When Jennifer Best was a young person, growing up in Burlington, Ontario, she was a self-described “bad kid”. She made no bones about it during our conversation on IMPACT, heard Tuesday mornings at 10:30 on KAOS 91.1.
“I was a terrible kid,” she said. “I challenged everything and I ran away from home, a lot. I felt that the greatest punishment I could give my parents was to disappear on them.”
Looking at Jennifer today, Senior Director of Community Programs and Housing Initiatives, YMCA of Northern Alberta, Wood Buffalo Region, you’d be hard pressed to imagine her as a troublemaker. She is a strong voice in the social profit sector, and passionate about people and making a difference. It begs the question of how and when the switch happened.
“It was a car accident,” she shared.
At 18 years of age, she was on the way to a “Goodbye To High School” party with a couple of friends, when the accident happened.
“We were lucky to be alive,” she said. “I remember that day, being at the hospital. I was on the stretcher – they thought that I was paralyzed at the time – and I was so afraid of my dad coming in and seeing me. Again, I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. Instead, when he came in he was so grateful that I was going to be OK.”
When asked to identify what was said that helped her life-changing shift, Jennifer was pretty clear on the answer.
“It wasn’t the words; it was the actions. It’s what I strive to do now.”
Recovery was long and slow – she couldn’t feed herself for several weeks. But it provided much needed bonding time with her parents and a sense of solidity that helped get her ready to leap into her adult life.
“In that vulnerable state, there wasn’t a time I felt vulnerable because I felt safe,” she recalled. “My parents provided that safety net.”
She enrolled in Mohawk College in Child and Youth Counselling and ended up in a role working with young people.
“I was a correctional office in a youth intake centre,” she said.
After youth were arrested, they would be taken to this facility awaiting trial or jail. She spent several years work with marginalized youth who had made bad choices.
“Young criminals are looking for that meaning or that presence in their lives,” she reflected. “It’s often better to be a bad buddy than a nobody. They’re often just trying to get someone’s attention. I could relate to them on those levels. It also taught me that good people do bad things.”
It was an intense and rewarding time in her life, working in corrections. A massive power outage provided some of the most striking memories of that period.
“No power in a jail with 40 intense inmates is an interesting concept,” she said. “We built an amazing trust with inmates who otherwise would have been behind bars. And we couldn’t put them behind bars because the magnetic doors didn’t work.”
They set up barbecues and worked together to get through the extraordinary situation. They had absolutely no incidents.
Jennifer eventually pulled up stakes and moved to Whistler on the west coast. She spent a year as a “ski bum”, loving the resort lifestyle and enjoying a break from the intensity of her previous role. Eventually though, the need to challenge herself became the dominant motivator.
“I was longing for something bigger,” she said.
She moved back to Ontario to do advocacy work with behavioral therapy support for survivors of brain injuries and their family members.
“There is no sugar coating it in advocacy work,” she said. “You really have to say it like it is. In the long run, people appreciate knowing what lies ahead – that there are no surprises.”
How did she end of coming to Fort McMurray?
“I followed a man,” she said, getting a job at Montana’s on the first day in town in 2006. Jobs in a number of social profit organizations followed before making the leap to a high paying human relations job in industry. It became clear that a return to the social profit sector was inevitable.
“I knew in the pit of my stomach that this was not who I was,” she said. “I belonged in the social profit sector and not in a bigger, larger corporation. I couldn’t give what I felt I needed to give and I wasn’t getting what I needed to get.”
She began in her role at the YMCA in June of 2013, hired by Vice President Jim Weller.
“He’s the most positive person I know,” she said. “He believes in connecting with his employees and values everybody who works for him.”
One of Jennifer’s other passions is the Support Through Housing Team Society (STHT), which she helped transition from an ad hoc committee into its own official organization.
“The Support Through Housing Team is my passion,” she said. “It is a group of 13 agencies that work together to help individuals get housing. The concept behind it is that in order for one to be completely successful, they have to want to own the change they have to go through. Our job at STHT is to support people who are ready to make substantial changes in their lives to better themselves. We have a lot of people around the table that want to support people in their change.”
Jennifer is the Past Chair of STHT, and is especially proud of the work that is done when agencies work together to help clients.
“You can’t force somebody to make a change; they have to want it themselves,” she said. “And when they start wanting it themselves, there’s a unique thing that happens there, including the desire to really want to change, both themselves and their environment.”
The clients of STHT work hard to earn their housing through a transitional housing model where they are housed in an apartment with lots of rules and structure.
“We work with them to be good neighbours,” she said, “what it means to be a volunteer, what it means to make the changes they need to make. When they are successful they are rewarded with obtaining their own independent unit.”
The rewards of being a part of a community effort to help others are tangible. In her volunteer efforts with STHT, Jennifer has found great purpose and moments of awe.
“To watch someone go from streets to a transitional model to having their own unit and that long-term sustainability of actual change is amazing…it is breathtaking.”