Tracy Falk: Aurora Staff Member Profile

Tracy Falk: Aurora Staff Member Profile

It’s another Friday in central Canada’s largest recovery centre. The newer patients or clients or in this case, members, are apprehensive about the approaching weekend. Staff are doing their best to keep people grounded, to keep heads and hearts in treatment and not in old life. The building is humming, and Tracy Falk is as busy as ever.

She’s on her phone. She’s stopping the interview to answer questions from counsellors. She literally has to walk away from the Zoom camera for a couple of minutes to put out a fire. She comes back and apologizes. 

When you are the executive assistant to the president, it comes with the territory. And with less than two years on the job, that territory is all pretty new to the leader of Aurora Recovery Centre’s non-clinical side.

The only thing Tracy may have in common with addiction treatment could just be the frantic pace. 

She’s not in recovery herself. There was no alcoholism in her upbringing. She was a student who stayed out of trouble and never got into drugs.  In fact, growing up in rural Manitoba, when some of her friends were in those experimental phases, she remembers even being unwilling to smoke cigarettes.

“I was afraid I was going to do it wrong,” she says with a head tilt and a c’est la vie smile.

For the past two years, Tracy has been at her post through wholesale changes in staff and programming upgrades, a calming voice when policy switches bump up against the way things used to be done. It can be a whirlwind of phone calls, door knocks and late-afternoon emails. 

With a background of being the fixer, the handler, for executives in financial, electronics and furniture sectors, Tracy says none of that prepared her for what she is doing at Aurora.

“Oh, you enter the day very differently in this world,” she says with a shake of her head. “The bottom line is this is someone’s life you are dealing with here. So, everything I do, we do, is for the greater good, not just for an owner/ president or vice president’s bottom line dollar figure.”

Care for mom and the road less travelled

One of the truths about the addiction medicine field one quickly comes to understand is nobody starts out thinking they will walk in the doors of any treatment centre and start a career in the world of drug tests, group therapy, and strategically placed Kleenex boxes. Employees in this realm seem to all have this convergence of connected moments that lead them here.

In Tracy’s case, she and her husband, Rod, were both working in Winnipeg when her mother was stricken with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. After a full day at work, she would head north to check in on her mother at home in Fisher Branch, a two hour drive each way. Two or three times a week, often in sketchy driving conditions, they did what they could to help. “We just didn’t know how much time we would have with her … “

It wasn’t sustainable.

So, they bought a house near Gimli, smack dab in the middle of the trek. That way they could commute to work in the city and continue to check on mom. Mom would pass at age 65 and Tracy and Rod were able to be supportive for her final years.

Growing up country

Living in Gimli was an easy transition, given how she was raised in Fisher Branch as a  self-identified “country bumpkin.” 

Gimli was a return to her roots in that sense.

Fisher Branch was classic, small-town Manitoba. Barely 2,000 people scattered around the town and area. Two gas stations, two grocery stores, an elementary and a high school. Everyone knew everyone. Mom and Dad ran the local Shell bulk station, keeping the oil heaters running in the small town. Dad had a towing business at the same time – also an important byproduct of the blustery prairie winters. From kindergarten up, Falk went through the school system with her friends, until Grade 10 when the family moved to Winnipeg. It was a huge shift.

Though she was a good student with a love for athletics (baseball and basketball in particular) she was still a teen on new turf in the big city.

“It was tough. Everyone had their friends already. I was definitely a fish out of my comfortable pond.”

She struggled at first but did not break. She would adapt and graduate.

Fresh out of high school, at 19 she married and began having children. The family established a Mexican pottery and ornaments import business, and with a new baby in tow, they spent three years crisscrossing the prairies, attending trade shows, selling their products. Unfortunately, the business and marriage gave in to the pressure of life on the road.

Flexibility in the fast lane

In Winnipeg, Falk began career moves over the next 25 years which took her from retail to reception desks to executive assistant positions. The learning curve was always steep, but one thing was consistent: flexibility.

“When you work for executives, there are no real standard job descriptions,” she says. “Some are very independent; some are very dependent.”

That flexibility she developed would come in handy in relationships (she would fall in love and remarry, adding a stepdaughter to the mix) and in career choices. And that ability to adapt would also be needed after the move to Gimli.

Life has a way of unfolding right on time

When Aurora Recovery Centre began to take shape near Gimli five years ago, rumours abounded as to what was actually going on over there on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg. There were starts and stops, hirings and layoffs. Big plans but bumpy landings.

By 2016, Aurora was in the midst of a renovation and management was trying to reassure and excite the town that things were starting to stabilize.

Though she personally had an open mind about helping people recover from the disease of addiction, “I think the people of Gimli weren’t too sure.”

Falk and her husband went to an open house to hear for themselves what the plans included. 

With some 60 townsfolk present, she heard the message of hope that owner Paul Melnuk and his staff were trying to bring. She also heard about the jobs the recovery centre was offering.

Though the couple both held jobs, the drive back and forth to work in Winnipeg from Gimli was taxing. Their kids and their friends were in the city, so getting home at 8 p.m. was the norm.

“All of the conversations on the way to work, and most of it on the way back was me, head back, mouth open …” she laughs. Both were beginning to be open to the idea of finding jobs closer to their home in Gimli.

The thought of working close to home was attractive. They both filled out applications:, Tracy for a position in administration, Rod in maintenance.

Sometimes things happen for a reason. Doors open. Opportunity knocks. 

Just before they heard back from Aurora, Rod, who had been in lumber sales servicing the northern communities, was head-hunted for a job at a major retail store not far from Gimli.

Two weeks later, Tracy was hired as the executive assistant to Aurora owner Paul Melnuk, who besides being impressed by her resume, was sold on Tracy’s in-person aura.

“She’s such an energetic, positive, and willing to do-what-it-takes kind of person,” says Melnuk.

With a strong belief in serendipity and spiritual timing, Tracy sees it as meant to be.

“It just fits, you know? Again, how did we both get jobs here, close by, within a couple of weeks of each other? I’m seven minutes from work. Rod’s only like 30 minutes.” 

Aurora Recovery Centre: a young company trying to save lives

Life at Aurora since her arrival has been anything but dull. The private treatment realm can be difficult, with fluctuations in clients, staffing levels, the complexities of colliding mental health conditions, and, oh, yes, even a global pandemic. Layoffs occurred. Feelings are hurt. In a small community, reputations can be beat up during times of uncertainty.

Melnuk stepped back from the day-to-day operations after bringing in treatment veteran Steve Low to be president at Aurora in late 2019. Low, in turn, has been changing the way things are done at the centre, with an emphasis on recovery management systems instead of the old acute care model which offered little to clients when they finish their in-patient residential care. Families are being welcomed into the model of care. Employers have input. Extended care is a regular part of one’s treatment. Out-patient services meet people where they are at.

And Falk has had a front-row seat to it all. 

“It can be chaotic administratively, right? We are still a young company, so it did seem like we were learning things as we went.”

And as expected, she has adapted.

“Steve Low has definitely worked hard at getting that balance back, for people to feel safe where they are, and to focus on what we need to focus on.”

“It’s still chaotic, but in a different way. In an organized way,” she laughs. 

As she learns the ropes and helps steady the ship even during the pandemic, Falk is gaining confidence and understanding of addiction. Besides the Seagram’s plant, Aurora is one of the three largest employers in the Gimli area with over 65 staffers on the payroll. She has spoken at the local Chamber of Commerce, explaining what they do at the centre.

“The stigma towards people suffering from this illness is big out there,” she says. “But the people who come here are our brothers and sisters, our aunts and uncles, our neighbours and our friends. Addiction is not prejudiced.” 

As she helps others understand the help being offered at Aurora, she, too, is learning her role in that help. 

“When I started, I was extremely fearful to speak to any of the members. I didn’t know what I could say. What I should say. I mean, I didn’t know a lot. I didn’t want to set anybody off.”

Two years into her career at Aurora, she’s “very comfortable talking with them and meeting them right where they are at.”

“It’s a huge thing that they came here. Just even a simple good morning, with a smile, that’s what I can offer them. I can’t offer them counselling. But I can sit there and talk to them just like I’m talking to anybody. That’s what I can offer them.”

That kind of person is so important to have at a facility that teaches people to trust after years of being on the outside of that level of honesty. Tracy sees it as her chance to welcome people back into the fold of human kindness and love.

“Some of the younger ones that we have here have never had that opportunity to have someone to just sit and chat with. They’ve always felt they needed to stay under the radar screen. They didn’t want to be noticed. I have a real soft spot for younger women. Because I have kids, daughters. I want them to feel like special women.”

One of the key truths she says she has learned is that “addiction is predictably unpredictable.”

“Members come here and at almost three weeks there’s often almost a reset. They don’t want to be involved. They are ready to go. Angry. Their expectations are high. I’ve learned that I can’t look at their actions right then, because there is something deeper going on,” says Falk.

“Before, I would just see someone acting up and see who they are right at that moment. That is not really who they are. They are going through something. I’ve learned to look at them in that moment, that they need help right now.”

And you don’t have to be in recovery to understand the value of compassion.

“We have many people here who can say ‘I know exactly what you are going through.’ I have to say I don’t know what you are going through. Tell me what you are going through?”

And they do.

Her boss, Steve Low, concurs. He says the energy Tracy brings to the centre is one of calm, and strength.

“She is a value-driven individual, family-minded, and often an ear to folks just looking for a safe place to unload.”

That is how this woman of the country, a grandmother to five children, a motorcycling enthusiast, an ice fisher, a singer, a one-time boxer, a snowmobiler and a woman of deep faith, rolls. 

“I believe everything happens for a reason. I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”

Right in the centre. 

“Her own faith is a blessing down in our little wing of offices,” says Low, of his assistant. “That cheery personality is an oasis in what are often times hectic and fast-paced days. And her attention to details I don’t even know exist make what I do pretty easy much of the time.”

As the next staff member needing an answer arrives at her door, Tracy smiles. It comes with the territory. Her territory.

“Anything that is happening at the centre, I’m sort of dealing with. Not so much the members or the programming, but the facility itself. It’s not a typical executive assistant role. It’s more of an operations, facilities, administration and a role that most come to for anything they need. I’m just doing what I’m doing, part of the group, the team, helping where I can help.”

By Jeff Vircoe