I was scheduled to receive my 20 year long service recognition award at an agency function on Saturday, January 12 … but … because I won’t be at the gathering, I had arranged for my colleagues to accept it on my behalf. They agreed to record the moment, so that I too, could listen to my “acceptance speech”. The whole idea made my heart smile. Unbeknownst to me, however, I learned plans had changed, and it was supposed to be presented to me during our monthly staff meeting instead. And so, being one who can typically fly by the seat of my pants, I agreed to accept the award, at the meeting, with about 10 minutes advance notice.
Well … it had been quite an unusual staff meeting – leading to all kinds of unexpected moments. I was still feeling a bit rattled, and so, when it came time for me to offer a few words, I kept it really short and simple. I remember briefly acknowledging my heartfelt appreciation and gratitude to my colleagues – with some slightly gushing but entirely genuine generalities. In retrospect, I regret that I hurried my words … and … I recognize that I didn’t do justice to the fullest expression that actually fills my heart space when I looks back over my time with Barons-Eureka-Warner Family and Community Support Services [FCSS].
Now that I’ve had more time to gather myself and collect my thoughts, I would like to use this “Better Because of You” space to more deeply honor the folks that have framed my remarkable two decades as an employee of FCSS. Because, after all, it is not the walls that define one’s experience in a workplace, but the people within them. Each and every one of them. And, believe it or not, our agency has not seen much staff turnover over the past 20 years. I wish I had more photos right now … so I could picture everyone, but unfortunately, I do not.
I remember my interview, way back in 1993, for one of the six “Parent Programmer” contract positions that were being filled. We would be allotted 20 hours/month to support families in our communities … with the most noble job on the planet … parenting. I was up against one other applicant … a woman who had some shiny credentials and fancy letters behind her name. I had neither of those. And then, during the interview, when they asked something about my own childhood, my ‘got-it-all together‘ demeanor was unbecomingly betrayed by some tender tears trickling down down my cheeks. Argh. There I was, trying to be my best professional self … trying to put my best face forward … and … my cheeks were wet with tears. Who cries in a job interview?? Double argh! I am usually really good at
managing, hiding my emotions.
No one was more surprised than me when I got the call to say I got the job! They did suggest … however … that I might also want to get some counseling to help me work through my own family of origin stuff. Fair enough. And, that framed my beginning with an agency that clearly looked beyond academic credentials. I must humbly concede, however, that I never hastily heeded their sage suggestion that I seek some support. Instead, I eagerly and enthusiastically immersed myself in my brand new responsibilities as a ‘parent programmer’!
I loved, loved, loved my work for a couple of years. But then … as my unhealed wounds from the past caught up with me, I ran into some significant challenges with raising my own three daughters. It got to the point where I no longer felt credible enough to presume I had any business trying to help others with their parenting concerns. And so … I quit my job. And, I recognized that I best seek out that counseling that my employers had so earnestly recommended when they hired me. And so, I did.
The irony of it all was that my childhood dream was to become a counselor . But … there I was, calling a counselor instead of being one. It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. And so … a couple of years of healing later, when an opening emerged in the Parenting Program I initially resisted applying for it. But then, I received an unexpected call from my prior supervisor … asking me if I was going to apply. I was convinced that my own personal
failings experiences in the parenting trenches would prevent other parents from respecting anything I had to offer in that professional role … but she indicated that management was hoping to see my application in the pile.
Encouraged by their faith in me, I submitted my resume and started back with FCSS in September of 1997. And … guess what? It turns out that parents find you even MORE credible when you can relate to their stumbles and struggles. It turns out, you are even more approachable and believable when you have endured some humbling parenting moments yourself. Yes, it turns out that parents who are looking for support don’t feel as comfortable with professionals whose parenting journey sparkles with too much perfection.
And so … was the second beginning of my employment with FCSS … and … the 20 consecutive years that preceded the presentation of my long service award. There have been both blessings to behold and challenges to be championed over my time with FCSS. In the early years, I was so timid and shy that I blushed every time I spoke up in a meeting … which was rare (the speaking – not the blushing!). I am such an introvert and really need time to process things before I speak. And so, by the time I had integrated the conversation and knew what I wanted to say … the discussion had already moved on. So I often said nothing. These days, I am more likely to interrupt and ask if we can circle back to the prior conversation … so I can add my two cents. I think my colleagues are getting used to that … :-).
I can honestly say that I am so much better, both personally and professionally, because of my time with FCSS. It really grew me as a person. I found a deeper sense of faith in myself. I have discovered that my heart can be trusted and my instincts are reliable. I have learned to claim my voice and to stand behind my convictions. I’ve always had a compassionate heart … but as Joan Halifax has so eloquently stated … in order to ultimately serve the greatest good …. we need to approach our experiences with a “soft front” and a “strong back”. Yes. I’ve learned that well.
I don’t talk about it much, but I experienced some of the most critically challenging times in my life while working with FCSS. At the worst point, about 15 years ago, I was being shunned in my multi-disciplinary workplace … by the bulk of my colleagues … who believed some misinformation circulating about me. I opted to take the high road. I thought it best to not get into the muck with the perpetrator (another colleague) by defending myself against such twisted ‘truths’. I hoped my actions would outweigh her words. But … as the gossip increasingly fueled my ostracization, it got to the point where I could barely force myself through the doors to face the hostility I felt in their scathing but silent condemnation.
And , I just kept turning the other cheek … thinking that response was the most noble thing to do. I told myself that she was wounded … and … reminded myself that “hurt people hurt people”. And while I still believe that to be true, I was fooling myself to think it was more spiritually enlightened to simply let it continue to happen. I didn’t realize, at the time, that despite one’s understanding of why people might be behaving badly … it is not kind nor altruistic to continue to allow them to do so.
I needed to find my back bone. I was being bullied and no one was coming to save me. Not even me. No. With my silent stoicism, I was actually enabling someone to hurt me.
When I received a disdainful email from said ‘hurt person’ in another blatant effort to further diminish me … I couldn’t take the seemingly ‘high road’ anymore. I found my back bone. And … as I learned to stand strong in my own integrity, things eventually corrected themselves. And my colleague finally found herself being held accountable for her words, actions and deeds. And then, one day, she was gone.
I vowed to myself, at that time, that I would never let that happen again … to me or anyone else. I vowed that when I saw injustice or harm being perpetrated upon another … I would not step over it. I would speak up and stand up … not with any intention to cause harm to them, but with the intention to help the situation.
And for the better part of my years with FCSS, we were blessed with an Executive Director who was an exceptional visionary. He stretched us to places we never would have gone without his leadership. We became a cutting edge agency … partnering with the highly-esteemed leaders of the Neuroscience department of the University of Lethbridge. Bryan Kolb and Robbin Gibb became part of our FCSS family. Under Greg’s initiative, we were also gleaning new direction by rubbing shoulders with incomparable thinkers like Bruce Perry. Collectively, their bodies of work and expertise informed and underpinned our practices as we sought to support individuals and families in our communities. Greg was also inspired by the renowned Mary Gordon and her foundational work with Roots of Empathy and Parent Link Centres. Mary came to Alberta and helped FCSS introduce these remarkable supports so that children could to get off to the very best start in their lives. Oh my … I can’t begin to list it all … but Greg’s legacy is long and lives on in the hearts and souls of so many who were lucky enough to be touched by his vision.
And, his staff rose to the occasion. He told me once, he hired people based upon their attitudes not their credentials. Some might scoff at that … but … he indicated that you can teach people skills, but you can’t transform their hearts as easily. I agree with him. And … the people he chose to fill positions within FCSS … aka my colleagues … are people of incredible heart and unparalleled zeal and exceptional passion. Together we braved all the unknown territory our Director invited us to venture towards. And we formed an incredibly tight family that was often the expressed envy of other agencies and organizations. Staff morale was high and so was staff retention. We felt valued and acknowledged and appreciated … not simply seen as a means to an end … but rather he regarded his staff as exemplary catalysts creating a better and brighter future for those we sought to serve. And, we didn’t want to let him down. And, we never left a meeting without him sincerely acknowledging our efforts with a “thank you for all that you do”.
Thank you Greg Pratt, for your insight and intention. Thank you for creating a work space that no one wanted to leave. May you rest in peace.
Almost 15 years ago, Greg allowed me to reduce my hours so I could resurrect my dreams and go back to school. He certainly had no obligation to grant my request. I will never forget him compassionately responding, “Karen, I would never want to stand in the way of anyone’s dreams”. People first.
And ultimately, I got the credentials that allowed me to land my dream job. And … as it happened, I was even able to remain employed at FCSS while doing it. I surrendered my duties and responsibilities within the Parenting Program and claimed a space that opened up within the Counselling Program. It has been the most rewarding time of my life. So much so … that … I am in violation of the number of vacation days I am allowed to accrue. True story. I was informed that I need to use up my vacation time in order to be in compliance with policy.
But, even the dreamiest part of my job has not been without challenges … and/or … opportunities to keep a soft heart and exercise a strong back. Once again, about five years ago, FCSS was the backdrop to another of the most challenging times in my life. And, even when I was threatened with a law suit … a potential end my dream career … I was committed to standing strong. I had taken heartfelt exception to what I was seeing and simply could not stand idly by and watch vulnerable people get harmed … however unwittingly by their well-intended but oblivious and cavalier perpetrator. I had to take the risk. Strong back, soft front. Fortunately … the individual opted to retire.
And, I know I could not have made it through those challenging times, were it not for the support and encouragement I received from my management team and my cherished counseling colleagues at FCSS. Yes. Management stood behind my decision and that helped fortify my resolve. I owe tremendous thanks to them for having my back … on that occasion and many others. I also applaud them for gently helping me to shift my gaze, if and when, I needed correction. The blessings of solid, predictable management over the past 20 years cannot be understated.
And, my counseling colleagues at FCSS have become my safe haven. They are among the few people in the world who I invite into the most tender parts of my heart space. And, they have handled the most fragile parts of my soul with such impeccably compassionate understanding. I have grown immeasurably because of the support of these folks.
And, because we work in different departments and different communities at FCSS, I don’t see everyone all the time … but I hold the deepest regard for each of the staff at our agency. And that doesn’t mean we always see eye-to-eye on things. We don’t. And we’ve had some prickly times as a result. But, as I shared with someone recently, “From where I am looking, its not the bumps that ultimately define us, but rather, it’s how we decide to move through them.” And, it cannot be argued that despite any differences we may hold, we share an unfailing commitment to serve the constituents of our communities … to the very best of our capacities. People first.
I must also take this moment to pay due respect to our administrative staff. Your impeccable skills and unfailing expertise provide such a secure foundation upon which the rest of us have come to depend. Your energy, effort, enthusiasm, encouragement and support are second to none. Thank you for holding us together with such dignity and grace … despite our messed up time sheets (among other things!)
And, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the Boards of Directors we have seen over the years. Their dedication to keeping FCSS funded and recognized in our communities has been essential. We have been led by some incredibly inspiring individuals. Thank you for spearheading our services and gifting us with the best supports you could provide.
And, as I write this, I am leaving for the weekend to celebrate my 60th birthday … which is officially in a few weeks. And … as I am honored for my 20 years of commitment within FCSS, it strikes me that I have spent a full ONE THIRD of my life working within this agency. And, I am so proud of who we have been and who we have been invited to become. Strong back … soft front … people first.
At our last staff meeting, we were invited to reflect upon our journeys as employees of FCSS. I, once again, found unexpected tears trickling down my cheeks. I am not prone to such emotional expressions during meetings … but … in that moment, my heart was flooded with all the amazing moments and memories that I have collected over the last couple of decades. And, it is difficult to put into words … just how transformational it can be when people have believed in you and invited you to soar. It is rare to work in a space where people have honored your presence and valued your being. My time at FCSS has been such a gift …
And … so … it is from the most humble place in my heart, I thank all of the bright and beautiful spirits that make FCSS a workplace where priority is given to the souls that we serve … not just the statistics we are required to collect. I honor you all for keeping your eyes on our mandate’s most precious commodity … it’s humanity. I applaud each of you for the tireless hours you invest into the care and support of those who might have minimal resources and/or may be struggling in isolation to find their way. I admire your capacity to keep your own hearts soft … despite many invitations for them to get tough. I respect your courage to stand in the truth or your own beings. I adore your authenticity and sincerity and genuineness of spirit. I love being a part of this impeccable group. I am proud of who we represent and what we are capable of creating when we put our hearts and spirits together in the name of FCSS.
Thank you … truly … deeply … immeasurably … for shaping my days with this agency. I am so much better because of you … and my twenty plus two years with FCSS.
Yes … this is what I wished I would have said at our staff meeting … Karen