Meet our new CEO! Though there’s a good chance this face is already familiar to you, as Robyn Romano has already spent 12 years of her career at Distress Centre and served in a number of roles, before being appointed Chief Executive Officer on October 12th, 2021.
Robyn is a Registered Social Worker holding Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in social work from the University of Calgary, with a specialization in leadership in Human Services.
We are excited to have Robyn lead Distress Centre forward as we forge our next chapter of growth and strategic partnerships that will ensure we deliver ever more impactful services to our service users.
Discovering Social Work
Robyn knew from an early age that she wanted to work with people. She describes herself as a social child and says that her mom and grandma were both socially minded and focused on supporting their community.
Robyn (right) with the ConnecTeen team, Kaylee (left) and Vanessa at the 2014 Hitmen game in support of ConnecTeen.
When Robyn was 20 years old, her mom passed away after a three-and-a-half-year battle with cancer. During that time, Robyn interacted with numerous home care nurses who were caring for her mom. Robyn saw nurses who made the difficult experience as thoughtful and compassionate as it could possibly be. She also saw nurses who she felt weren’t person-centred or client-centred in their care approach and she said that as a family member of someone receiving care, it made the entire process a lot more difficult.
This experience led Robyn to consider a career in nursing to provide care to people going through some of the most difficult experiences of their lives. After taking some psychology and sociology courses while she was upgrading at Mount Royal College (now Mount Royal University), she realized that social work was the better path for her to have a person-centred career. Robyn applied and was accepted to Mount Royal’s social work program.
Finding Distress Centre
When it came time to complete a social work practicum, Robyn applied to three places, including Distress Centre. DC was her first interview and she was nervous. Blair Collins (who you may remember from our 50 Stories series) and Joan Roy (Executive Director at from DC 2013-2017) interviewed Robyn.
Robyn speaking at our 2015 Volunteer Appreciation Event.
“I think they recognized my nervousness because Blair just stopped after the second question was like, ‘okay let’s just all take a breath and talk about why you want to be here.’ And we had this great conversation, before eventually going back to the interview questions. Within 5 minutes of sitting with them I knew immediately that that was the place I wanted to be. And the place that would feel like home to grow as a social worker and grow my career. It was that culture of DC that captured me in those first few minutes of entering the building.”
Robyn completed her practicum with the volunteer program and then continued at DC as a STEP student, then a Midnight Crisis Line Worker and Leadership Volunteer, before serving as Volunteer Leadership Coordinator and then Volunteer Team Lead.
Robyn says that she treasures the time she spent in these roles, particularly the work she did with Vanessa and Kaylee, the youth program coordinators at the time, as well as her work with the volunteers.
It was that culture of DC that captured me in those first few minutes of entering the building.
“I got to work for the best people in Calgary,” said Robyn. “My first couple full-time positions were really focused on the volunteers and I got to meet some of the most incredible, awe-inspiring individuals. Getting to be a small piece of so many stories in our community was a pretty cool feeling.”
From Robyn’s early days at DC, Robyn received mentorship from members of the other members of the Volunteer Program team, Karen Gallagher-Burt and Raymond Wong. They pointed out her potential to succeed in leadership. As she gained more experience in the social work field, she found she was passionate about program and organizational development. Over time opportunities to grow that passion arose.
211 staff celebrate with cake after we successfully renewed our AIRS accreditation in 2019.
Her first role on the leadership team was Contact Centre Supervisor, followed by 211 Program Supervisor and then Director of Operations, the role she held before she became the Interim Executive Director in June 2021.
“Working with the leadership team has been an amazing opportunity,” Robyn said. “It’s been a team of really collaborative, engaged individuals who have been supportive of the growth of one another and the growth of the organization. The team work has been really inspiring, especially in the last 20 months with the pandemic.”
She credits Jerilyn Dressler’s (ED at DC from 2017-2021) mentorship and leadership for being instrumental in preparing her to step into the role of CEO.
Robyn says there are a few successes she’s most proud of in her time at DC so far, including:
Though Robyn can be proud of her work on many large projects at DC, she says that the little every-day things that occur at Distress Centre are just as important, like proving support to a senior who is in crisis because they are isolated and have few personal connections.
“It seems like such a small thing but it can have such big impact within the community,” said Robyn.
Stepping into the role of CEO
Robyn’s first priority as CEO is to “survive the pandemic.” Though she says it with a bit of a laugh, the reality is that the pandemic has presented one of the greatest challenges to our agency in our 50 year history.
Robyn Romano (then Director of Operations) “pulling the plug” at our old office during our move in January 2020.
“The pandemic has caused strain on our staff, volunteers, service users, and communities. It’s been a strain on all of us individually and then collectively as an organization. So that needs to be a #1 priority.”
To survive the pandemic, we must continue with the agency focus on self-care and developing a community of care.
“I want us to dig deeper into self-care and community-of-care and really look at: what does that look like for our organization, and in terms of the mental health and wellness of our staff, volunteers and community as we move through the pandemic. One of my first priorities is to continue building that connection and having a little bit of fun. We do some really serious work so it’s important that we can also have fun and experience moments of joy together.”
Distress Centre is also set to renew its three-year strategic plan.
“DC has experienced a ton of growth over the last few years in terms of size and service offerings and partnerships and I’m really excited to continue those conversations,” Robyn said. “I think DC is a cornerstone in the community but we don’t work within this community alone. Our work is strengthened by how we work with our partners to best meet the needs of our community.”
This is a pivotal and transformational time for Distress Centre and we are excited to have Robyn at the helm of our agency as we move forward.