Termination of 14 year executive director causes strife

non-profit-potential-place-tbOn a stormy, spring day in Calgary, a group of 10 sit in the poorly lit basement of a popular coffee house in Kensington.

The emotionally charged group has come to tell its story.

Three are ex-staff and the others are members of Potential Place, a Calgary mental-health organization that they say has lost sight of its original purpose of giving people living with mental-illness, or members as Potential Place refers to them, the right to move “from patient to personhood.”

Their concern stems from the November 4, 2011 dismissal of the organization’s founding executive director Gord Young and several staff shortly afterward, and what the group perceives as negative changes in how Potential Place is run.

For staff member Stephanie Lovatt who has taken a leave-of-absence from the clubhouse, the sudden dismissal of the leadership team felt like a “power hoist” and the end result of a battle between “two competing ideologies: the clubhouse model and the clinical model.”

However, current Potential Place executive director John Rook says that he does not agree with allegations that the organization has forgone living by clubhouse standards, and Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff, chairperson for the Potential Place board of directors, insists that the standards are being followed “better than they were previously.”

A former member, who the Calgary Journal has agreed not to identify, describes the clubhouse model as such:

“In the clubhouse model we are not patients, we are not clients, we are members of an organization,” she says. “How we view it: we manage our clubhouse, and (staff and member) are colleagues and equals.”

Potential Place Society, as described on its website, is a mental health organization that helps members living with mental illness continue with education, work-placement and obtain long-term housing. They also have a clubhouse where members can go on a volunteer basis to participate in a “work-ordered day”.

Since being founded14 years ago, Potential Place has used the person-led “clubhouse model” which, as described on the Psychosocial Rehabilitation Canada’s website, is a process that helps members increase their capacity to be successful and satisfied in the “living, working, learning and social environments of their choice.”

The rehabilitation model is acknowledged internationally, and follows a strict set of egalitarian and collegial principles known as the “International Centre for Clubhouse Development (ICCD) standards.”

This past November, when Young, who was executive director for 14 years, and the program manager were terminated on the same day, members and staff say they were left feeling confused, and unprepared for what they felt was a sudden and unwarranted decision.


Stephanie Lovatt says that the clubhouse has been torn by the “competing ideologies of the professional model versus the egalitarian clubhouse model.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Lovatt

“No member was aware of what went on. We got back from a day-trip and our executive director and our program manager were not there to greet us,” the former member says. “We were told the executive director retired, and that was a lie.”

Schiff, however, says that “In any organization it is generally not up to the clients, nor up to the junior level staff to decide when senior management has some job performance issues.”

Schiff says that the decision to terminate the executive director came after a year and a half of consideration by the board, details of which she says she cannot elaborate on due to an ongoing lawsuit between the former executive director and Potential Place.

Former executive director Gord Young would not comment due to the current litigation.

Another member of the clubhouse who is currently living in one of two apartment buildings owned by Potential Place, says that the news came as a shock to him, because as he saw it, life at the clubhouse had been going very well as it was.

“At Clubhouse I had a voice, and I started feeling like a person again instead of a patient,” he says, wiping tears from his eyes. “Those relationships were there to help me feel better about myself as a human being, not just a person with mental illness.”

This member and all others present expressed a great concern that since the change in management, Potential Place has “only used the clubhouse standards that they want to use” while overlooking others.

“There are people who wanted to believe that things were going well,” Schiff says. “I can (say) that that the clubhouse was in danger of losing its accreditation and losing its operation, and also losing its funding.”

The group of ex staff and members has caused considerable “stress” for Schiff and her new team at Potential Place.

“It’s been hard because we have had this faction of people out there who have used every means possible to try to discredit the board, and they have cast serious doubt,” she says. “They have raised issues with our funders and they have tried to cast doubt about some of the board members.”

Ex-staff member and registered social worker Brandy Kiessling says that she remains passionate about the cause because working under the clubhouse standards is not so much a job as it is “a movement.”

Kiessling, who was terminated from her position at the clubhouse, says that a group of approximately 25 have begun a member-run grassroots movement that organizes weekly meetings in the coffeehouse basement, as well as keeping in touch using Facebook and making frequents “calls and text messages” to each other. Several ex-staff have chosen to volunteer their time, she says, because of a strong belief in the clubhouse philosophy.

These meetings, however, pose a high level of concern for Schiff, who says that she believes that it is the ex-staff members that are doing most of the organizing.

“I can understand their sense of upset, but not the way they have chosen to deal with it,” she says of former staff. “Not to the extent that they have tried to take vulnerable people who have a mental illness and coerce them.”

“They have created upset and anxiety about changes, which we felt were positive. All of our statistics suggest that we made a move that was far overdue,” she says referring to the current level of participants accessing Potential Place, which according to Rook is “between 40 and 50 participants a day.”

For a former member, however, the sense of loss is still palpable.

“All of these professional people got to make decisions with Potential Place and the management,” she says. But in all of this, not a single member has had the opportunity to voice their disapproval and be listened to.”


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