Breaking cycles and helping families

One of the advantages of getting to host a weekly radio show like IMPACT is that I get to learn a lot about the leaders, volunteers and front-line life changers in our social profit sector. On February 14th, I spent a half-hour with Jo-Anne Packham, Executive Director of the Wood Buffalo Wellness Society. As an organization, they are probably best known for operating the Mark Amy Treatment Centre, but they also do a number of other vital programs and are intimately involved in the Housing First initiative.

Growing up in the small close-knit Manitoba community of Winnipegosis, Jo-Anne knew early on that she had a role to play in helping people.

“People are put on this earth for different things, different callings,” she said. “I would have to say that mine, at a very basic level, is advocacy.”

IMPACT with Jo-Anne

Even as a young teenager, Jo-Anne jumped into action to advocate for others. She started a petition to ensure that the handicapped adults in the community could make use of the school bus system. As a young adult, she began volunteering for organizations that she believed in. She was on the Aboriginal Youth Council in Winnipeg and eventually became its president. She also became president of Manitoba Aboriginal Youth Council.

At 18 years of age, Jo-Anne jumped on a Greyhound bus with her best friend and went to Banff where they worked for a number of years as chambermaids.

“I come from humble beginnings,” she said.

After returning to Winnipeg, she began her education in the area of child and youth care. She started her first job 22 years ago at a boys’ treatment facility in Selkirk, Manitoba.

“Where does this drive to help others come from?” I asked.

“I think the assertiveness is my mother,” said Jo-Anne. “My kind heart is my father.”

Her passion for working with people battling addictions comes from a very personal place.

“My passion for addiction absolutely is born in the fact that I grew up in a family that was plagued with addiction,” she said. “I was really judgemental about my relatives. But it is through my own life experiences and my education that I’ve really learned to look at things a lot differently. In turn, that is my best education; in what I do and who I am today.”


A number of years ago, Jo-Anne was asked to make a keynote speech at our annual Community Building Awards. In that presentation, she shared a vivid memory from her childhood.

“I spoke about being 7 years old and walking up these steps to the treatment centre and pulling on this big wooden door to go in to see my dad who was in treatment at the time,” she recalled. “That is the basis for everything that I do. I’m so incredibly particular about ensuring that I give our clients our best.”

As Jo-Anne talked, three words kept going through my mind: compassion, acceptance and forgiveness. I asked her to speak about each.


“There are few differences between myself and the clients that I serve. And just a few different people caring about me, just a few different decisions that I made, a few steps differently, I could have been them. I cannot say with absolute certainty that I will never be them in the future.”



“Years ago, when I was going through one of the darkest times in my life, I remember I was working as a night supervisor at Walmart. I was so incredibly poor, but I remember finding a little glass plaque and I had never heard the Serenity Prayer before. I bought that plaque; I think it was $3.50. It stills sits on my bedside table.”


“Forgiveness is a gift that you absolutely give to yourself; it is not about the other person. It’s recognizing that sometimes people do really hurtful things in their own pain. It’s not about you; it’s about what they’re going through. Forgiveness frees you from carrying around that burden.”

The Wood Buffalo Wellness Society and the Mark Amy Treatment Centre is a partner agency of the United Way. I put Jo-Anne on the spot, without any preparation, and asked her to articulate the impact of that support.


“Because of the United Way we are able to change many families. We are able to break cycles of addiction, violence, and homelessness,” she said.

“We are in the business of breaking cycles and we can only do that with the support of the United Way.”


Author: Russell Thomas

​Russell is a marketing and communications professional who has spent 20 years in Wood Buffalo working with the OK Radio Group, Keyano College, Arts Council Wood Buffalo, and now with The United Way of Fort McMurray. A regular blogger, Russell's writing can be seen online ( and in multiple publications. His paintings can be seen in homes and businesses throughout the community. Married to Heather and "Papa" to Dylan and Ben, Russell is a passionate spokesperson for United Way.