Our Executive Director, Rod Santiago, recently marked 10 years at the helm of Archway Community Services. This past decade has been filled with tremendous growth and change for us as an organization, with much for him to reflect on.
Some changes were public, like the advocacy for what eventually became Hearthstone Place and changing the agency’s name from Abbotsford Community Services to Archway in order to be more descriptive of who we are and all we encompass. Other changes happened behind the scenes as the agency grew rapidly and needed to strengthen how we work amongst departments and with the community in order to better achieve our mission of fostering community well-being and social justice through positive action and leadership.
Rod speaking to local schoolchildren about our recognition as one of Canada’s greenest employers.
A History of Helping
Prior to joining our senior leadership team, Rod had a wide variety of experiences in the non-profit sector. In the late 80’s he was director of Settlement Services with Immigrant Services Society of BC. Among a variety of responsibilities assisting immigrants and refugees, he oversaw Welcome House – an arrival point for newcomers to Vancouver.
He then spent eight years as a planning consultant with United Way of the Lower Mainland. Along with providing funds and organizational support to agencies, Rod also offered social planning assistance to various municipalities and communities. Additionally, during the early 90’s when diversity wasn’t the prevalent cause it is today, Rod was part of the small team that supported 53 non-profit agencies through a three-year multicultural, anti-racist organizational change process. This was the first initiative of this magnitude to help our sector become more inclusive and accessible.
Wanting to utilize their experiences in a global setting, Rod and his family embarked on a journey to Uzbekistan in Central Asia, where they spent five years developing social enterprises in a country run – at the time – by one of the five worst dictators of the world. This enabled him to work alongside women living in extreme poverty; many were the third or fourth “wives” of men who didn’t adequately provide for them and sexually abused them and their young daughters. Historically, silk was harvested to hand-weave carpets in Uzbekistan.
One of the initiatives Rod was working to establish provided training to women in the art of creating silk carpets, including: sourcing natural dyes; reproducing previously lost designs of ancient rug patterns that were thousands of years old and weaving the carpets on giant looms. Women who participated could then sell the rugs internationally for considerable sums, make their own livelihoods and forge better futures for them and their children.
What set this initiative apart from others was the sense of dignity that it would develop for the women as they generated livelihood (and works of craftsmanship) with their hands, and that the project would eventually be self-sufficient. Unfortunately this particular initiative, unlike other projects, was shut down by local authorities.
Rod and his family acculturated to living in Uzbekistan, learned Uzbek, and designed initiatives to be sustainable long after the Andijon massacre that eventually led to their family’s exit from the country.
Immediately prior to joining Archway, Rod was part of the Chilliwack Community Services team, where he was the Director of Youth Services. That role enabled him and the youth team to address very real and present youth challenges such as addictions, mental health, homelessness, suicide ideation and gang involvement. In Chilliwack, Rod was instrumental in starting innovative youth programming, including transitional supportive housing.
Rod Santiago with previous Archway Executive Directors Thelma Schrock and Walter Paetkau.
Throwing His Name in the Ring at Abbotsford Community Services
One day, he heard that Thelma Schrock, who took over for Archway founder Walter Paetkau, was planning on retiring herself. “I’d never been an Executive Director before,” he indicated. “Quite honestly, I never thought I had a chance because this was an agency of such complexity with such an incredible reputation. Nevertheless, I chose to apply.”
The application process was long, with the current leaders and board at Archway wanting to ensure they selected the right person for the job. Rod progressed through early rounds, and along the way connected with people in Abbotsford – his community – about the agency, gaining a further depth of knowledge and respect for our work.
“The more I learned, the more I fell in love with who this agency was and what it stood for. ACS stood for advocacy and social justice, things I believed in,” Rod stated. He went on to highlight his respect for the foresight of Archway founder Walter Paetkau and the amazing things that managers like Shairose Jinnah, who oversaw all of Children, Youth and Family Services, and Manpreet Grewal, our long-time leader of Multicultural and Immigrant Integration Services, and have accomplished.
Eventually, Rod recounted having a final set of interviews first with staff and then with the Board of Directors. “One PowerPoint presentation, two Q&As, one dinner, numerous deep, rich questions, and six hours later, the final ‘interview’ was complete.” When offered the role, he prayed about such a major decision, consulted his wife and family, and happily accepted.
Becoming an Executive Director
Entering in as only the third Executive Director of an organization with a forty-year history, Rod described the experience as “rich and rare.” He reflected on Walter’s creation of the agency from scratch and the assembly of such a gifted team, full of individuals who possessed many ideas and strengths. These ideas and strengths turned into innovative programs and fighting for the causes we believe in.
When Thelma Schrock stepped in as Executive Director, he reflected on how she and the Board of Directors were so strong in governance, systems and structure. They set in place new policies and were instrumental in the agency’s accreditation with CARF. As a result, Rod says, “it was such a gift to walk into an agency that was so strong in services, advocacy, and innovation as well as systems, policies and practices.”
Working at United Way of the Lower Mainland had given him a view into the operation of hundreds of different nonprofit organizations. To be invited to lead an agency that was so strong in operations and governance in programs and administration was “like being handed a dream job on a silver platter.”
Personal and Organizational Growth
With that as his starting point, Rod had the privilege of continuing Archway’s development and growth. He – along with the team – has experienced many moments of joy and celebration as well as our share of challenges. Most surprising to him in the last decade has been the continual discovery of how skilled, knowledgeable and passionate our staff are about what we do.
“I love our team. I am just amazed by the wealth of experience and enthusiasm we have in-house. We’re very fortunate to attract and retain the talent that defines Archway. So many diverse people come together for a common cause and that’s what makes Archway unique – in comparison to other organizations. It’s our complexity and how well our very different parts work with each other in service to individuals, families and community.” That love and appreciation for people is evident, as “people” remain Rod’s favourite part of his job.
His pride for Hearthstone Place stems not just from the accomplishment of a beautiful building and the level of excellence at which Neil, Megan, our team and the residents maintain the site, but how the agency and its supporters stood up for the message that every individual deserves a roof over their head. “Not everyone in community accepted that message right away,” Rod recalled. “But now there are few visible detractors to the Abbotsford Homelessness Action Plan.”
“We introduced the concept of ‘housing first’ at a time when dumping chicken manure and ripping up the tents of individuals living rough was sanctioned in Abbotsford. Our agency took the brunt of the hit at that time. Because our team works so hard to run such a great residence, we’ve paved the way for ‘justice, opportunities and equitable access for all.’ I’m really grateful that today other groups don’t have to fight to open low barrier supportive housing initiatives.”
“Another first I’m really proud of is the way Shairose, Simone, our YRC team, and the community pulled together to create Foundry Abbotsford. We were part of starting a one-stop, made-for-BC approach to delivering mental health, primary care, substance use, community social services, employment, education, food security, and many other supports to youth and young adults… all in one place. Now youth only have to tell their story once and we, their providers, coordinate services and our efforts rather than putting up unnecessary hurdles and roadblocks. It’s an impactful model of service delivery that I believe would be transferable to other populations like seniors or women.”
When queried on how he’s changed during his tenure at Archway, Rod reflected that he is learning to ask for help and to pace himself. These were qualities he was terrible at when he first arrived as our Executive Director. “Because we have such an exceptional leadership team, I’ve given myself the freedom to not try to be strong all the time. Not that I’ve arrived, but I’m learning that I don’t have to be “on” continually. I can take breaks too. My mental wellness counts; mental wellness counts for each of us.”
In his capacity as Archway’s Executive Director, Rod is part of various causes. He is currently the vice chair of Community Social Services Employers’ Association (CSSEA) of BC. He is on the Homelessness Action Advisory Committee of Abbotsford City Council, on the Advisory Committee of Peace and Conflict Studies at UFV, and is a part of Equal Work – Equal Pay B.C.
Rod always makes time for a few essentials in his day. These include self-reflection, prayer, and family; his wife Karyn, his daughters and their partners, and his granddaughters. Rod lives for Kalia and Nina! He also loves to spend time with friends and values the opportunities he gets to mentor others.
When not in the company of groups of people, Rod and Karyn love to explore ‘off the beaten path’ parts of the world (often with packs on their back.) Alternatively, Rod finds true replenishment when he can disappear for a week-or-so to go canoeing, tenting or snowshoeing somewhere really remote.
Pondering what the next ten years may hold, Rod indicated he most looks forward to continuing to learn together, as an agency. His sense of purpose, love of people and vision keep him going even during challenging moments. He shared, “I’m not one to be satisfied with what is, so I look forward to what ought to be and what we can become together. Ever striving for justice, opportunities and equitable access for all.”
“I’m not one to be satisfied with what is, so I look forward to what ought to be and what we can become together. Ever striving for justice, opportunities and equitable access for all.”