Today we raise our fists high and put our hands together in celebration of our Feature Girl Warrior, Executive Director at the Courtnall Society for Mental Health, Shannon Drew. With over 25 years of experience in the media, corporate, non-profit, and education sectors, Shannon is passionate about the opportunity to raise awareness and support for mental health. Shannon grew up in Calgary, where her independent and ambitious nature shone early. After graduating from high school French immersion at just 16, she presented her father with a “business plan” that included attending the University of Grenoble for a year. She describes her time in France as an absolutely incredible experience. The following year, she transferred to the University of British Columbia (UBC), where she completed a Bachelor of Arts and stayed on in Vancouver for four years after falling in love with the West Coast. Shannon moved back to Calgary to study public relations at Mount Royal University. It was her tenure in this program that she had the profound realization that she had found her calling in communications. After making some exceptional connections in Calgary media, she landed a job as the manager of community relations and sponsorships at CTV television. In 2002, tragedy struck Shannon’s young family, with the premature death of her beloved husband, Bill, from a very rare form of cancer. Bill and Shannon had moved to Victoria for palliative care, and to be closer to her mom. Consumed with sadness, Shannon began life as a single parent to their two-year old daughter, determined to make things as normal as possible for her. Moving forward with a new perspective on life, she landed her first full-time job in Victoria as the manager of community investment in corporate communications at BC Ferries. Shannon later moved on to the Victoria Foundation where she stayed for five years as director of communications and marketing. Her next move was to the Admissions Department at St. Michaels University School (SMUS), where she spent three years travelling the world, recruiting international students. Shannon’s time at SMUS came to an end when she left for the private sector where she spent the next seven years working in real estate development on prestigious projects in Hawaii, Whistler, and Victoria. After a period of reflection influenced by the pandemic, and having witnessed the according mental health fallout first hand, Shannon joined the Courtnall Society for Mental Health in October 2021 as Executive Director. Looking back on her career so far, Shannon shares that, “All the work I’ve done in my life has been centered around relationship building and paying it forward.” And to that we say an enthusiastic YES!
What makes you a Girl Warrior?
Passion, compassion, humour and determination. I try to approach experiences in my life as opportunities for learning – regardless of if I fail or succeed, there is always a lesson.
Who were some of your early role models (real or fictional) and how did they capture young Shannon’s imagination?
Certainly, some of my earliest real role models were my parents – who despite their differing roles in my life – each set distinctive examples for me. I grew up with three siblings, two brothers and a sister, my dad worked as a development executive and my mom was a “domestic engineer”. My mom took care of everything in our home, organized and facilitated all our extracurricular activities, and made sure we were fed, healthy and happy. We were beyond lucky in our upbringing. My dad travelled quite often for work and demonstrated a commitment to succeed in his profession. They emigrated from the UK in their early 20s and started with nothing. I think because of her incredible support and successful management of the home front, my dad was able to excel in his career and achieve the success that he did.
How did you convince your father to let you attend the University of Grenoble in France when you were only sixteen?
With a plan! For real. My case for going to France was based on my just having graduated high school from a late immersion French program. I could read and write French, but my ability to speak it was lacking – growing up in Calgary did not offer much opportunity to speak French outside of the classroom. I researched different universities and outlined why the University of Grenoble was a suitable option – not only was it a great location, in the middle of France with Italy and Switzerland only short hours away by train but my year could transfer directly to a Canadian university for the equivalent credits. I wasn’t going to miss a year or take a gap year – and I had a different experience. I recognize how fortunate I was to have had a year abroad and it was one where I had personal growth – and I became totally bilingual.
What is your fondest memory of that year and what’s the most important thing you learned about yourself from that experience?
The friends and connections I made from all over the world. With students from so many different countries, I had the opportunity to learn about different customs and cultures which made a real impression on me. I was also lucky to have my dad visit me in France while he was in Europe doing business in Italy that same year. It was great to see him and show him around. The most important thing I learned from my experience in France was my ability to adapt, trust my gut instincts and make things happen for myself.
What happened in 2002 that changed the trajectory of your life?
In 2002 the trajectory of my life changed when my husband Bill passed away after battling a rare form of cancer for 19 months – our daughter was only 23 months old at the time. We had moved to Victoria from Calgary for palliative care and to be closer to my mom who had relocated here a few years earlier. I was consumed by overwhelming sadness after he passed, but I knew I couldn’t curl up in a ball and give up because I had the responsibility to take care of my daughter and to ensure things were as ‘normal’ as possible for her. She was 100% the reason I found the strength to carry on.
What have been the biggest challenges or obstacles that you’ve overcome?
Being a squeaky wheel when it came to navigating the healthcare system during Bill’s illness. As I am sure many people would be when faced with a loved one fighting for their life, I wouldn’t take no for an answer and dared not stop trying. Our daughter was only three months old when he was diagnosed, and we had to move from Calgary to Vancouver for treatment. “There is an expert there who has treated this before” we were told, it turns out if you are the 22nd known case in the world, having treated two people makes you an expert. He endured intense traditional cancer treatment plus all the naturopathic and alternative protocols we felt would improve his chances. I spent time reaching out to hospitals and doctors in the UK, France, Sweden and the US desperate to find someone willing to put him on a drug trial that might help. As his cancer was so rare and there was no known or proven treatment protocol, we had nothing to lose in pursuing experimental treatments as the disease progressed. After 19 months, on April 5, 2002, I watched Bill take his last shallow, crackled breath. I will never forget the sudden quiet and stillness in the hospital room. He was gone. The irony of that moment was the intense sense of relief I felt as I realized he was no longer suffering.
You’ve held some impressive communications and public relations positions since moving to Victoria. What inspires and motivates you?
Working in the realm of communications and public relations and sharing the stories of organizations that I believe in is rewarding and something I have always believed in. My experience spans a breadth of sectors – media, corporate, government, academia and non-profit – yet almost every role has included an element of giving back or seeking betterment in support of individuals or the community. This mandate has always inspired me. It’s gratifying to be able to use my skills to generate valuable profile and connections for worthy organizations and causes.
Why is it important to you to give back and pay it forward?
I recognize that I have had a very good life and incredible opportunities. It’s for these reasons that I think it’s so important to give back, share insight and experiences that might help others. I enjoy making introductions and connecting people that I feel are going to result in interesting outcomes. I have been lucky to encounter many people who have a similar mindset, and it is life-enhancing, both personally and professionally.
You are currently the Executive Director of the Courtnall Society for Mental Health. Tell us a bit about the work you do there and how our Girl Warriors can support this worthwhile cause?
I started as the Executive Director for the Courtnall Society for Mental Health in October 2021 and it has been full speed ahead since then. I had known of the Courtnalls and their passion for supporting mental health in the community through their past events. When the opportunity to consider joining their organization was brought to my attention, I knew that I wanted to be part of it. Right now, we are busy establishing ourselves in the mental health landscape. Although we are not a service provider, we do want to be a connecter and a collaborator. The society’s mission is to fundraise to provide grants to support the capacities of grassroots and community-centric mental health organizations – not only in Victoria – but as opportunity permits, across the country. It is these organizations that are critical to those facing mental health challenges as they are often the first place where people reach out for help.
Girl Warriors can help support this cause by taking the time to understand mental health challenges through a lens of compassion and non-judgment and encouraging others to do the same. We recently had our first speaker series called Women & Philanthropy: Mingle for Mental Health. The idea is for this event to be held every quarter with a focus on one of our four granting pillars: Suicide Prevention, Substance Use, Community Integration and Children & Youth. It will be an opportunity for women who are interested in supporting mental health to connect, learn about local organizations and their vital work, and further their understanding.
What’s the most important life lesson your mom taught you?
My mom taught me many valuable life lessons – ones that I have carried with me and some that I have shared with others. I think the most important lesson was to lead by example – something that she always did, whether she was cognizant of the impression she was making or not. For as long as I can remember it was my mom’s caring and nurturing nature that made her special. She was always there for me, unconditional with her love and support, and always encouraged me.
What would you say to your younger Girl Warrior?
Believe in yourself – you are valued, you are worthy and don’t settle.
What would you say to future Girl Warriors looking for inspiration?
Be enthusiastic, be brave, have integrity, and don’t forget to be kind to yourself.
Who is/are your Girl Warrior hero(s) and why?
When I was young, I looked up to Diana, the Princess of Wales, and the incredible compassion she had for her fellow human beings. Diana was an active patron of many charities and she embraced opportunities to engage with individuals she encountered – whether it was those impacted by homelessness or substance use or embracing patients suffering from HIV/AIDS and dismissing the stigma that surrounded them. She seemed to warm so effortlessly and naturally with people no matter the circumstance, and in doing so made a significant impact on me and my feelings towards the importance of human connection.
Blue Sky it. No boundaries here, just limitless opportunities. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
In 5 years, I would like to look back on the evolution of the projects and initiatives I have had the opportunity to be part of and reflect proudly on the collective hard work accomplished, the positive connections made, the successful collaborations executed, and the people who made it possible to mobilize positive change. I would also like to be happy, healthy and seizing the day.
What makes you laugh uncontrollably? Cry out all the tears?
For me hearing uncontrollable laughter is one of life’s greatest pleasures and I actually love to make people laugh more than I enjoy laughing myself. I love hearing my daughter Tatum laugh – it always makes me smile and sometimes we get to the state where everything is humorous, and we can’t stop. You can’t beat that.
As I grow older, I have noticed that I have become increasingly sensitive and often it’s the simplest things that bring me to tears – music, photographs, and stories I hear. In my role at the Courtnall Society, I am hearing incredible stories every day.
What books are on your nightstand?
Bonheur d’Occasion by Gabrielle Roy, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant.
Living or dead, who would you like to have lunch with?
I would like to see all my grandparents again and have the opportunity to introduce them to their great-grand daughter Tatum.
Describe yourself in five words.
Determined, Vulnerable, Grounded, Compassionate and Protective.
If a novel were written, inspired by your life, what would it be called?
All We Have is Now
To learn more about how you can help the Courtnall Society for Mental Health head over to the website: https://courtnallsociety.org/get-involved/
Follow the Courtnall Society on Twitter @CourtnallMH