Passing the Torch of Leadership

Our very own Webster Bull tells the story of two incredible leaders, Swanna Champlin and Jen Matthews, and the journey our community has been on.

Jen and Swanna at Taste of Spring, 2015

From Swanna to Jen: A Torch is Passed

Jennifer Matthews admits that she didn’t know how to pronounce L’Arche or even where Haverhill was when she signed on as office manager on Martin Luther King Day 2006. Eleven years later, she is the newly appointed executive director and community leader at L’Arche Boston North.

Jen’s unexpected journey has been a lot like that of outgoing community leader Swanna Champlin. Planning on an African hitch in the Peace Corps in 2002, Swanna saw an ad seeking someone willing to share an apartment with two women with disabilities on the other side of the country. (She was in California, the job in Massachusetts.) A career special education teacher, Swanna knew disabilities but nothing about L’Arche. (No, she couldn’t pronounce it either.) Still, she applied for the job and was hired.

In the summer of 2002, Swanna drove cross-country and she moved into an apartment in Peace House with core members Deb and Christine. Within three years, she was named community leader.

Transition years

Tom Murphy, who came aboard as an assistant in 2002, remembered that year and the two that followed as a time of “great instability.” He credits Sally Degan, who took over as board chair, for helping steady the ship.

Sally spreads the credit around. She pointed out that in the early 2000s the community, founded in Ipswich in 1983, was in transition from its first generation of leadership, led by the charismatic Elizabeth Buckley and Sister Pat Murphy, to a second as-yet-unknown generation. “When I came on the board,” Sally said, “we were literally contemplating shutting down the community. We seemed unable to find enough assistants. L’Arche USA told us we had to get our act together.”

Sally credited a couple of board members for helping stabilize things, especially Luis Bachman, now executive director of The Arc of Greater Haverhill-Newburyport. “Luis knew so many people in the state agencies,” she said, “and so much about running communities. He is such a calming, wise fellow.” Bachman was particularly supportive of Swanna, seeing leadership abilities in her that she herself could not see.

“We were all so humble,” said Sally, “because none of us knew what we were doing. Swanna has always been that way—always doing the best she can out of the goodness of her heart, without any thought of ‘I’m great at this’. She and Luis righted the ship.”

Many accomplishments

The changes in the past dozen years can be summed up in two words: stability and growth. From two homes, a small apartment, and eight core members in 2002, L’Arche Boston North has grown to four homes and seventeen core members fifteen years later; and the board of directors, now headed by Joe Kennedy, has increased in size, depth, and professionalism.

Swanna will be remembered for opening a new fully accessible home in 2016—Pat House, named in honor of Sister Pat. But over the twelve-year span of her leadership, she also succeeded in identifying and encouraging a younger generation of leaders and created a more broad-based and professional team.

First came Tom Murphy in 2002, who served successively as a house leader, community coordinator, and pastoral minister. In 2009 Vanessa Henry arrived, who followed Tom through Gandhi House as house leader and then into the role of community coordinator. Swanna also hired Pam McGrath as the community’s first development director. Tom Murphy is now in a doctoral program at Boston College and Pam recently retired after a successful eight-year tenure; meanwhile Vanessa remains a pillar of community and virtual co-leader of the office alongside Jen.

“It was clear that Vanessa was leadership material right from the start,” Jen said.

Growing on the job

Of all the young leaders who came and grew under Swanna, though, none grew more dramatically than Jen Coffey, now Matthews. As a tireless office manager, she began helping out with finances when another staffer went on maternity leave. Pretty soon, as Jen herself recalls, “This office girl was taking core members to doctor’s appointments when nobody else was available. I was so anxious and nervous!”

Her evident competency and a growing familiarity with core members led to Jen’s moving into the role of program coordinator, managing the agency relationship with the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services (DDS). By her own estimate, she brought “more stability to the role, made it more comprehensive. Nothing was centralized and I did a lot of data collection—bringing all of it together and putting it in a package that can live beyond me.”

In June 2017, Michael Richard, head of Assisi House, was appointed to take over the program coordinator’s role, which Jen had so carefully and energetically created.

What’s ahead

Asked about the challenges and opportunities ahead, Jen said, “For the most part, the agency-community relationship is beautiful and complementary,” referring to the interchange between DDS and L’Arche Boston North. “But,” she added, “they have to be consciously woven together.” Today, she noted, the relationship with DDS is “more data-driven. There are more regulations and safeguards, which are necessary, but they create an extra level of complexity that wasn’t there ten years ago.”

Jen said, “We have such tremendous support from our DDS service coordinators, who carry a lot of our relationship with the state agency. They really understand us and have become partners in our mission.”

Regarding the possibility of building a second accessible home, Jen said, “Our community is at a fork in the road. We all have to share those decisions. We have to get in the boat together and row it.”

With a smile, Jen added, “We L’Archies—we like to discern. There are so many ideas circling around community, about which people are excited. That’s energizing for me, I feed off that.”

Swanna’s many contributions

Asked about Swanna’s legacy, Jen answered, “Do you have a list? She brought a sense of consistency to community on all levels. She brought accountability that hadn’t been here before. She brought possibility, and brought it for everybody”.

“Swanna has done a wonderful job of helping me understand the meaning of servant leadership.”

In June 2017, after fifteen years of growth under her steadying hand and after assuring a smooth transition, Swanna retired to an outpouring of love and gratitude from her community.

Tom Murphy thinks this is an opportune time for transition and further growth. “There have been times,” he said, “when community has been carried by the core members, times when it was leadership, times when it was assistants. Now I feel that the three are all strong, we have a leader grown from inside, and the way Jen and Vanessa complement each other—that’s huge.”

Said Sally Degan, “It’s cool to think that now L’Arche Boston North is a beacon of stability among the communities around here. Swanna brought it from the brink of dissolution to a really vibrant place.” Jen Matthews and others now have the responsibility of carrying it on.