Selfadvocatenet would like to welcome Ross Chilton, who has been the CEO of Community Living BC (CLBC) since August 2019
Also who was the former CEO of Community Living Society.
Selfadvocatenet would also like to thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for the SelfAdvocateNet website.
Selfadvocatenet would like to alternate our questions between CLBC topics and fun facts, if that is OK?
- Question Can you describe your current role & responsibilities at CLBC?
Answer It’s actually been more than a year that I have been the CEO at CLBC. I just can’t believe how fast the time goes. The role of CEO, the way I describe it, is I am like the conductor at the front of the orchestra and it’s my job to make sure each of the individual members of the orchestra and each of their respective teams, like the percussion, woodwinds or brass section, are performing well as individuals and as a group & then it comes together to be the kind of the music that the people in the audience are waiting for. If you think in terms of CLBC it has various departments and lots of great staff. But we have a reason we exist and the reason we exist is to support individuals and families. My job is to make sure that all of those individual employees and their activities and efforts ends up making a difference for the people we are here for.
2. What is your favorite food?
That’s a super easy question. We have this conversation in my family a lot. If there is one country’s food that we could eat what country would it be? So, we’re in agreement it’s Mexican. I remember its Mexican food we just love it! We often have what we call Taco Tuesday in our home. We try to mix up what we have a bit, we seem to like a variety. We have meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays and Pao Fridays. If I had to choose one it would be Mexican.
3. What is your background & how has it prepared you for this role?
My first degree when I was a young guy was, I got a bachelor in psychology from Simon Fraser University. The first job I had after university was working as a child care worker with youth in the community including youth that had developmental disabilities. I didn’t know then that this is where I would end up but that is the first work that I did. Because my background then was as a trained counsellor, I worked as a counsellor for many years before going on to working at Community Living Society as you know. CLS gave me 12 or almost 13 great years. I think it really helped me understand what people were looking for, what their families were looking for from providers. Understanding how they can do their best to meet the needs of individuals. I think that combination of experience has really helped when it came to this opportunity working at CLBC.
4. What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?
This is going way back so again when I was young and I was fit I used to be able to eat donuts like no tomorrow without gaining weight. I went to a local bakery that had a sale on apple fritters and I love apple fritters so I bought one and got the second one for free. I went home and ate them both. About 2 hours later I came down with stomach flu and spent two days which I won’t describe being violently ill. I have got to tell you it took probably 25 years before I could eat another apple fritter. I just associated my buy one get one free apple fritter with being sick and it was really hard to overcome. I can now confidently say I have overcome that and can go back to eating apple fritters. That was probably the worst one. It was incredible going from the joy of these fabulous apple fritters to being sick.
5. What are you doing to stay mentally & physically well during COVID?
Well, it’s a great question and of course something that is important for all of us right now. I will confess to you and all who read this that initially I found myself eating a lot of comfort foods and the down side is I started to gain some weight which isn’t uncommon. What I realized at a certain point was physically that wasn’t a good idea. I needed to get back on track, so with the support of my family, especially my wife and daughter, I got back into a healthy diet. So that helped me lose the weight that I had gained in the early months of COVID. Also, trying to increase my physical exercise, even if I can’t go for a long time, I go for walks and get lots of fresh air. I know that is something important to you. I see your videos of you out there exercising at the track. Trying to make sure I am eating well and exercising is really important. In terms of mental health, I would say I look around, I see it has affected everybody including my family as well. One of the things we love to do as a family is go away on little trips like going to Seattle, or for example, we typically would go to Portland as a family just before going back to school. My wife is a principal and my daughter is in university and we couldn’t do that this year. It’s quite disappointing to lose some of those normal rituals that we really enjoy in life. What we are trying to do is to stay in touch with things that are local in the metro Vancouver area that perhaps we don’t experience enough. For instance, I recently took a day off (a vacation day) and my daughter and I went for a hike in the canyon by Capilano dam. I haven’t been there for over 20 years. Just the beautiful forest and being outdoors and going for a coffee afterwards was great. So, trying to stay healthy by eating properly, exercising and doing things that give us joy and trying not to focus too much on the things we can’t do.
6. What was your most embarrassing moment in school?
I am glad you asked for one and not many. I remember this like it was yesterday. Being in Grade 12 Biology I spent the entire spring break working on a project that was due. I didn’t goof off and have fun. I went to the library and worked on this project. I sort of expected I would get a good grade and I didn’t. I got quite an average or low grade. I remember walking up to the front of the class where Miss Pettigrew was and I said to her, “Miss Pettigrew I am quite disappointed in my B grade. I spent all spring break and worked really hard on this project and all I got was a B.” She just paused and she said, “Ross I don’t grade effort I grade results.” I don’t know if other people heard that but I just remember the conversation was over. I took my paper, turned around and went back to my desk. Now that was embarrassing and to be honest quite painful. When I look back on it now it actually was quite a good lesson in life because sometimes, we can try but not actually deliver. I think it’s important to realize life isn’t just about trying hard at the end of the day, rather on how you get evaluated on how you do. I think that is true of the role I am in right now. It’s one thing to me that I really try and make every effort but at the end of the day I should be judged by how I do deliver or don’t deliver. Miss Pettigrew gave me a very valuable though embarrassing lesson in grade 12 Biology. I’ll never forget it; I can still visualize it now that you brought it up. Bryce: It probably helped? It did help. It’s interesting, she didn’t say it in a mean way but standing in front of that class and having to walk my 3 desks back to where I sat in the class was embarrassing. That’s Miss Pettigrew & grade 12 Biology.
7. I understand you are a parent of a young man with disabilities. How has that experience helped you in your role as CEO of CLBC?
Yeah, as you probably know he is more famous than I am. I haven’t announced the opening lineup for the Canucks at the Canuck’s game or been mentioned on hockey night in Canada but he has, it’s quite something. What I would say is I think both of my children (I also have a 21-year-old daughter as well) have taught me a lot and it’s really been quite humbling as a person in terms of how hard it is to be a parent. When I was a family counsellor before I had children, it was very easy for me to give advice to parents about what they should or shouldn’t do. Once I had children and I got to see how really challenging that is, it kind of opened my eyes. With Ryan having a disability and being part of our family, life was different and I have to say most of the time things are a bit more difficult. There are things because of the nature of that disability that make life more difficult. I have found it’s taught me an appreciation for diversity. I know often the term diversabilities is used instead of disability. What certainly resonates for me about that is my son has abilities that I just don’t have. He has skills and talents that are unique to him and even if I practiced a lot I could never get to that ability. What I have become more appreciative of is that life is richer because people are different. It’s not about all being the same or trying to be the same but realizing that disability or diversability is something we should embrace and appreciate. It has helped me understand the stress of parents. I see when families are trying to deal with things and the vast majority of families are involved throughout their son’s or daughter’s lives. They talk about how they worry about what life would be like when they are gone. I think being and living that role myself makes it not just something that I understand theoretically, I understand it quite personally. I hope that it makes me better at what I do at CLBC.
8. Do you find it difficult being in such a challenging role as CEO and being a parent?
There is a bit of conflict but it adds more than it takes away. To be clear, I probably have the longest conflict of interest declaration in CLBC history. What I would say is it’s important that I understand my lived experience is not THE lived experience. We are involved with over 23,000 individuals and their families and they are not all the same. There are some things I will be able to directly relate to and some things that are quite different. For instance, my son doesn’t have complex health care needs. So, I fully appreciate how much more worry and issues that brings forward for somebody who does have a family member with complex needs. It helps me understand some of that reality but I also need to remember there is diversity of experience between families. They are different. I have some things that I am quite fortunate for; my son has an amazing character, the support I get from my wife and daughter. But my experience is not everybody’s experience and I try to balance that out.
9. Do you have any hobbies?
One of the hobbies I have is to work around the house because our house was built in 1913. When your house is built in 1913 it’s a NEEDS house and you need to be able to fix things. I do my best on the weekend to try and fix those things. I also try to enjoy gardening. I say “try to enjoy” because if I am rushed, I don’t enjoy gardening. We have a reasonable yard, it’s not big but I find if I don’t feel rushed and allow myself to spend the time and enjoy doing the gardening it does provide a lot of calm and it is quite fun to do. My wife is trying to get me to develop more of a habit of travelling because she loves travelling and I like travelling but I am happy just being home. That is a hobby that needs further development in our future retirement years. She thinks I would benefit from developing that. Tried golf never was any good at it, could develop one day. What’s the famous saying, “Golf is a great way of ruining a perfectly good walk.” I think that is true.
10. What difference do you hope to make within CLBC?
It’s interesting that CLBC was formed by key stakeholders, largely families and self-advocates who wanted the organization to be different, to be more flexible and more responsive in terms of how they respond to the needs of people. One of the things I hope to be true is that we’ve become as flexible and responsive as we can be. The challenge is we now have over a billion-dollar budget for this upcoming year, so it is a big organization and we are involved with twice as many people as we were when we were formed in 2005. What I wouldn’t want the individual experience of advocates and families to feel like is that they are dealing with a large organization. Most people don’t appreciate that, they feel like they want to deal with and interact with a smaller organization that understands their unique needs and circumstances. That is one thing that is important to me. Another thing I know is important to me as well as you is employment.
I want to see a sustained effort during my time and after my time at CLBC on achieving higher levels of employment for people with disabilities. Because employment offers so many things, not just income, but purpose connection and meaning, now we have a little bit of a set back because of COVID because a number of people have temporarily or even permanently lost their jobs but employment is super important to me. The other one is our approach in supporting indigenous peoples. We certainly have committed to try do better. When I met with our indigenous advisory committee earlier this year, I got direct feedback from them that they did not feel we were doing as good of a job as we could do. We’re doing a better job in the sense that we now have a relationship where we can find supports on reserve but we need to do better in both areas. We are going to be hiring a new executive director of indigenous relations in the next few months to lead that work, which is important to me. I think also in terms of planning for the future like HOMES, I talked to self-advocates that having a home was important. I can see your home it is very personalized. This isn’t anyone else’s home but Bryce’s home. You can tell by how you have decorated it with those crazy Calgary Flames decorations – which is actually my favourite uniform in the league – but I am not going to tell you that. Homes are very, very important, that is one of the things I am hearing. I guess lastly is health. Again, when I talk to self-advocates they want to be physically and mentally healthy and there is some evidence that we are not doing such a great job, especially on the physically healthy side. What I would like is, if you could look at people without a disability and with a disability and see largely the same health outcomes. That they are getting the same access to quality health care, same diagnosis and same treatment. That would be another priority of mine. Quite a few things we are working on largely through the Reimagining Community Inclusion process.
11. What’s your fast-food horror story?
I guess I can’t use the story of the apple fritters? On the same theme, one time, I won’t name the outlet, my wife and I were out and about and went into a fast-food place and got fried chicken sandwiches. We kind of bit into them and they were under cooked. Nowadays I would walk back in and ask for a refund. Anyway, we bit into them, noticed they were undercooked, swallowed the bite and discarded the rest and went on our way. About 3 or 4 hours later we both got food poisoning. Not good at all… both of us! I don’t want you to think that I always get food poisoning but that would be my horror story of undercooked fried chicken sandwiches.
12. What is your plan for improving employment and entrepreneurial opportunities during this pandemic?
That brings us back to one of the priorities you have identified and certainly Reimagining Community Inclusion has. Employment has really taken a hit; we’re not sure exactly how many self-advocates have lost their jobs. It’s substantial, which is quite disappointing. In the last 3 or 4 years, it’s gone from about 2600 people who were reporting employment income as part of their income assistance to over 5000. We were feeling quite good that we were getting in the neighborhood of 20- 25% of those we are involved with. I suspect if we got that number today it would be quite a disappointing one. We need to be able to apply some additional energy to helping people either get back the job they had, get a new job, which could require just applying or could require developing some different skills. Also, to keep people that perhaps have been able to keep their job but need some technology skills to be able to do so. Just like, I need to be able to work from home in order to do my job effectively. Sometimes we all need that kind of help. The challenge is every year we have over 1000 new people come to us and we want them to have the same opportunities when seeking jobs. We are in conversations with our Minister and the Ministry about that issue. As you know our Minister is part of Poverty Reduction. He is very committed to employment because for many people employment is a poverty reduction strategy. Hopefully, they will be launching some new things as we get into fall. I can certainly tell you it is front and center in our thinking.
13. What is the funniest movie you have ever watched?
Funniest movie I have ever watched? Most embarrassing, the funniest, the worst experience…you’re really challenging me! This is an insider family secret that I will share with you. Every year I torture my family members around Christmas time by watching two movies that we have watched many, many times. One is Elf and the other is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. My poor family has to sit down and watch these movies every year because for whatever reason, even though I can almost recite the lines, I find them hilarious. This year we will be doing that again and my family will sit there and roll their eyes while we will watch Elf one night and Christmas Vacation another. I am not saying they are good movies; they are just funny.
14. HomeShare provider’s and families who receive Individualized Funding who now have their son/daughter/supported individual at home during the day because their day program has been shut down due to COVID 19 can receive funding. Do you think there is a risk in the future that they will want to continue receiving funding and stay home instead of returning to a program?
I don’t see it as a risk. I think it is something that could potentially happen. Going into the pandemic, how could we really prepare. We realized we needed to be flexible with families who had individualized funding and with provider’s in terms of how they changed the way they were supporting people so they could keep them safe and keep staff safe and still keep those supports available in a meaningful way. As you are aware some of them have started to return to a more typical pattern but certainly not back to the larger numbers that we saw with day programs. I think a couple of things could happen. P people have had a chance to try something different and when you try something different and you have to do it that forces you to get over any anxiety or nervousness you might have had. As result, people may say I prefer more of this than what I had before or maybe a little bit of what I had before and a little bit of what I had during the pandemic. It is going to require providers and ourselves to listen to those requests & say how can it be organized around what works for the person rather than just what we happened to be doing before the pandemic. We are talking with different groups, including providers, because they are getting feedback from individuals and families. Some things they like and other things they don’t. We will have to be open to what the future looks like. We have to be cautious around where there is a risk, like virtual support. Virtual support may meet some people’s needs but does not replace in person supports. An example is someone who is living with their family and used to go out and spend time in community with a support worker and now they are just getting a call or using zoom or one of the other platforms each day. Does that replace what they had before and if it did or does it replace it for the family? Sometimes the support the individual was getting also represented a break for the family because they could go out and do grocery shopping or get some stuff done. I think we are going to have to be flexible but realize that some of what was before was also good but it may be more of a combination. The thing that is going to be challenging is to think about just how much congregation we have because of the pandemic. Viruses take advantage of congregation because that is how it gets transmitted. We have to think about the level of congregation we fund and support and is it risky? Especially in a world where we now know it didn’t only happen in 1918 but also in 2019 and 2020. I can’t say it is a risk but I look forward to the conversation.
15.What is the one thing you refuse to share?
Other than my credit card or my toothbrush? I am a pretty open guy but I wouldn’t share a toothbrush. I won’t be sharing my credit card either … just to confirm that.I understand sometimes there is information in my role that is private and confidential and can’t be shared. One of the things I say to myself and my team is let’s be as open and transparent as we can be. Sometimes I think we kind of overshoot that and hold information and some we really can’t afford to share. When I had been travelling around the province before the pandemic broke out, information about the growth in the number of people CLBC is involved with and are supported by agencies is not well known. This is interesting because it is publicly available information that people don’t necessarily know or look at. Sharing more open information and some of the opportunities and challenges that that presents is important. So, whenever I can in this role, I don’t want to share my credit card or toothbrush, but I’m happy to share as much information as I can. I am happy to share my cat who is walking up on my desk to say hi. I’m happy to be as open and transparent as I can.
16.What positive impact do you think COVID 19 will have on the future of service delivery?
What’s amazing is that some of the more difficult things we have had to face have also been good lessons for us. If you went to the CLBC office, which are all open and look at how many people are actually in the office versus perhaps working in community or working from home, the number of people in the office is really diminished. It maybe that is something in the future which continues to make sense but also in terms of how we support people when we talk about congregation. If your supporting 4 people in a group home there is a certain degree of congregation, but it’s not the congregation we see in long term care like 110 – 200 people living in one building. If we look at that as an example perhaps smaller congregation brings less risk of the infection of more people than perhaps greater congregation. But it also brings additional challenges that we will have to look at. If we look at virtual supports, is it a good supplement to in person supports, who does that work for and who does that not work for? I think we are going to find just because we did things in a certain way for a very longtime doesn’t mean we have to continue to do things in that way. We have to take the evidence and look at what works. I have been very pleased with how Community Living, the individuals themselves, the families and the providers really rose to the occasion to try to do the best in a very difficult circumstance. These are thing we have had to learn. Another one would be we talk a lot about inclusive housing and independent living for people living independently. Lots of people want to live like that more probably than currently do. But with independence comes additional challenges because you can live independently and become quite isolated. That is one of our worries through COVID is “yes” we have people living independently and are they becoming isolated? I have one self-advocate who is a friend of mine who reached out to me at one point because he wasn’t getting the services he typically relied on and he lives in his own place. I asked him why? He said, “We are not allowed visitors into the building.” I had to explain to him the support workers he relies on a couple of times a week are not visitors they are support workers and he needed to be able to allow them to come into the building. Once that happened, the building was fine with it. It was a lesson learned. We need to make sure to consider these things. Certainly, the essential visitor policy that was developed between the community living area and the provincial health office was a good example, in terms of underscoring that people who are there for essential communication and support needs aren’t visitors in the traditional sense of the word but quite essential for many people. Things like that we’ve learned and I hope once the pandemic is past that we will hold onto and remember.
17. Do you anticipate any future cuts by government after COVID because many services have been reduced?
When funding is tight it typically forces us to rethink and prioritize what is important and be creative and innovative in our spending. I don’t anticipate we will be facing any budget cuts; however, we do currently receive nearly 1.2 billion dollars, so we need to make sure to be creative and innovative in how we spend those dollars.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.