As a bright and savvy businesswoman, Gail Ryan has seen many successful ventures over the last number of years.
But none have been so professionally satisfying as the position she’s in now.
Ryan is the new executive director for Habitat for Humanity in this province — a non-profit organization that provides safe, affordable housing for low-income families.
She’s only been at the helm for the past two weeks, but is seeing first-hand how the organization’s work is helping reshape people’s destinies.
“It’s probably one of the more fulfilling things I’ll ever do, professionally,” she said.
“Working (in the business community) was wonderful, but you don’t see the impact on the lives of people in this province.
“Here, we’re changing lives and that’s going to be the most fulfilling thing for me.”
Ryan worked for 13 years at the St. John’s Board of Trade, five of them as general manager. She left the board in 2008 to pursue her Master of Business Administration (MBA), via correspondence part-time from the Edinburgh School of Business.
All the while, she worked as a full-time consultant. After completing her MBA in December 2010, she continued her consulting work.
During that time, Ryan also worked as executive director of the Aquaculture Association of Canada for two years.
When the opportunity arose at Habitat for Humanity, she jumped at it.
“It’s a pretty complex organization, but you hit the ground running here,” she said.
Habitat for Humanity is an international organization which started in the United States in 1976 by a couple in Georgia, looking at the needs for affordable, safe and decent housing for low-income families. It quickly took off.
Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and his wife got involved in 1984, helping publicity, and the organization soon spread all across the world.
The organization came to Canada in the early 1980s, with the first building built in Winnipeg. There are now 67 chapters across the country.
This year marks the 20th anniversary for the Newfoundland and Labrador branch, which was incorporated in 1994.
To date, a total of 47 homes have been built in this province, but Ryan said to expect that number to soar in the next decade.
With expansion and a new strategic plan, the organization’s goal is to build 50 new homes in five years.
“We’re ramping up very quickly. We’ve got big plans,” Ryan said.
“We’ve set quite a challenge for ourselves, but in the last few years, there’s been a lot of restructuring, so I’m honoured to take on the challenge.”
Ryan said it’s overwhelming what the organization does for the people of this province.
“We serve the low-income, working families who are struggling. The gap we fill is between families who are not eligible for social assistance, but don’t qualify for a mortgage. People who have seen a revolving door of rentals,” she said.
Payment for the homes is based on income. Families pay a monthly mortgage, set at a price with which they can maintain a manageable standard of living with the rest of their bills.
“It’s breaking the cycle of poverty,” she said. “To have safe, comfortable, decent housing they can own themselves makes such a difference in their lives and in the lives of their children.”
The demand has been huge, with hundreds of families applying for help from the organization.
“The economy of Newfoundland and Labrador has been rated A-plus. Everyone seems to be doing well. The perception is the economy is booming,” Ryan said.
“But at the same time, the cost of living is rising, which makes home ownership for these families much more difficult.”
However, Ryan said with the help of partnerships with cities and towns across the province, corporate sponsorship, dedicated volunteers and partner families, who help with the building,
“It’s not a handout,” she said. “It’s a hand up.”
What is your full name?
Deanna Gail Ryan but I go by Gail.
Where and when were you born?
St. John’s; June, 1967.
Where is home today?
The east end of St. John’s.
What is your favourite food?
What are five CDs in your music collection?
The Pogues, U2, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Adele and One Direction (I have to familiarize myself with 1D — my sisters and I are taking my nieces to a 1D concert in Toronto this summer).
Do you have a favourite movie?
“The Sound of Music.”
What is your greatest indulgence?
My two babies — my Havanese dogs, Henry and Meji. No question. They have cooked meals prepared every night, go to doggie camp when my husband and I are both out all day, and the little girl has her own clothes closet. Nothing is too much for them.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
My husband and I love to travel. We try and visit a different place each time. I also volunteer and chair several boards outside my day job. I love to read, and take my dogs for long walks off leash, and I have a very close group of girlfriends who I see all the time. We truly enjoy being together and have been there for each other through thick and thin. I treasure my female friends.
What is your greatest regret?
I don’t really have any. Life is good. I have a wonderful husband, a great family, a challenging and very meaningful career and great friends. Everything I have done so far has brought me to this point and I am pretty content.
What bugs you?
Deliberate ignorance. I also have very little tolerance for pretension.
Where is your favourite vacation spot?
We recently enjoyed a river cruise on the Danube, which was an amazing experience and the best vacation so far.
What are your best and worst qualities?
Best would be I have a very big heart. Worst would be impatience.
Who inspires you?
I am constantly overwhelmed by the dedication of our Habitat volunteers. They give so selflessly of their time and skills. It would be impossible to do what we do and have such an impact on our partner families without their help. Our volunteers are key to changing lives in this province.
What is your most treasured possession?
My grandmother’s ring — she was an unbelievable lady. I miss her every day.
Do you have any hidden talents?
I kill at Candy Crush.
Who would you most like to be stuck in an elevator with?
I would most like to be stuck in an elevator with Bono. He could sing until the problem was fixed and I wouldn’t even notice we were stuck.
If you were premier of the province, what is one thing you would try to do?
Focus on solutions to provide safe, comfortable and affordable housing for hardworking people who struggle every day.
What do you remember most about your childhood?
Summers at Trinity Cabins. Every summer. Complete freedom, all day long at the pool (it seemed the weather was always great), lots of friends and my two sisters. Oh, and I could never forget Mom’s Toasty Cheese Bake.
What is your biggest fear?
Flying. I do it frequently, but I hate it.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Completing my MBA while working full time at my consulting practice. Hard, but well worth it. I was never the type who enjoyed school, but completing my master’s later in life with years of work experience behind me made what I was studying so much more relevant. It gave me a huge sense of accomplishment.