FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Janice Curtis
July 28, 2015
I first encountered Meal on Wheels, in my Edmonton days, about thirty years ago – a friend got me involved in ‘driving on Christmas day’ when volunteers had the day off. That began a tradition for our family that I looked forward to doing with my kids every year – it opened our eyes to what life is like for those who need the service, and also the mixed emotions of people who are alone on that day when most people are not …
Fast forward – to my recent meeting with Janice Curtis. She’s Executive Director of Calgary Meals on Wheels. Smart. Funny. Fit. Charming. Kind. And she’s earned a great reputation for action in her short time heading up an organization that this year celebrates fifty years serving Calgarians. As I learned quickly in that meeting and tour of an awesome production kitchen (we home-chefs would be blown away by the scope, capacity and spotlessness of the facility) … Meals on Wheels is much more than two meals a day for shut-in seniors. They have five programs serving a much wider audience of need. A staff of forty and 850 volunteers produce and deliver meals (lunch + supper) to 4,000+ individuals daily. And they provide a hot soup program in eleven vulnerable neighbourhood schools, serve Alpha House recovery programs and have a Chop Sticks program. A fresh menu every day without repetition every six weeks. Massive soup cauldrons, chilling, cooking, freezing capacity that would daunt any food services operator – I was amazed at all that spotless stainless steel. They don’t eat off the floor over there … but you could.
“We have good food!”
“We help individuals maintain their independence and dignity.”
My interview notes were taking shape, but mostly Janice wanted to keep telling me about the program … and I kept coming back with questions to find out who she is, what makes her tick:
What brought her to Calgary? It turns out she met husband #2 at a karate tournament in Newfoundland. He wooed her to Calgary and Scotiabank welcomed her warmly back into the fold.
Where is she from, what’s her background? Second youngest of seven children, Janice was born in Toronto but moved with her parents to their home town – Pictou, Nova. Scotia. Her mom worked in food production in a hospital, dad was a plumber and an EMT. After graduating from the Pictou Academy, Janice went on to a career in finance (Bank of Nova Scotia), development (Waterfront Project) and then back to banking when she moved to Calgary where she’s been banker, single mom, fitness club manager, manager at the Bow Valley Club and, for several years now, Executive Director at Calgary Meals on Wheels where she’s led them through a transition of leaving old premises and establishing a magnificent state of the art facility in an organization posed for growth. She counts two marriages, two divorces, two sons as her most formative experiences! …
“Not-for-profits have to be run like a business. When I came on board I was the sixth Executive Director in five years, the old building was falling apart – the board was committed to a new building which didn’t work out .. we had to sell it .. and we developed a new plan, bought a site and created a very workable facility on a smaller footprint and budget – all designed AROUND the kitchen.”
What has contributed most to your success? “I’m very determined – my parents set a great example. I’m stubborn. I’m a survivor.”
What has held you back? “Being happy and content where I am. There is enough to keep me challenged here!”
I asked Janice how she sees her business “low cost food service social services agency”; how’s business looking, going forward over the next quarter?”
… busy. Our biggest challenge is the ‘perception’ that we only serve low income seniors. We are in a period of growth involving our school programs!
And over the next five years?
… a lot of the same – our lunch and supper program. We’ll be serving more. A universal breakfast program for kids in school – we’re looking for opportunities to fill gaps …
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… I’m very intuitive – about integrity. I value transparency in others. I like straight shooters I don’t have to second guess. Hiring is all about personalities. With suppliers it is all about getting the best deal for the organization …
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Janice Curtis, why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… honesty, trustworthy – transparent. Consultative, communicative – standing behind your word.
How would you describe your management style?
… I don’t expect anyone to do anything I don’t or would not do myself. I lead by example and have an open-door policy.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… that Calgary is becoming too crime-ridden. I worry about my boys, their future, that they make good choices in life.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… a high school science teacher, Mr. Hardy, told me I could do anything or be anything I wanted to be. John Lecky, previous owner of the Bow Valley Club – he encouraged me, believed in me.
Work-life balance, do you have it?
What do you do for fun?
… entertaining, times with close friends, giving back to the community. Listening to music – classic rock, blues, jazz. I would love to take a course on spices. I want to learn to play the piano. Love to golf. Love the gym. (she admits to a past that includes a black belt in Karate .. so don’t mess with her!)
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