‘Helping people is a passion of mine’

Jessie Moniz Hardy

Colleen DeGrilla used to spend her time dashing from crisis to crisis.

She was a social worker at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital at the time, dealing with everything from suspected child abuse to emergency air vacs.

Today her pace is a lot slower.

The 53-year-old took over as executive director at Pals last month.

On a typical day, she’s in meetings with the charity’s four nurses and brainstorming fundraising events.

“It’s busy in a different way,” she said. “On my first day at Pals I had to find diapers for a very sweet little old lady. I didn’t even know we supplied them or where they were, but I loved helping her.”

Mrs DeGrilla got more interested in end-of-life care two years ago. Her mother, Rita English, had just died after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.

“That really shifted my entire perspective,” she said. “She was sick for so long I didn’t think I would take her death that hard. Before she died, I thought I probably wouldn’t even cry.

“She was my best friend. I learnt a lot about myself during the grieving process. Her death definitely influenced my move to Pals.”

With death inevitable for all of us, it’s best to make the lead-up as positive as possible, Mrs DeGrilla said.

“A lot of people still have the idea that Pals is for the last week of your life. We are so much more than that.

“We have a part-time social worker now; we offer bereavement counselling; we do education. We want to be the first person in your life when you’re diagnosed with cancer so we can help you through the whole process, not just at the end. We do a lot of financial support for cancer patients. We help in so many ways people don’t know.”

She took a while to apply for the job — the thought of trying to fill the shoes of Ann Smith Gordon and Karen Dyer intimidated her. Both were nurses, Mrs DeGrilla is the first social worker to head up the organisation.

“I felt a pull towards applying for the position, but also had reservations about my ability to carry on in the same manner as my predecessors,” she said. “I thought long and hard and decided I could do it and I was up for the challenge.

“There is a lot to know. It is a huge responsibility, but I had a huge responsibility at KEMH.”

One of her biggest challenges will be steering Pals financially. The charity has to find $1.5 million each year to continue its work in the community.

“We have a great fundraising team,” Mrs DeGrilla said. Because the market is low right now, we always have to be thinking outside of the box for new fundraisers.

“We are trying to be creative and not do the same old thing.”

In her 20s, she ran a hotel called the Gullwing, but soon discovered the hospitality industry wasn’t her thing.

“Growing up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts that was what everyone did [but] I was very clumsy and had a tendency to drop things.”

Fortunately, her biggest disaster, the tray of Bloody Marys she dropped on two customers, ended in marriage.

When she wasn’t working she was volunteering. At 30, she went back to university to study social work.

“I always had an interest in social work,” she said. “I think that was because of my mother’s illness.

“I always loved helping people. I was a candy striper in a hospital. I worked on a Samaritan suicide hotline.

“Helping people is a passion of mine. I like it. I am genuine. I can identify with people and be there with people for their problems. I feel like I can think outside of the box and try to help them find solutions. I don’t just give everyone everything, but try to give them the tools so they can get where they need to be.”

When she started her internship she told her professor at Bridgewater State College she’d “work with anyone but old people”.

Of course, he signed her up to work with senior citizens, placing her with an elderly Italian lady in Boston’s North End.

“He believed we should get out of our comfort zones,” Mrs DeGrilla said. “I went every single week for a year. She didn’t speak any English. I thought she hated me.”

She was shocked by the family’s response when she talked about finding someone else to work with the woman.

“They said she looked forward to me coming every week,” said Mrs DeGrilla. “It taught me that sometimes people just need company. It’s not about what you say or do.

“At KEMH I gained even more respect for seniors. A lot of them have worked so hard their whole lives and have no one.”

She was working for a child welfare agency in Boston when she came to Bermuda on vacation in 2001.

While here she met Stephen DeGrilla. They married in 2010.