After more than 30 years at Burnaby Family Life Institute, executive director Jeanne Fike has announced her retirement. NOW reporter Jennifer Moreau spent time sipping wine on the patio of her Gibsons home, reviewing her life's work, helping children and families at one of the most influential social service organizations in the Lower Mainland.
Sitting on the patio, with a glass of white wine, Jeanne Fike is at a crossroads in her life. Having just announced her retirement, effective spring 2014, Jeanne has a lifetime of work helping children and families behind her. Ahead lies retirement on the Sunshine Coast with her adoring husband, Al, more travelling, and humanitarian work helping orphans in Africa.
For those of you who haven't met Jeanne, she has a very vivacious personality. She helps from the heart and insists on having fun while doing so.
Jeanne's work with Burnaby Family Life started in the 1980s, when she was in her late 20s, with a two-year-old son and another baby on the way. The young mom decided to sign up for a parenting course, but little did she know, it would change the direction of her life for the next 30 years.
The course was run by Burnaby Family Life Institute, a fledgling agency coordinated by Mavis Clark, mother of Premier Christy Clark. Jeanne learned about positive communication, effective listening, anger management, family dynamics and psychologist Alfred Adler's philosophy that children's characters are partly influenced by the order in which they and their siblings were born.
"I loved it!" Jeanne says with her signature enthusiasm. "It changed my life."
Like many moms, Jeanne wanted to be the best parent possible, but there were deeper reasons that compelled her to sign up for the course.
"I grew up in a traditional family, where the father was the breadwinner, very authoritarian. My mother played the traditional role," she says. "I guess I was a feminist. I wanted to break down those traditional roles. I wanted to make the world a better place."
After Jeanne finished the parenting course, Mavis encouraged her to volunteer on the board of directors. The board position then became a part-time job, and when Mavis eventually left in mid-'80s, Jeanne took on the leadership role.
Over her 32 years with the agency, Jeanne has seen Burnaby Family Life grow from a small organization to one with 87 staff, up to 100 consultants and part-time workers and more than 20 volunteers. They help thousands of people, including children, and round up millions in funding annually.
(I've often called Jeanne for a story and heard how she and the team had been up all night, writing funding proposals on deadline.) The agency helps government-sponsored refugees, the homeless, children who have witnessed abuse, sexual assault survivors and battered women. There are also child-care programs, parenting support groups and help for people who are looking for work.
One area of work close to Jeanne's heart is the pregnancy outreach program, which helps the most at-risk moms who are either pregnant or caring for newborns. And by at-risk, she means women dealing with limited English, drug and alcohol addiction, trauma, poverty, isolation, homelessness or violence in the home. Demand for the program is high.
"We're turning them away," Jeanne says. "If there was any program, any one single program I would like to advocate for, it would be the prenatal programs."
Another focus of Jeanne's work has been violence against women.
"For about five years, we made tremendous strides," she says. Jeanne was involved in bringing various agencies - like the police, social workers and transition house staff - together for training on how to deal with the problem.
While the organization has grown, so have the hardships, especially when it comes to supporting battered women.
"Our services have been cut back dramatically," Jeanne says. They used to have 22 groups and programs - individual crisis counselling, a community kitchen, for example - all for battered women.
"We've seen it all. It's like death by a thousand cuts."
The agency has also evolved over the years as the city's demographics have changed. Burnaby is no longer the white, mostly middle-class suburb that Jeanne grew up in. The population has more than tripled, and more than half of local residents speak something other than English as a first language.
One of the highlights of Jeanne's career is co-chairing the Burnaby Intercultural Planning Table, an award-winning consortium of non-profits and government agencies that collaborate on making the city welcoming to newcomers.
"If we are going to make a better world, we have to think of ourselves as global citizens," she says. "The hidden treasure of what all these immigrants and refugees have to offer is untapped. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would set up more opportunities. I've always dreamed of having a fair trade store in Burnaby."
Jeanne believes if people really knew and understood what so many families are facing, the world would change.
"I believe with social media, that's beginning to happen. People around the world are responding as global citizens to what's going on as other countries, and I would like to see that happen in the community, too.
"We have 30 per cent of children living in poverty and vulnerability, and it would be so easy and take few resources to turn that around," she says.
Jeanne also stresses the importance of relationships, both personally and professionally.
"I think it's all about relationships, whether it's parenting, community building, program development, fundraising - it's all about relationships," she says.
Case in point: Jeanne also founded the "Burnaby Babes," an ad hoc group of the city's influential women - like Patrice Pratt, Susan Papadionissiou, Carol Matusicky, Leza Muir and Darlene Gering - women Jeanne describes as remarkable change agents who live their values.
"We get together, and we raise the roof," she says, laughing. (There are pyjama parties and wine involved, I'm told.) Gering told the NOW that Jeanne is great at promoting community collaboration among the social services sector, especially around her work as co-chair with the Burnaby Intercultural Planning Table.
"It's often difficult to do that, because that sector is very competitive," she said.
It's rare to see that level of collaboration in other communities, yet in Burnaby, groups are willing to come together for the good of the whole, due to Jeanne's leadership, Gering explained.
"She has done that, and done it very well, and that is probably one of her great legacies," she said.
Community collaboration is the one thing Jeanne says she would like to be remembered for.
"Government ministries don't talk to each other. Burnaby Family Life has always been an example of building community partnerships," Jeanne says.
With her retirement around the corner, Jeanne is coming out of the spiritual closet, so to speak. She has always been a deeply spiritual person and forgoes conventional religion in favour of a more direct, personal relationship with what she calls the creator, while putting "love into action," and helping others.
"The greatest happiness comes from helping others," she says.
She plans to spend her golden years holding spiritual retreats with her husband Al, and helping personal friends in Uganda
and Namibia, who are caring for children whose parents have died from AIDS. For an extended version of this story with more tributes and information, go to www.burnabynow.com.
© Copyright 2013