Interim Director brings new vision to St. Francis House

Judy Dembowski

By Alexa Epitropoulos |

The desk that Judy Dembowski occupies at the St. Francis House is new to her. In a few short weeks, however, she has made it her own, down to her characteristic coffee mug.

When Renee Morris resigned as executive director of the St. Francis House, Dembowski is the first to admit she was shell-shocked. What came next happened quickly—Dembowski was named interim director and immediately inherited the responsibility of picking up where Morris left off.

For Dembowski and the other staff members who had lived under her direction, Morris’ departure was difficult to contend with.

“There was shock. There was a lot of sadness. Renee was here for a long time and she touched a lot of lives,” Dembowski said.

Dembowski is now responsible for managing day-to-day operations, as well as writing grants and reorganizing the structure.  A day at the office often entails long hours and few dull moments.

“It’s a huge responsibility. It’s one thing to know in your head what the job entails. It’s another thing to have to get up and beJudy Dembowski chats with staff member responsible for it every day,” Dembowski added.

Although Morris stepped down quickly, Dembowski says she was glad to see her addressing personal concerns first. Some rumors of contention between the board of directors and Morris surfaced after her resignation, but Dembowski is more concerned with the task at hand.

“I think people were glad she was taking care of her own health. She was worn down,” said Dembowski. “She really had to make a hard decision.”

Now, Dembowski hopes to bring her own vision to the St. Francis House. That includes making the structure more fluid and efficient, through the staff that’s already in place.

“Everyone has pulled together and said ‘Things are changing. Things are going to change a lot and that’s okay,” Dembowski said. “Now it’s about ‘How do we get through this together as a team? How do we support one another?'”

Jon Benoit, the president of the Board of Directors, is quick to praise how staff at the St. Francis House has handled the transition, which he describes as smooth.

Benoit, who has been a member of the Board of Directors the for St. Augustine Society, which operates the St. Francis House, for six years and the president for three, was, like many others, surprised by Morris’ resignation. Benoit expected Morris’ time at the St. Francis House to last as long as his, if not longer.

Benoit, like the staff members at St. Francis House, has the task of moving ahead from a difficult situation. Morris’ abrupt departure did not just spark rumors of internal conflict—some rumors have attacked Morris herself.

“I came into the organization at about the same time Renee did and I really had always envisioned going out with her at the same time,” Benoit said. “I will miss her.”

Although Benoit and the staff are primarily interested in keeping the St. Francis House running efficiently, the board of directors is also charged with selecting a new executive director to fill Morris’ place permanently.

The choice, according to Benoit, will, more than likely, take some time. The process itself can be tedious and slow. All members of the board of directors are volunteers. Additionally, it’s a decision that will have massive implications for the direction of the St. Francis House.

“Any transition is always a little scary. It’s always a little exciting. That’s what change is all about. If you choose to focus on the negative, then I think you’re just going to accelerate the negative,” Benoit added. “I’m trying to embrace the notion that this is a new start.”

Benoit hopes that the next executive director will maintain services and bring new insights. For now, the board is focusing on making changes across the board.

“I see it as an opportunity to check in with some of our core values and see if we’re delivering on those,” Benoit said. “If we can’t deliver on those core values, we need to simplify what we’re doing until we’re knocking out core values out of the park, day in, day out.”

Change, according to Benoit, is inevitable at the St. Francis House. Benoit plans to move into the background and allow the new executive director, when selected, run the organization as he or she sees fit.

“When a new coach comes in, things change a little bit. The vocabulary changes a little bit. The leadership style changes,” Benoit explained. “You have a new personality in there and you need to let them put their stamp on their organization. After all, they’re going to own it, whether it’s a success or a failure.”

A New EnvironmentDembowski, who has been at the St. Francis House as an administrative assistant since July, aspires to be that coach. It’s a title that Dembowski describes as her “dream job”.

She has been working with the homeless for 20 years, mostly in her home state of Maine. Helping homeless populations has become Dembowski’s passion since she first saw a television ad for a youth homeless shelter when she was in college.

“I went and I applied. I was going to school at the time and had two little kids myself. I just fell in love with it,” Dembowski said.

Debowski plans to bring her experience to the agency, whether she is selected as executive director or not. She, along with the team of case managers and volunteers who have kept the St. Francis House running, are looking forward to the future.

“I would like to see growth. I would like to see diversified funding so that there’s more stability financially,” Dembowski said. “I would like to see permanent affordable housing. I’d like to see more services and more diverse services for the homeless.”

For Dembowski, it’s more than just a job—it’s something that she wakes up every morning wanting to do.

“I can’t explain it. Some people go shopping in the morning or they get up and play tennis. I get up and I come here and do what I got to do to keep people from living on the streets,” Dembowski said. “It doesn’t feel like a job. It doesn’t feel like work. This is just what I do.”

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