“What excites me about this place today is the same thing that excited me sixteen years ago – that is the vision of this organization as a tool for permanent social change. I say that because when we can interact in the right way, at the right time in the arc of a young person’s life, magic happens.”
Covenant House Vancouver CEO, Krista Thompson is one of Canada’s most successful and longest-tenured non-profit leaders, running the 8th largest charity in BC, and helping to revolutionize the delivery of support to British Columbia’s at-risk youth population. Although healthcare, which is provincially and federally funded, still garners the bulk of philanthropic dollars, Thompson and her team have significantly increased Covenant House Vancouver’s profile, attracting greater donor interest and increasing revenue 300% over the previous 16 years.
A fundamental component of Krista’s success has been the management of key relationships with government contacts and local philanthropists — she and her team have rallied support by demonstrating the social impact of helping at-risk youth between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, many of whom have been forced out of their homes, fled abusive families, or have “aged out” of BC’s foster system at age nineteen, losing eligibility for most social assistance. As a former at-risk youth, herself, Krista has an aptness for understanding the needs of her community. This personal connection, coupled with her business acumen and donor relationship development expertise, has not only helped increase annual funding, but has also enabled her to steward one of Vancouver’s most successful recent capital campaigns. The campaign raised $53Million and launched the construction of a multi-phase project, including two new Covenant House buildings, and the renovation of an existing establishment. These new spaces mean increased accommodations, including extra crisis beds, improved drop-in centre capacity, broader education training, increased counseling services, more long-term bedrooms, larger fitness facilities and an enhanced “Rights of Passage” transitional living program.
The completion of the second of two new buildings will also see the execution of several new robust programs for Vancouver’s at-risk youth, including Addictions Programming and lower barrier programming (the lowering of rigid restrictions around mental health and substance use struggles).
Kevin Ryan, the CEO of Covenant House International, headquartered out of New York has commended Krista and her team for breaking ground on many different fronts. Along with growing its physical establishment, Vancouver’s Covenant House has initiated several progressive programs aimed at more specific and comprehensive support for the young people in its care. Krista recognized the changing profile of Vancouver’s youth-in-need, and tailored unique programs to elevate the level of service and inclusivity offered through their Vancouver facility. She and her team leaned into the challenge of meeting youth “where they were at” and this was the impetus behind delivering the new suite of programs, including lower barrier programming. As a leader, Krista recognized that these initiatives would serve the changing BC community, which now sees thousands of opioid deaths per year, 30% of which are deaths of young people. The new lower barrier programming will not exclude young people with mental health and addiction challenges and will invite them to participate in Covenant House programs, with the intention of improving youth outcomes, including the prevention of overdose deaths.
We have taken the barriers down which means we have young people on our site, in our programs who are complex in terms of presentation and require a lot of help in the beginning. These young people have enormous courage and our data shows that most will go on to stable living situations and independent futures.
Krista’s evidence-based approach has helped demonstrate the efficacy of the newer and more inclusive programming. Throughout her tenure as leader of Covenant House, another asset has been her background in finance and corporate analysis, which has been key in executing a plan to serve a city with multiple crises. Her challenges, as a leader, have been rife with daunting societal complexities uncommon to most CEOs — in Vancouver, the mental health crisis, opioid epidemic, and homelessness are evident almost everywhere. Far from the city of forty years ago, the formerly quiet port town is now littered with displaced citizens, often found sleeping outside or seeking to self-medicate in an increasingly high-risk and prolific illicit drug market. Many, though certainly not all, of those on Vancouver’s streets are, or previously were, at-risk youth who slipped through the cracks and have found a semblance of belonging in a tribe of disenfranchised members. Marginalized and subject to bias by our disjointed social systems, this segment of our population is growing, and this points not just to systemic inequities, but also to systemic failures.
In the midst of several overarching social problems, Krista and her leadership team have been able to build bridges with the philanthropic community as well as with the local government, as evidenced by their successful capital campaign and increasing revenue generation, along with their more expansive suite of programs. They have demonstrated that although Vancouver has many challenging systemic issues, it is also home to some of the world’s most progressive organizations and robust philanthropic communities who recognize the value of supporting vulnerable residents. The Vancouver “Sleep Out” movement, a charitable initiative that encourages fundraisers to sleep outside on the street overnight in an effort to raise money for Covenant House, has been extremely successful in attracting fundraising dollars as well as awareness – various iterations of “Sleep Out” take place throughout the year, involving many segments of the community, from students, to stay-at-home parents, to executives. Most who have participated in a “Sleep Out” characterize it as transformative – there is dialogue with youth who have benefitted from the programs and witnessing the inspiring transformations of participants encourages greater philanthropic support.
Many youth involved in Covenant House come from very difficult situations, but only through time in the programs learn that their story was unusual. Krista explains, “It’s just the way life was for them and their tolerance for egregious behaviour becomes higher and higher, so the unwinding of that is part of the guidance that happens at Covenant House – it’s to help a young person develop new standards for themselves and help them see what true caring and respect looks and feels like. Often, after being at Covenant House, what young people learn is, ‘wow, that is not something that the average kid has to tolerate, and I did.’ When they find themselves in situations where it’s their comfort zone to be in a situation where they’re having to tolerate a lot of stuff – we help them back away from that.”
Thompson and her leadership team’s emphasis on helping young people navigate the pivotal years of late adolescence and early adulthood, provides necessary support during a vulnerable time that is challenging for even the most privileged teens. Krista highlights that by intervening early, and at the correct time in the arc of a young person’s life, a future can be shifted to a healthier and more adaptive path. Some participants go on to study and complete degrees at local universities and colleges, and others find stability in trades and fulltime employment – most find a semblance of normalcy in the structure and guidance offered through Covenant House. Lack of access to support and education during these foundational years can have broad reaching consequences and can dramatically impact life’s trajectory, especially when layered on top of childhood trauma, abuse, and neglect. Covenant House works to support and champion each young person they work with, navigating an often piecemeal and cumbersome social system to provide consistency, safety and hope to those, who through no fault of their own, are without family and the care needed to safely manage their way to adulthood and a functional future.
Krista Thompson, already the mother of four daughters, was drawn to her work at Covenant House sixteen years ago because of her own history and challenges and speaks frankly about what motivated her to pursue such work.
What draws me to the work here at Covenant House has always been my own history as a homeless and “at risk” kid. My dad died when I was ten years old and he was only 30, and I was nineteen when my mother died at only 40 years old, so there was early family breakdown through no fault of my sister’s or mine and we found ourselves unparented, without resources and with addictions all around us.
With her own adolescence marked by years of trauma and upheaval, Krista has deep empathy for those she helps serve at Covenant House and looks to replicate the kindness she and her sister received from neighbors and loosely connected family friends — she credits this support with her ability to survive the difficult circumstances of her youth.
Covenant house has always been about replicating that luck that I had — I thought it was always possible. I thought there was a way to replicate those kinds of family support networks and interact in the arc of a young person’s life. It can make such a difference, even with one or two conversations. I’m living proof of that myself.
Despite the death of both her parents before she was 20, Krista persevered. She accepted support from her community and leveraged her natural academic aptitude and interpersonal skills, studying hard and eventually becoming a successful investment advisor at Merrill Lynch where she worked for over ten years. While she admits that the skills she learned in the financial industry have been invaluable in her nonprofit work, she also reveals that it was not her calling, but at the time was the fastest and most direct route to safety and independence.
After ten years at Merrill Lynch, I was doing volunteer work that was more rewarding. While I was at Merrill Lynch, I learned a lot of really valuable things, but the work itself, I didn’t find rewarding.
When addressing Krista’s remarkable success over the past sixteen years, she is quick to emphasize her leadership team and their instrumental involvement in the accomplishments of Covenant House Vancouver.
“If you have a great team around you,” Krista explains, “the richness that can be harvested from a group of five or six or seven really smart, dedicated people when you’re willing to ask the questions is miraculous. And, as a CEO, you are the person making decisions, but you hear different perspectives from different people you respect – there’s nothing like it. It’s such a rush to put a good team like that together and create a culture where people share, and you start making really good and brave decisions because of it.”
After sixteen years at Covenant House, and plenty of milestone achievements, Krista is still excited about what lies ahead for the organization.
What excites me about this place today is the same thing that excited me sixteen years ago – that is the vision of this organization as a tool for permanent social change. I say that because when we can interact in the right way, at the right time in the arc of a young person’s life, magic happens.
Krista’s journey as Covenant House CEO is one of a woman leading by example and contributing to the betterment of many lives. She seems to have fulfilled – or to be in the process of fulfilling – her life’s purpose. She admits that she has had some results and that there are many people who were mentors, who helped and inspired her along the way. According to Krista, a great mentor is someone who has been brave in their own life and has produced results. “Living with regret,” Krista says “is the worst thing I can possibly think of.”
At this juncture, looking back on the past sixteen years of Covenant House Vancouver’s growth, it seems fair to say that Krista has been brave, and a great leader and mentor. Her stewardship of Covenant House has helped improve Vancouver’s fitness as a society — if we are measured by the treatment of our weakest and most vulnerable, Krista and Covenant House provide hope that we are not failing in this capacity. Once construction of Covenant House’s second building is complete, the new programs that have been designed and funded through the efforts of Krista and her team, will come to fruition – years of planning will finally see execution, and many more lives will be improved.
“We can change generational cycles of abuse, trauma and poverty, ” emphasizes Krista. “That is the future of Covenant House. We will continue to intersect with young lives in the right way, at the right time, with the right tools, and with love and respect. This organization has a real role to play in advocating for young people in a broader arena at a provincial, federal and international level.”
Written by Tassan Sung, Chair Nicola Wealth Women’s LEAD