50 Stories Part 10: A force of nature – Jeanette McEachern’s time as Executive Director
In 1979, Board Chair Hilde Houlding proclaimed the departure of Dr. Stew Clark as Executive Director and the hiring of Jeanette McEachern as the “end of a beginning.” Jeanette served as Executive Director for 18 years, and was variously described as passionate, fearless, formidable, and a legend in her own time. Katie Black, Teen Program Coordinator, remarked at her retirement:
“That’s Jeanette, ready to take on anyone or anything that she believes is wrong, but also ready to support her staff. From Jeanette I learned about advocacy, ethics and professional support. She was very skilled at taking care of the things that were her responsibility and also bringing her staff team along on the journey. “
Her son James McEachern has many memories of watching his mother at work, partly because he was the volunteer responsible for moving the organization into the computer age. He remembers (condensed):
“She went back to school at 40. Her thesis was the treatment of women in social work, because it was a male dominated field. She was quite a feminist. All of a sudden, she was getting into arguments with all my dad’s friends. She had no problem taking on a man about any topic in the world and she had no problem taking the other side, even if she didn’t agree with it, just to argue with the guy.
“She came to the DC from several positions. She was at the VRRI (Vecova) and William Roper Hull Home, and worked for the Solicitor General. As much as she dealt with social workers and clients, the majority of her job was running the place, figuring out how to ensure that growth could happen, and make sure there was funding.
“By the time I was a in my early 20s and started helping out, it had gone from a very small group of people hanging out in the basement of the Y to an organization that had structure, a large group of volunteers and provided 24/7 support to the people of Calgary.”
''That’s Jeanette, ready to take on anyone or anything that she believes is wrong, but also ready to support her staff.'' - Katie Black
Krista Moroz, volunteer and Youth Coordinator recalls Jeanette as a strong leader who promoted growth in the agency to address the needs in the community. “She was obviously setting the direction for the Distress Centre/Drug Centre, but she had that strong connection with the board for making strategic decisions.”
Board Chairs and members over the years appreciated Jeanette. Ernie Hagel noted (condensed):
“Sometimes social work and budgets don’t go so well, but Jeanette was very good at both. Jeanette had lots of connections in the oil patch to get donations, and used computers. She didn’t care if you were the chair of the board or a first-year member. If you nodded and said you were going to do something, you better do it, or she’s go looking for you. She was pretty progressive. If the Board was trying to do something and she didn’t like it, she told you.
“I saw her in action at City Hall, I did a couple of those meetings with her, and she was a great presenter. She would get them all feeling sorry for her, in a positive way, pretty quick. If she did a proposal there was no fluff to it. It was this is what we need, and this is why we need it, and how can you say no?”
Or as Paul Bartel, then a counsellor, noted at her retirement: “I remember sitting in council chambers at City Hall watching Jeanette harass the aldermen for wasting her time and the time of other agencies over an insignificant amount of money that was already allocated.”
Suzanne Rosebrugh, Program Director, describes Jeanette’s legacy as the professionalization of the organization (condensed):
“She brought in agency retreats. Other agencies were doing it and she organized and fought and got the money for us. She got an RRSP plan, because there hadn’t been one. We would hire new staff, fresh out of school usually, they would come, we would train them and get them up to speed, and then they would be snapped up by Health usually, and we couldn’t compete. We grew, and I grew. “
When Jeanette asked Gaylene Heidt, a counsellor, why she wanted to take social work she said:
“I want to help people. She said wrong answer, you want to empower people to help themselves, and that is what I learned and took forward with me. It was a big message. In the beginning you want to rescue, but she taught that was not our role. It is to teach people to gain their own power.”
''(When Jeanette asked me why I wanted to take social work I said) I want to help people. She said wrong answer, you want to empower people to help themselves, and that is what I learned and took forward with me. It was a big message.'' - Gaylene Heidt
Jeanette spoke publicly about the agency many times, including an October 1986 interview on The National and an interview with Katie Black in Chatelaine magazine the same year. In May of 1987, she presented at the prestigious American Association of Suicidology regarding the Teen Line, one of her many programming innovations. As noted in the board minutes “visibility this year is not a problem.”
During 1990-91, Jeanette served on the Mayor’s Task Force on Domestic Violence and the United Way Futureways Task Force, which was looking at agency accessibility to vulnerable groups. She was given the Calgary Woman of Distinction award, in the area of Community Services.
Speakers from within the agency, AADAC, FCSS and United Way all honoured Jeanette at a retirement party on June 27, 1996, with music provided by the Earthtones…because one of the singers was a volunteer.
Her concerns with regard to funding were no less strong in 1996 than in 1979. She used the occasion to comment:
“With all the recent changes in the Province, it becomes abundantly clear that the social policies promoted are really economic policies. The significant truth is that there is less money to deliver more service, so the community is expected to provide it. For social service providers, we are being told that we must collaborate (a more expensive way of delivering service), and at the same time compete with each other (tender for contract.) I guess I am saying I no longer have the energy to fight the present chaos…for the good of the Centre, it is time for new blood to carry on our cause.”
Jeanette also spoke about many good years: “Since 1970 our function has filled a gap in services to the Calgary community, and has changed over time to meet contemporary needs. It is my belief that we do it well.” Under her guidance, the Centre changed locations, gained a professional image for accountability, expanded to meet increased demands, and still managed to keep the commitment to providing a caring, flexible, free, volunteer based organization.
Jeanette passed away on February 2, 2020 at the age of 90. We are honoured and grateful that she chose to spend 18 years of her life leading Distress Centre as our Executive Director.