Derek O’Brien has been a board member for United Way Saint John, Kings & Charlotte since 2016. In 2018, he became Board Chair and has led the organization to many milestones throughout his term.
2018 saw us build on our strength as a leader in helping businesses create robust and strategic social purpose plans, leading us to receive the President’s Award for Innovation from United Way Canada.
In 2019, we celebrated our 60th year as a United Way serving our local community, allowing us to reflect on just how far we have come and how much we have cared for, and will continue to care for, the people we serve each day. That year also brought a change in leadership at the organization, with Alexya Heelis taking on the role of Executive Director.
In the last two years, we have experienced greater collaboration within the 11 United Ways throughout Atlantic Canada. What started as a call to collective action due to a global pandemic turned into a wonderful collaborative approach to working towards solutions in areas that were more conducive to a regional perspective.
Normally, the term for a board chair at our United Way is two years. However, a pandemic happened to coincide with Derek reaching the end of his term in 2020. As we all know, that transformed everyone’s lives.
We are thankful that Derek agreed to remain as Chair and lead us through those two challenging years as well. We are forever grateful for his commitment to our community.
Read about our next board chair in next month’s newsletter.
Today, as Derek steps into the role of Past Chair with United Way, we sat down to talk to him about his experience serving the communities of Saint John, Kings & Charlotte.
Derek, what brought you to the decision to take on the role of board chair in 2018?
The values of the United Way align with my own and this is a meaningful way for me to serve my community. My work with schools and families throughout the years and my time serving Charlotte County with Vibrant Communities Charlotte County help me learn about, and appreciate, the challenges my neighbours face. It was also important for me to underscore for everyone that we are a regional organization, and not just United Way for Saint John. We are United Way Saint John Kings and Charlotte.
How has your association and time spent with United Way impacted your life?
I continue to be moved by the stories shared by people who have experienced the support of our United Way. Our organization and donors are helping people change their lives and this is not easy work. When I hear these stories, they change my life. These stories make me more empathetic and compassionate. These stories cause me to be more passionate about the work of our United Way and these stories encourage me to be more generous with my time and my gifts.
What has been your greatest achievement while in your role as board chair?
Our board was sad and concerned when our extremely competent executive director, Wendy MacDermott, moved to a new position. Our board demonstrated strong leadership in weathering a transition like this and had great wisdom in making the decision to hire Alexya. While it is difficult to lose a strong leader, we found another strong leader with tremendous skills and competencies.
We have also continued to serve the people of our region through our usual ongoing support with the addition of more resources during the difficult months of the pandemic. Our board continued to be consistently dedicated to our work. We also played a lead role in the collaboration with other Atlantic United Ways despite the distractions of COVID-19.
What was your greatest challenge?
I felt my greatest challenge was providing my colleagues on the board with recognition for their commitment and dedication to the United Way. These volunteers give significantly to help make our organization highly effective and efficient. I hope that I was able to provide them encouragement to continue their work.
Do you have any ‘words of wisdom’ for the next Board Chair?
The work of the United Way is crucial to our communities. It is important that we continue to raise awareness of the work being done and the lives being changed, so that all of those people living in our region are fortunate enough to be able to support the United Way and will find it in their hearts to do it.
Any last thoughts for our community?
I am fortunate that my work with our United Way will continue this next year as past board chair. It will be extremely difficult for me to leave the board when that role ends. Nevertheless, I will continue to be a champion of the United Way and our work serving people in our communities. I would encourage others to get involved and experience the personal rewards of this work.
Thank you so much, Derek, for your leadership of our local United Way!