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From Soap Operas to Soup Kitchen: How Passion and Faith Have Driven Jan Conklin’s Career

When Jan Conklin enrolled at Marymount College in the late ‘80s, she planned to study fashion and English, but soon realized that theater was her real passion. In 1990, Conklin graduated from Marymount with a B.A. in communications and drama, and went on to spend 13 years on the production team for Guiding Light, one of the longest-running soap operas in TV history.

Today, she’s following a much different path: providing resources to people struggling with poverty and homelessness as chief operating officer for CityRelief. The faith-based organization uses retrofitted school buses to provide hot meals, hygiene kits, and more to people in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done,” said Conklin, who started as a volunteer in 2016. “But this is what I’m meant to do, and I love the work.” She became CityRelief’s chief operating officer a year later, and since 2020, she’s also served as the interim CEO.

Expanding Worldview

The Cooperstown, New York, native “immediately fell in love” with Marymount after taking a tour of the Tarrytown campus on the recommendation of a family friend. “I came to Marymount to study fashion and English,” Conklin said. “But after seeing a few theater productions at the college and taking an amazing drama class with professor Ron Weyand, I realized that I loved everything about that. It had really tapped into my passion.”

Conklin credits Marymount not only with helping her discover her love of drama, but also for providing opportunities that allowed her to explore and grow that love. “I came from a small town and went to a small college, but my worldview was expanding through all of these experiences I had via Marymount,” she said. “One was study abroad; … the other was the internship program.”

During a semester abroad, she studied film and media at Sterling University in Scotland. And during her senior year at Marymount, Conklin interned at Guiding Light in New York City. Those experiences reinforced her passion, and Conklin decided to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London after graduation.

“To this day, I encourage internships within our company, and we take their roles seriously,” Conklin said.

At a Crossroads

While in London, Conklin met her husband, actor Ritchie Coster. When the couple returned to the U.S., they embarked on a cross-country camping tour before settling in New York, where Conklin reconnected with the team at Guiding Light and signed on as a temp. She worked her way up from assistant to executive assistant, then associate producer, production assistant, associate director, and finally producer.

“In 2007, my team and I won the Daytime Emmy Award for Best Show for an episode that I’d produced,” Conklin said.

However, daytime TV was changing: In the ‘90s, there were 11 soap operas on network TV; today, there are only three. In 2009, CBS canceled Guiding Light, and in 2010 Conklin’s career path took a turn when she began working at lifestyle brand Lululemon.

“I managed the Lincoln Center store and co-created their corporate training programming,” she said. “It was an amazing experience, but … I was at a crossroads moment in my life.” After five years with the company, Conklin said she began to ask, “What else is there?” She got her answer after praying for guidance with Bobby Lewis, senior pastor at New Light Baptist Church in East Harlem, where she is a member.

“I prayed for my life to be used,” she said. “Up until then, my choices had been planned out and strategic. I now asked God: If I’m meant to be or do something else, you need to place me there.”

Conklin resigned from Lululemon on a Friday afternoon, and 12 hours later an acquaintance from church suggested that she contact CityRelief. Soon, Conklin was volunteering.

The organization has eight locations in New York City and New Jersey, using its fleet of buses and shuttles “to not only provide a meal, but to build relationships and trust and to meet people at their point of need.” Conklin said that fundraising and partnership development are big parts of her job. Recently, she completed a certificate in executive leadership from the Wharton College of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

She said that CityRelief also offers weekly “service vacations” during which volunteers from all over the country help with the mobile outreach.

“It is fun, meaningful, and aligns with our shared Christian faith,” she said of the work. “As written in the book of Isaiah 58: ‘Is it not to share your food with the hungry, and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter?’”

Interview conducted by Rena Micklewright, MC ’90.


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