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Glass Fish and a Fire Truck

Posted by Sally Gillis

Just off the main lobby at Boyer Children’s Clinic sits the Executive Director’s office. Much like the crow’s nest on a ship, the office provides an excellent view of the bustling clinic.

For twelve years Mike Stewart walked by this office, often popping in to chat with the director, Judi Moore.  Sometimes they would talk about a family Mike met that day, parents filled with anxiety having just discovered their baby had special needs.  Other days they brainstormed for an upcoming event or celebrated the first steps of a two year-old girl whose parents feared would never walk.

One afternoon Mike dropped in to ask Judi a quick question, and as he leaned against the doorframe, a little boy dashed past him and climbed onto a chair to get to the table in Judi’s office.

Standing on his toes the boy reached out to touch a large bowl that was filled with colorful glass fish.

Just then his mother rushed in to scoop him up.  “Sorry about that,” she laughed, a little out of breath, and turned to leave.

“Hang on a second,” Judi called.  “It’s Alicia, right? How are things going?”

Mike watched as Judi chatted with Alicia, her son Trevor dipping his hand into the bowl to touch the glass fish.  He smiled, knowing that this was Judi’s plan all along.

It was no accident that the fish bowl sat in plain view from the lobby.  It was Judi’s way of connecting with families, and the part of her job that truly brought her joy.  In these impromptu sessions she could check in to make sure parents and kids like Alicia and Trevor, who is developmentally delayed, were getting the support they needed.

For Mike, it was almost impossible to imagine a day when Judi wasn’t sitting in her office, doing just this.  Sadly, a few months later, he found out what that day looked like.

Mike was perusing the paint aisle at Lowes Hardware when he got the call.  Judi was in a coma after a freak bicycle accident, with no hope of recovery. Ditching his full cart, Mike rushed to the hospital room, and surrounded by colleagues and friends, he said a painful goodbye to his respected mentor and dear friend.

The next day Mike’s head swam with questions. How would he tell his coworkers about Judi’s death? How should he share the news with the Boyer community?  How would he find time to grieve himself?

There was little time to ponder as Judi, the consummate planner, had appointed Mike as Acting Executive Director in her succession plan.  Judi and Mike had worked in tandem for more than a decade.  He hoped that was enough to guide him.

Focusing on what had to be done, Mike coordinated with Boyer’s social workers to provide additional counseling for the staff and the families the clinic serves.  For over a month and a half, Judi’s office was an open sanctuary filled with cards, drawings, and flowers where people could go and reflect on Judi’s life and commitment to Boyer.

In the midst of this and in the months to follow, the world kept turning.  There were still grants to write, programs to run, events to hold, and the ever present question: Who could fill Judi’s shoes?

While Mike was appointed as Acting Director, it was the board’s decision whether to make that permanent.  He was in effect, auditioning for the role, which added another layer of anxiety and emotional confusion to an already difficult situation.

Lying awake one warm July night, Mike replayed a series of speeches he’d heard earlier that summer.

It was at the celebration of Judi’s life.  Kane Hall was packed with hundreds of people, and speakers like author Sherman Alexie, praised Judi’s national impact, her leadership in the field, and her role as an advocate.

One speaker described Judi as a “bull dog.”  When it came to defending Seattle’s most vulnerable children against budget cuts and unfair policies, she yelled first, and dealt with the ramifications later.

Staring at the ceiling, Mike confidently concluded that no one would ever describe him as a bull dog.  Thoughtful, dependable, quiet…Did people see him as soft?  Would they walk all over him?

Mike turned over, closed his eyes, and willed himself to sleep – unsuccessfully.

What if people thought Boyer was going down the drain without her?  Judi had been the face of Boyer for 30 years.  How was he ever going to measure up to that?

A few days later Mike sat in a bustling cafe, which had become a regular spot for his bi-weekly meetings with Mark Craemer.  Mark is a leadership coach from Social Venture Partners, which provides Boyer with funding and specialized volunteers.

Mark sat across the table mulling over the anxieties Mike had just shared.

“I’m going to say something that might sound a little callus,” Mark began. “But hear me out.  I think…I think we might need to take your memory of Judi down – just a notch.”

Mark followed this with a story.

His wife had passed away a couple years back.  It was painful, and tragic.  And after her death, Mark found himself surrounded by people singing her praises as if she’d had no flaws.

“She was wonderful,” Mark said.  “No question.  But she was also imperfect, as we all are.  It was important for me to remember that as I rebuilt my life.”

After a quiet moment, Mark continued, “You’re not Judi’s clone, Mike.  Be yourself.”

Slowly, with Mark’s encouragement Mike began list his strengths.  Some of these he shared with Judi, and some of them were his alone – new assets he brought to the table.  Like his steady focus, and his ability to stay calm and collected in even the most stressful situations.

Mike and Mark’s sessions continued in this vein and then branched into other areas – preparing for fundraising meetings, talking through staff management issues, and perfecting the vision that Mike would share with the board at his final interview.

Able to be completely open and honest, Mike started to chart his own course, while still honoring Judi’s legacy.

Later that summer, Mike was named Executive Director. He now sits at the helm of Boyer.

On Mike’s table, where Judi’s fish bowl used to be (in plain view of the lobby), sits a bright red fire truck.  It was gift from the Boyer staff, and is now the envy and delight of every child who dashes into Mike’s office.

SVP has hundreds of these stories, because it’s not just about giving away money.  SVP is about people.  And about the relationships that transform individuals, organizations, and communities.

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