35 stories – Suzanne
Meet Suzanne Jackett, CEO of Between Friends.
Or maybe you recognize her better here?
The year was 1986. Suzanne Jackett got her first job at Between Friends, where she was one of only three employees. At the time, the organization consisted of about 90 members; only children. Fast-forward to 2017 and Between Friends now houses 17 full-time employees and has over 750 participants; children, youth and adults! It’s fair to say that Between Friends has changed. A lot.
Suzanne was studying Kinesiology at Queens University when a practicum in her final year solidified her life’s purpose: her passion. It was in that year, adapting a physical education program for children with disabilities that she fell in love with the work to which she would dedicate her life.
At a young age, she understood the value of each individual, regardless of ability. In elementary school, having witnessed the isolation her best friend faced because of her disability, Suzanne made the conscious choice to stand by her, even if that meant being excluded herself.
After graduating university in 1982, her heart led her to Calgary, and there, is where it flourished. Starting her career at a City of Calgary operated summer camp for children with disabilities; she remembers, unflinchingly, the names of the first two children under her care; Loreen and Taylor.
Suzanne first started working at Between Friends as the Program & Volunteer Coordinator. As she reminisced, four young boys who had cerebral palsy stood out in her mind from that time. She recalls with clarity their characteristics, their personalities, their joie de vivre and how they truly embodied one of Between Friends’ earliest tag lines “Where kids could be kids.”
Suzanne saw the qualities she wished everyone could see in them. Not their wheelchairs, not the barriers they faced, but these kids, perfectly unique individuals who laughed, loved, played and had fun with their friends. She saw the true essence of Between Friends.
Two years later, the profound and tragic loss of her mom inspired a fundamental shift in Suzanne’s life. In that moment of shock and sadness, she was met with a level of compassion she is still grateful for to this day. She can quote the exact words of Janice McLeod, then Executive Director at Between Friends, telling her to go home and take as much time as she needed to be with her family. That compassion solidified Between Friends as family in her eyes. That compassion molded and formed the leader and woman that Suzanne has become.
After nine years working in the brain injury field, Suzanne was successfully selected as the Executive Director of Between Friends in 1998. She never lost her love for the organization, and for her, it felt like coming home.
Now, almost twenty years later, as she reflects on her time at Between Friends, she is immeasurably proud of the organization’s growth and place in the community. Proud of breaking down age barriers and expanding membership to all age groups. Proud, especially, of bringing back integrated programming and focusing on inclusion of both individuals with disabilities and their typically developing peers, something Suzanne believes is integral to fulfilling the vision of Between Friends.
“We’re all people,” she said. “We learn so much from those who are different than us. If we aren’t willing to integrate ourselves with people who are different than us, it limits our own learning and development and if people with disabilities don’t have the opportunity to interact with their typically developing peers, their learning and development is also limited.” We learn from each other, we grow together.
Suzanne has witnessed first-hand the evolution of Between Friends. Her leadership has helped make it what it is today. She has built an entire life, while living and breathing the mission and vision of Between Friends and inspiring numerous people along the way. It is core to who she is, and everything she believes in. That is evident to everyone who knows her. Through the best times, the worst times, through all of the ups and downs in her life, she has exemplified the kindness, the values, the promise of Between Friends, and helped create a better community for us all.