Debbye Jackson worked at Channel Marker for 35 years and was named executive director in 2003. During the night of June 5th, her valiant, two-year battle with leiomyosarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer, ended as she slept. I want to talk about her.
You may know that Channel Marker’s mission is to provide wellness support and preventive programs to individuals living with serious mental illness.
I had the privilege to get to know Debbye when she invited me to work as a part-time development consultant to the agency in August of 2017. I learned to love and respect her as so many people do. She was both confident and humble, dignified and warm. She was totally selfless – her total focus was meeting the needs of clients as conveyed to her by staff. Her phone was her constant companion until late at night so that she could respond. She never seemed harassed or at a loss for calm guidance. I witnessed this many times while sitting in her office. She was a “rock” in her family too. I don’t know how she acquired such grace and wisdom – such servant leadership. She seemed born to it.
Debbye was a visionary. She was open to new ideas yet decisive – the mission was always her north star. Hard work and challenges never deterred her. She continuously pushed out the boundaries of the organization to better serve the community. This was well exemplified in recent years by her decision for the agency to purchase and renovate the former banking data center on Glebe Park Drive. I had come on board to help her raise funds for this capital project so I experienced her vision in action.
Having outgrown its three-county service hub in Easton, Debbye identified the sorely neglected, run-down building on Glebe Park as a great prospect for new space. In her mind, she saw a computer lab, classrooms, an exercise room, a kitchen to provide nutritious meals and cooking classes, a nurses’ exam room and a beautiful atrium garden and pond for outdoor seating for clients. She would take donor prospects through the mess of a building and before the tour was over, they could see every single one of these future improvements as if they actually existed.
And, they do indeed now exist! The building was completed and dedicated last year.
I have just come from visiting the Channel Marker staff. You can imagine how devastated they are. Many of them have worked with Debbye for 15 or more years – some for more than 25. I told them that I wanted to talk about Debbye in this column and asked them to tell me about working with her. (Their emotions were too raw to ask what Debbye had meant to them personally). They repeated the word “family” over and over. Here is what I heard:
“Channel Marker was Debbye’s baby. Next to her own family, it was her primary identity and she cared for it like it was her family.”
“Debbye cultivated a family environment for staff and clients.”
“Every person who works here has a piece of Debbye in them. She cared about us as family. Debbye promoted growth in all staff members. She encouraged our professional ambitions, asking us what we needed to accomplish our goals. She encouraged me to attain a PhD. She celebrated with us when reaching those goals even meant we would leave Channel Marker for another job”
She was also described as an outstanding professional who was extremely smart, decisive and wise and a talented speaker.
John McQuaid, a former co-worker at Channel Marker with Debbye, in his role as current Channel Marker board chair said that Debbye was “a selfless leader” who ensured that “the clients received the highest quality of service. Her presence and guidance will be terribly missed.”
Debbye and I had only been able to communicate by text for several months. Covid-19 sent her into quarantine early on because of her compromised health. Her sudden death meant that no one had a chance to say good-bye. It compounds the loss for her family, co-workers and personal and community friends. I am lucky that I could be one of them.
Liz Freedlander was the former executive director of Talbot Hospice Foundation and spent her career in promoting the missions of area nonprofits.