For Manisha Willms, the biggest takeaway from 10 years as OSNS executive director are the smiles of the children playing just outside her office door each day.
“Honestly, those are really the highlights of my time here and what I will miss most,” said Willms, who is leaving the Child and Youth Development Centre at the end of the month.
“It is the extraordinary capacity of people, the determination of parents certainly, but most of all it is the extraordinary capacity of children to persevere and thrive whenever they are given a fighting chance.”
Giving as many children as possible in the South Okanagan-Similkameen that chance has been her commitment since she started.
“People who come here (centre) don’t want to be here,” she said. “Parents do not want their kids to struggle, kids don’t want to struggle and we have to make it, somehow, as OK as possible.
“Many of the kids who, if they are treated early, will catch up with their peers and while we’re getting better and better at delivering it, we have more and more kids to deliver it to.”
Another of her highlights was in 2016 with the centre’s expansion to the lower portion of the building, providing the ability to help more children.
Willms credited the outstanding boards of directors and the many individual and corporate partners for the success of OSNS to help so many young people at a critical time in their lives.
“Our boards are straight up altruism and they are just so engaged, there’s no ulterior motive,” she said. “Also I think the tradition and history of OSNS long before me was so great that we have enjoyed the support of our communities.
“We deliver thousands of hours of treatment each year and when you do that across 40 years that touches a lot of people.”
Originally, she had only planned to stay at the centre for five years but somehow that turned into a decade.
“Five years, that was the plan. What happened? Well, I think I just got really attached to the goodness of OSNS and just got attached to the people (staff) who are relentless in their pursuit of excellence for kids,” said Willms. “I got attached to the communities, not only individuals, but corporate South Okanagan who stand shoulder to shoulder with us and I really got attached to the kids.
“At the five-year mark I was just so excited about the work happening here and I’m still excited about it now but I think it’s time someone new brought in a new approach.”
She’s still deciding on her plans for the future, some which will involve spending more time with family and maybe some writing.
Heather Miller is the centre’s new executive director and has been learning the ropes from Willms and other senior staff in the past months.
“In the short term, I think the goal is to maintain the things that are going really well, which are the services that are provided to the people who need them most,” said Miller, who moved here from Saskatchewan where she was a manager in child protection with the ministry of social services.
“As things progress, we’ll look at what the needs are in the community and build the funding and supports and the professionalism to meet those needs.”
One of the things she is especially looking forward to is: “The children running up and down the hallway. That is really grounding and makes you remember every minute why you are here.”
OSNS board chair Stacey Gagno admitted directors were sad to see Willms leave but are looking forward to working with Miller.
“Manisha has just been the rock of the centre,” said Gagno. “She has so much passion for OSNS and so much care for the kids and has put together an amazing team.
“When you step through the doors of the centre it’s such a caring and inclusive and supportive environment because of that.”
About the new executive director, Gagno said: “Heather has a really good background in leadership and has worked in government settings with children and youth.
“Manisha had big shoes to fill 10 years ago (taking over from Judy Sentes) and overcame challenges and I think Heather will do that too. She will grow into the role.”
This story first appeared in the Penticton Herald and is republished as part of the Local Journalism Initiative.