Leadership in a community living organization such as Semiahmoo House Society (SHS) is somewhat different than traditional corporate leadership. While leaders still need to articulate and communicate the vision and mission of their organization, they do so by listening to the people they support, their staff members, and the community at large.
It makes sense that the people who have disabilities that SHS supports would know the most about their own dreams and aspirations. Our job, therefore, is to listen to what they say and show and support them in achieving a life that is meaningful and also valued by their friends and neighbours. This person-centered approach enables staff and the person supported to work together in a way that is meaningful and involves creating strong relationships within the organization and with the community at large.
As I look out my office window and see our Inclusive Apartment Project rising from the properties that we spent 10 years purchasing and developing, I understand that this is happening because we listened to the people who will eventually live there. Twelve years ago, Executive Director Paul Wheeler gathered together a group of young people who have disabilities and their families and asked them questions about who and where they would like to live. Not surprisingly, they said that they wanted to live in their community, as independently as possible, and, given a choice, they would like to live in their own apartment suite. SHS took this vision as our marching orders and are now less than a year away from completing our apartment building that will feature 20 homes for people who have disabilities and 51 homes for people from the general community. The inclusive nature of the apartment means that SHS will not only create housing for people who use our services but will also address a pressing need in Surrey for quality affordable rental homes for families, seniors, and workers who want to live in South Surrey.
SHS’s greatest strength is its employees who directly support people. These employees have a great impact on the day-to-day lives of the people we support. They are encouraged to think of creative ways to support people. Earlier this year, Susan Forster came to me excited about something she had seen on Youtube. She had seen Saori weaving, a form of weaving that was accessible for people of all abilities. She knew that Saori weaving would be an activity that would benefit the people she supported. With investments from our community partners Westminster Savings and SurreyCares, we were able to purchase four Saori looms and training for staff members. People we support are now gaining new skills and creating beautiful tapestries to share with their friends and families. The innovation and leadership of our staff members is something that we embrace at SHS.
SHS has defined our “owners” as the community and we consult with them on an ongoing basis to create the vision of the organization. This year we invited CEOs and Board Chairs of Surrey organizations that work with immigrants and refugees to meet with our Board and senior staff to listen to their ideas about how people who have disabilities can contribute in their communities. Meetings like these have multiple benefits. We learn about areas where SHS can contribute to a more inclusive community and other organizations learn about the work we do. This year we have also consulted with our neighbours, our major supporters, and local businesses. Our Board understands that their job is to listen to their owners and create a vision for SHS that promotes the inclusion of people who have disabilities in the community.
My job, and the job of SHS’s senior staff, is to listen to the people we support, encourage and celebrate initiatives of our staff members, and consult with the community. If we do these three things, we can lead by simply clearing the path that has been set out for us to follow.
By Doug Tennant, Executive Director, Semiahmoo House Society
Semiahmoo House Society, a non-profit organization located in Surrey/White Rock, exists to provide quality services and supports to people with disabilities and their families in the community. The Semiahmoo Foundation exists to fund, support and enhance the programs and services delivered by Semiahmoo House Society.