Hometown: Gouverneur, New York
Family: Husband, four adult children, two dogs, three cats, and four chickens
Education: M.Ed. Counseling and Human Development; B.A., Psychology and Sociology, both from St. Lawrence University
Occupation: Director of Community Services for Clinton County
Richelle Gregory has rooted her career in service to some of the most vulnerable populations in communities across New York State. In her current role at the helm of Clinton County Mental Health and Addictions as the Director of Community Services she faces the daunting task of ensuring that people with developmental disabilities, mental health or addiction challenges are well-served across the county.
Her passion for helping others is particularly strong as it relates to children who face adverse experiences and childhood trauma.In her previous position at the Clinton County District Attorney’s Office, she built a child advocacy program and a center from the ground up. “We have to invest in our children,” Gregory explained, “I really believe that if we can mitigate the effects of trauma in children, we will create a healthier society and more optimal well-being as a result.”
When the Community Services Director position opened in 2017, Gregory saw an opportunity to make an impact on children and families on a much larger scale. She is a self-described “systems person” who thrives when tasked with connecting resources, services and agencies in innovative ways for the betterment of individuals. As my interview with her clearly demonstrated, those skills were essential during the past year when the pandemic forced everyone to find creative ways to survive and thrive.
Like many behavioral health professionals, Gregory has had a lot of practice balancing the pull of her soft heart with the practical business side of her head. She shared how she learned to tackle this and many other challenges during her recent interview with Strictly Business.
SB: What important lessons did you learn early in your career?
RG: Someone else’s crisis is not my crisis. When someone comes to you with a crisis, that crisis is the most important thing to them in that moment. You have to find a way to honor that for them, without taking it on for yourself. If you take it on, you might amplify the crisis. When you step back and get clarification, it allows you time to prioritize it from your own perspective. Being able to define what is truly a crisis for you is an important life lesson.
SB: Who was your most influential mentor?
RG: I have more mentors now than I ever had. I draw regularly from other department heads and colleagues around the state who have much more experience than I do. They are wonderful community leaders that I am able to reach out to wherever I need advice. Mentorship is much more a part of my career in this role than in any other.
SB: How have you inspired or mentored others?
RG: I am presented with opportunities to mentor others almost daily. Staff come to me with a challenge and I try to give them space and confidence to make their own decisions and then support them in those decisions. I work under the assumption that my staff is making the best decisions they can at that moment. Even if it turns out to be a mistake, you will learn from it and next time will be better.
SB: What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
RG: Most things people do are not personal. We are ego-centric, and we tend to interpret everything as personal. When you have a soft heart, it is hard not to take it personally when someone is in a bad mood or is venting. I try to remember that whatever a person is presenting to me has nothing to do with me as a person. When you can get into a space where you are not taking things personally, you are better able to have empathy for the other person. It is more compassionate to not take things personally, because when you do, you are taking whatever is going on with the other person and making it about you.
SB: If you could talk to your younger self, what advice would you offer her?
RG: You are enough. What you are, who you are and the skills you have are enough. I don’t think you know that you are enough when you are young, especially as a woman. Now that I have grown daughters, I have been reflecting on what I needed to hear back then. This is the number one lesson I can impart to them — that you have everything you need, and you are enough. The untapped power and potential are all right there, right now.
SB: What advice would you offer to someone starting their business career?
RG: When you are starting out, it is easy to forget that you can only see a small part of the bigger picture. As a young person I often thought I was right but now that I look back, I was only seeing one piece of the puzzle. The puzzle is always bigger than you, so you have to trust the people above you who can see the whole thing. When you are young this is very challenging.
SB: What does success look like to you?
RG: I know I have been successful if I was able to be part of creating positive change. That change can be as small as helping one person in crisis all the way up to creating a program in the community that will better the lives of many people.
SB: How do you leave the burdens of work at work?
RG: I have a 15-minute drive from work to home. That is the time when I listen to music or a podcast — anything to get my head out of work. The minute I get home and walk through the door, my kids and my husband want to talk to me. My work life is chaotic but at home there are routines and predictability. I have found that is the best way to separate the two. I can’t predict my day at work but when I go home, I know what I can expect.
SB: Tell us about your approach to management and leadership?
RG: Leadership is not people pleasing. It is all about boundaries — knowing your own boundaries and knowing the boundaries of the people you supervise. In order to be healthy, you have to know your role and know your boundaries.
SB: What are some of the challenges that your profession faced due to the pandemic?
RG: There really was a sleeping dragon in behavioral health when COVID hit, and we all knew it. People who were already struggling with mental and behavioral health were especially vulnerable. In many cases they were isolated and not feeling safe in their environment before COVID. To have all that uncertainty thrust upon them at a time when it was also very difficult to connect and engage with them was incredibly challenging. Anecdotally we saw increases in diagnosed mental health conditions, alcoholism and domestic violence. Everybody’s mental health was negatively affected by the pandemic.
SB: Were there some positive consequences that your profession experienced during the pandemic?
RG: We built relationships and teams in the community that we had never built before. I really got to connect and be part of teams that I never would have been a part of without this crisis. I now have a greater understanding of the Health Department, Emergency Services and working as a community. In some ways I think COVID brought our community together. It certainly shed some light on what is important in our community and where our vulnerabilities lie. I have more connections now to help more people than I have ever had. That is a direct result of the pandemic.
SB: What inspires you?
RG: I love opportunities to pull people and systems together in new and innovative ways to serve people. When I become aware of an issue, concern or gap in services, I love to talk with different agencies to come up with a plan to solve that problem. Ideas and passion are contagious and I love watching how they infect others to make a plan come together.
SB: What do you believe the North Country community should do today to ensure a prosperous future?
RG: We have to invest in our children. We take it for granted that they are resilient and that they will get through whatever challenges they face. Many children are a victim of their circumstances. They don’t have the choices or the resources that adults have, so they end up in their situations through no fault of their own.
While children are resilient in many ways, they are also fragile. We have to invest in children and families much sooner. We know that childhood trauma can impact people throughout their whole lives — whether it is their health, education, or life potential. Especially this year because of COVID, we have lost so much. It has impacted our youth in ways that we won’t be able to grasp for probably 10 years.