When Chris Wrightson first joined Zero Ceiling, the Whistler-based non-profit dedicated to ending youth homelessness, she slotted into an administrative role that, in all honesty, she was overqualified for.
Although she initially applied for the executive director position, Wrightson was eager to be a part of the organization that provides supportive housing and employment to young people experiencing homelessness.
“I knew from all the work I’d done in Australia that there was magic that happens in this organization. It had all the elements of what we know works,” she said.
In short order, Wrightson and Sean Easton became co-executive directors, then the organization’s only employees, a decision that reflected the immense workload they had in front of them.
“Deciding to be co-EDs and to have that approach was actually the first innovative decision that we made in this journey,” Wrightson recalled. “I was thinking about how the hallmarks of that co-ED model—sharing power, trust, honesty, collaboration, compromise—have filtered through into the culture of the organization as well. And what’s happened in the last seven years, it’s beyond what I ever could have imagined.”
Wrightson took stock of her time at the organization at Zero Ceiling’s AGM last Friday, May 5, when she announced she was resigning from the co-executive director role.
“The reason I’m stepping down is because I’m burnt out. I’m tired. I got a concussion a few months ago that I haven’t been able to totally recover from either, so just taking some time to get better,” an emotional Wrightson said to the 40 or so gathered Zero Ceiling members and staff at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre. “I feel Zero Ceiling is in such a good place for leadership transition. We have been working really hard to have those diverse funding streams to help build the structure of the organization. We have an amazing staff team and incredible programs thanks to Sean and his team, so we’re excited.”
The Zero Ceiling of today looks far different than it did when Wrightson first joined. The organization now pays a living wage to 11 full-time and four part-time staff, plus a roster of seven casual staff who provide coverage for youth workers and overnight support. Its budget has diversified, growing to roughly $1.7 million last year, and in 2021, it inked a deal with the Whistler Housing Authority after years of searching to secure a three-bedroom unit in Cheakamus Crossing for three of its female Work 2 Live participants.
In 2022, Zero Ceiling supported 10 Work 2 Live participants, along with its roster of program graduates, and welcomed more than 500 youth into its Adventure Sessions program, which introduces young, underhoused adults to alpine sports.
What’s more is Zero Ceiling has increasingly taken a vocal advocacy role in recent years, lobbying officials at the local, provincial and federal levels on issues of housing, youth mental health, decolonization, and more.
“The courage to challenge is really important, like challenging ourselves, challenging the organization and the community, challenging government, all the power structures, and making the changes that need to happen so that we’re not only helping the youth that we support, but we’re changing the systems that create a situation where youth children end up living on the street,” Wrightson said.
As it has worked to decolonize its own culture and practices, Zero Ceiling has also completely restructured its internal organization, which included the addition of “resident Auntie” Anita Patrick, director of the N’quatqua Child and Family Development Centre, for Work 2 Live participants and grads to lean on when they need support.
“I know what I do is meaningful when I have a lineup waiting for me for hugs. I know it’s meaningful by the appreciation and the respect I get,” she said at Friday’s AGM. “Being Auntie has been phenomenal for me and I really appreciate the love and support Zero Ceiling has for the youth.”
With her parting words, Wrightson urged the Zero Ceiling family to continue the important work they do “leading with our hearts, leading with love—that’s really central to what we do.”
That mantra might as well describe Wrightson herself, said board chair Tanya Kong.
“Chris is a leader of the heart,” she said. “It is such a gift to all of us in this world to have somebody who is constantly thinking about everyone else and their community.”
Wrightson is slated to stay on in her role until mid-July. Zero Ceiling said it will announce its new co-executive director by that time.
For more information, and to donate, visit zeroceiling.org.