The time has come for me to say goodbye to Distress Centre and to all the great folks I’ve had the opportunity to work with over the past 25 years.
To be celebrating my 25 years at Distress Centre still amazes me! The agency has grown in volunteers, staff, programing and funder support over the years. When I first started at Distress Centre we had 15 staff, 100 volunteers and an operating budget of under $1M.
I clearly remember the day, June 1, 1992, when I walked into Distress Centre Calgary (DCC) as a summer student. The Executive Director at that time, Jeanette McEachern, told me in a very firm tone, “Don’t expect me to give you a job after the summer student funding runs out, we just don’t have any other funding.”
After completing my time as a summer student, funding did become available for an Intake Worker for our Crisis Counselling Program. With a heavy sigh, Jeanette said, “… You can stay, so maybe now your co-worker will stop bothering me to find a way to keep you on.”
To say I was elated was an understatement! I had my own office, business cards and paid vacations! I thought I was doing okay for a single mom who went back to school after years of bartending and waitressing.
Little did I know that this was the beginning of a long and fruitful career at DCC. It was also the time for me to focus on my own personal growth as a Social Worker. Distress Centre teaches our staff and volunteers how to help our clients and callers, and all of us take those learning into our communities. Working at Distress Centre has been a gift that I will always be grateful for.
For six years I worked in intake. In that time, Jeanette retired and Barb Litchinsky came on as Executive Director. What I didn’t know at the time was what an impact Barb would have on my life and more importantly, on the agency. Under Barbs leadership, the agency grew leaps and bounds.
In 1999, Distress Centre was provided funding to lead a project to work with other community agencies to better coordinate crisis services in Calgary. To my absolute surprise, Barb asked me to lead the project! At that time, I questioned whether Barb had lost her mind. I didn’t think I could do public speaking, lead meetings and all the other tasks associated with leading a project. But with Barb’s support, the project was a success and laid the foundation of how DCC operates today.
We were also successful in our application to bring 211 to Calgary and area. The agency continued to grow and by 2006 we were serving over 100,000 people. We needed more volunteers and staff to meet the demand.
I developed a real interest in Human Resource Management. After completing a certificate in HR Management at University of Calgary, I assumed the role of HR Director at DCC.
Then it was time for Barb to retire and Carol Oliver became our next Executive Director. Carol expanded my role to include operations. Carol worked hard in the community to increase our reach through additional partnerships. Unfortunately, Carol became ill and didn’t survive her battle with cancer. This was a huge loss to the community and DCC.
For the next few years the agency floundered at the leadership level due to the lack of a permanent Executive Director.
After several attempts to fill the Executive Director role the Board asked me to take on the role. Oh my gosh, now the Board has lost their mind! What was I going to do? After careful consideration, I agreed. I would do my best. That was June 2013. I knew right away that I was only going to be successful if I had a strong Leadership Team alongside me. The strength of our Leadership Team was tested immediately when, in June 2013, Calgary, High River and many more communities were devastated by the largest flood to hit Southern Alberta in recent history. More than 100,000 people were directly impacted.
We partnered with our many delivery partners in BC and Edmonton to make our counselling, crisis lines and 211 services available to help. When we evacuated from our building for 24 hours, we still had no interruption in our crisis services and saw a significant increase in demand over the next few months. As to be expected, the most vulnerable in our communities were hit hard and the effects of the flood I believe, are still felt today.
We continued to build strength at the Leadership level as well as within our Board of Directors. With excellent leadership from the Board we created a Strategic Plan that named our expertise – crisis intervention. This was a major shift for us. Instead of being a generic agency who sees everyone in crisis, we now accepted our role as experts in crisis.
With support from our major funders, FCSS and United Way, we advocated that Distress Centre’s crisis lines and 211 be considered as the optimal agency in the city to deliver contact center services. We were actively going to build on our role in the community as identified in 1999’s Crisis Pilot Project – to be the hub of crisis services! The response to this within the not for profit sector was well received.
In May of 2016 we were again asked, along with our partners at Edmonton’s 211, to be a contact point for those fleeing the wildfires in Fort McMurray.
In the midst of responding to the fires and our ever day busyness, we were faced with the most difficult and heartbreaking news. Michelle Wickerson, our Director of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives, passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. Knowing Michelle and watching her over those last few months, she did all she could to fight for her life –she so wanted to be there for little Norah, her beloved daughter.
Over the years there have been many staff and volunteers who have come through our doors. All have left their mark on Distress Centre and all have sacrificed time away from friends and family to help those in need. I have been asked what has made me stay at DCC for so long. It’s about the people – the dedication of staff and volunteers, making a difference in the lives of those who reach out for help in their darkest moments. I have been so fortunate and privileged to be a part of this great organization for the past 25 years.
I would like to acknowledge a few of the folks who have made a lasting impact in my life. The Leadership Team at Distress Centre have been a big part of my last 4 years at the agency. Cristina, Bing, David, Diane, Roxanne, Jerilyn, Chloe and Robyn – you are the greatest team I could have imagined. Every day you come and do your best to serve. Do we always agree? Of course not! However, we always stay focused on how we can make the agency and our services better. Better for all who come in contact with DCC. We try our best to live our vision of “Everyone is heard.”
There are three others who I’ve been blessed to have special relationships with. All three of these individuals I will always hold close to my heart.
Katie, someone who truly followed her heart to help those who can’t help themselves and who, by her example, helped me revaluate and re-align my personal values related to animals. Katie worked at DCC for several years as HR Manager. She has traveled the world with one mission – to help abused and abandoned animals. Katie is a social worker and is the Executive Director of the SPCA in Medicine Hat.
Michelle. I still grieve the loss of Michelle. There wasn’t a better story teller! The tales she would share would have the lunch room in hysterics. I watched her grow as a social worker and as a woman. And if she disagreed with you she’d let you know – always respectful but always with passion. A few days before she passed she shared with Jerilyn and I that she was leaving this world without regret. To live your life without regret is something most of us could only wish for. I know her family, husband and sweet little Norah miss her dearly but I hope they know how thankful we have been to have had her in our lives. Life can be so unfair sometimes.
Last but definitely not the least, Jerilyn. Jerilyn came to DCC 10 years ago and immediately put her mark on the agency. Having the privilege to supervise Jerilyn for the better part of her time here has been an honor. We have laughed together and cried together but have always been there for one another. Through her hard work and determination, I have watched Jerilyn grow as a social worker. With her practical experience as a member of the leadership team and her education in Social Work Leadership she is ready for the next chapter in her life. There is no one else who I can think of who is better suited and prepared to take over the reins as Distress Centre’s next Executive Director.
So, now is the time for me to say goodbye. I will miss DCC, all the staff and volunteers and all my colleagues from the community who I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the past 25 years.
I’m excited to start the next chapter in my life. My partner and I will be moving to BC and we have a little house where we can grow our garden, I can sketch the mountain scenery, watch the wildlife and spend time with my family. Can’t think of anything better.