was craving in terms of more data-driven work, along with something that still advanced impact in society,” she says. 

Meeting with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (third from right) and other mental health advocates to discuss 988 hotline

Not long after she had started working with the Community Mental Health Center (CMHC) in Kentucky, the company approached Lauren about taking on its newly created government affairs director position. She was hesitant at first because she was content with the new path she had chosen. But then she had a change of heart. 

“I saw this position as an opportunity … to connect the dots of my advocacy background with my clinical background,” she says. 

In 2016, CMHC merged with the multistate health system Centerstone. Lauren transitioned to her current role as the system’s vice president of national policy the following year. 

“For me, at the time, it was a big jump and definitely pushed my comfort level,” she says of the promotion. “I had to quickly get used to briefing CEOs and board members, as well as meeting directly with congressional members. For at least the first six months, it certainly brought up some self-doubts and resurfaced a little anxiety, but slowly I began to trust myself, focus on the mission/purpose of the work and find my voice.” 

In her position with Centerstone, Lauren recently has been in the thick of the journey to passing the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2018, which sought the establishment of a three-digit mental health crisis hotline, a la 911 for other emergency services. For nearly two years, she and several colleagues from Centerstone and other mental health organizations had worked exhaustively to shore-up support for the bill, which was signed into law in October of last year. The 988 hotline is expected to be fully operational by next summer. 

“When our nation’s first ever three-digit dialing code is implemented in 2022, we’ll be moving our nation closer to a nation in which struggling with mental illness or addiction is no different than struggling with chronic heart disease or other major illness,” says Lauren. 

Acknowledging the mental-health toll taken by the pandemic, she adds, “In a year where there’s been a lot of tumultuous change, I’m grateful to be doing the work we’re doing now – and grateful for some steadiness. Acknowledging that mental health is going to be a growing need in this country, even post pandemic, there is still much work to be done.” 

Given all that she has accomplished thus far, Lauren seems more than up to the task. Building from the small ripples created by saving sea turtles on a Florida beach, she continues to make waves that are, indeed, changing the world.

Jeanne Nagle contributed to this story.

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