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Juliet Irish
Executive Director of Doane House Hospice

By Sheila Gregory

If you were to sit down and chat with Juliet Irish, in some sense, you might feel that you had met a rock. There’s a quiet, strong determination – a sense of unshakable sturdiness. Juliet tells you, without saying so, that everything will be okay now. You can be sure that many have felt the presence of this rock before, and were able to reach their potential because of it.

Who is Juliet Irish? She is the Executive Director of Doane House Hospice, a small charitable organization at the highly visible corner of Yonge and Eagle Streets in Newmarket, Ontario. At Doane House Hospice, Juliet helps countless people dealing with a diagnosis of cancer, a terminal illness or the grief they experience from losing a loved one. Doane House staff and volunteers have turned traditional notions about death and dying head over heels. No one needs to creep into this Quaker farmhouse quietly and morosely. It is not a sad place. It’s a safe place of support, and compassion where people diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses can be themselves and celebrate life to the fullest. It’s a place to learn about death and dying as an inevitable part of life. Doane House provides an invaluable service to York Region residents in a way that few other services can. And Juliet, with her self-professed “dog-with-a-bone” nature, has been at the centre of it all for the last seven years.

In her second floor office at Doane House, Juliet loves to hear the continuous peal of clients’ laughter, as they get up to all sorts of antics downstairs. But what is going on in that big, cozy room on the main floor? Any number of things could be happening, like yoga classes, relaxation and visualization programs, day programs or art therapy, all interwoven with a therapeutic dose of bonding between friends. The intensity of Juliet’s caring shines through with the declaration, “This is an amazing little place. I love coming to work. I am inspired by the strength and courage of our clients that I come into contact with on a daily basis.”

Former Doane House board member, Liz Dodge, says Juliet “busts her butt on a daily basis to try and make life better for people living with life-threatening illnesses.” Most of that butt-busting comes in the form of fundraising. Only 20 per cent of operating costs are funded by government. Juliet with her staff and volunteers focus on securing the remainder from private and corporate donations. Some of that generosity recently came in the form of the Hope Tree Initiative, a video and social media project donated by local businessman, Brett Richards, to raise awareness about the need for services.

It takes a caring person to be a fundraiser. For Juliet, this penchant for caring comes naturally. The Brit, with an accent to prove it, reflects on her youth, noting “my parents always involved us in charitable activities, either at the food bank or entertaining the elderly.” In other words, it’s in her DNA. When asked what else she would be doing, if not working with Doane House, Juliet says she would travel. In another imaginary life, she sees herself helping to build an orphanage or supporting children’s feeding programs in third world countries. A glow envelops Juliet when she speaks of travel – her lifetime calling. This is no surprise because coupled with her desire to help others, is a life of living in different countries. Five countries on this globe have become her home at times.  Until recent roots took hold in Aurora, Ontario, she and her family never lived in one place for more than five or six years.

Born in Reading, England, she spent the first three years of her life in Portugal where she learned to speak a language she has since lost. Then after her nursing education, she realized she couldn’t fulfill her passion for travel. So it was off to Saudi Arabia to work abroad. That’s when she first flew away from the United Kingdom as a young nurse to find her fortunes and wear the Abaya, as culture dictated for women.

“Women had no say in Saudi” says Juliet. “So for me it was hard to keep my opinions to myself, but an amazing work opportunity all the same. And of course that is where I met my husband!”

Juliet knows how to tell a story about the power of optimism and creates an aura of curiosity about some of the amazing things she has seen in her travels. The talents of a Rain Stopper once astonished her when she lived and worked in Indonesia. During a five-year stint there, she ran an organization that supported social programs, including feeding programs, TB clinics and schools. To fundraise for these programs, Juliet organized an outdoor bazaar.  When she saw the event would be washed out by an impending monsoon, she knew she had to take action. She paid the Rain Stopper to come with his little bag of tricks and paid his professional fee. Her colleagues may have looked at her sideways, but sure enough, the rain held off until after five o’clock, when the event concluded successfully. Juliet discovered that although his parents passed down this talent to him, the little bag was just for show. After all, a Rain Stopper is expected to carry the tools of the trade!

Having seen so much of the world, one might wonder what’s in the cards for Juliet’s future. She does still have dreams of continued travel, maybe to the Taj Mahal to discover all of its fascinating history. But impressed with her clients’ artistic talents in the art therapy room, and the value of the program, she also has thoughts of becoming a certified art therapist. Then, modesty overrides this notion as she demurely confesses, “I’m not really very arty or creative – I’m much better at drawing stick figures.”

“Leave a legacy of compassion”

Whatever lies in her future, Juliet Irish foresees that somehow, even if under the radar, she’ll always be involved with Doane House Hospice. When asked for advice for the future, Juliet offers, “Be kind to yourself.  Take time and know your own boundaries. Lead a good life and leave a legacy of compassion.” She is clearly realizing these goals through her giving spirit at Doane House, but also through the great rewards of family life. Through the digital magic of Skype, she still shares a beverage with her mother and sister in England every Sunday. And speaking fondly of her husband and two grown daughters, she imparts the wisdom that, “if you give your children the wings to fly, they will always fly back home.” After a serene afternoon, spent chatting and sharing a cup of tea with this interesting woman, there seems little doubt that Juliet’s own wings will always bring her back to Doane House.

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