People-first policy makes a mark in Fort McKay

Julia Soucie and the Fort McKay Wellness Centre have partnered with Communities ChooseWell for over a decade, receiving four Healthy Community grants and 10 awards for their healthy eating and active living programs. Now, Julia is passing on one of her keys to success — a staff retention policy that benefits both employees and the community.

By Anna Schmidt, 2023

Ten years ago, Julia Soucie was settling into her new role as director of the Fort McKay Wellness Centre. Sitting at her desk, she stumbled across an e-mail from a program called Communities ChooseWell, whose mission was to support healthy eating and active living. Julia didn’t need to hear more — she quickly signed up as a ChooseWell Champion. That decision would spark a decade-long (and counting) partnership.

The Fort McKay Wellness Centre runs free recreation programs for children and youth of Fort McKay First Nation, a rural community of about 450 residents in northeastern Alberta. Through the years, Julia and her team turned ChooseWell grant dollars into a snowshoeing program, garden towers, a kids’ cooking program and more. They received a record-breaking 10 ChooseWell awards for their transformative work.

“ChooseWell has made a huge difference in our work with children and youth. We believe that healthy eating and active living starts with the kids, because we want to build those lifelong habits,” says Julia. 

And, instilling those healthy patterns relies on a team of staff committed to the Fort McKay community, she adds. “Working in a rural community with children and youth, it takes time to build trust. If you have a high turnover rate with new employees always coming in, it’s almost impossible to form those bonds. It can be devastating for the kids to see people up and leave. We wanted people that were going to be here long-term.”

Building on the work of her predecessor, Julia set out to create a culture that would retain employees at the Fort McKay Wellness Centre. She based her retention policy on seven pillars — recognize and reward, celebrate accomplishments, support employee wellness, provide professional development, offer performance reviews, include employees in decision-making and work alongside employees. 

The policy worked. “We’ve had a really low staff turnover rate. I can honestly say in the last 10 years, we haven’t had anybody leave because they weren’t happy,” says Julia.

Until recently, the policy wasn’t formally written down. But as the recreation sector strove to recover from the pandemic, and many organizations struggled to retain staff, Julia decided to put pen to paper. She then presented her staff policy at the annual conference hosted by Alberta Recreation and Parks Association, ChooseWell’s parent organization.

“This policy is especially important right now. Burnout is so high and there’s increasing anxiety. You have to work extra hard to retain people,” she says.

The conference session resonated with the audience of recreation professionals, and Julia began answering e-mails from session attendees looking for a copy of her presentation. Now, she’s scheduled to share the policy again at an upcoming ChooseWell webinar. “We’re trying to show the culture that’s created success for us and pass that along to others,” says Julia.

Ultimately, the policy benefits the children and youth she and her colleagues work to serve. “It makes for higher quality programs, because you have staff that care and want to be there. The wellness centre is a place for everyone — for every child. Nobody’s turned away.”