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A Bold Leader with a Beautiful Spirit

Vinfen’s former Senior Vice President of the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Division (PRD) Susan Abbott has quite the story to share of bravery, kindness, and strength. She is the definition of a woman in leadership that has left a lasting impact on the Vinfen community.

Susan grew up with love from a stay at home mother. Her mom was her first impression of a strong and independent woman who gave her all to her passion in life. “She took her role very seriously and did it to her best ability. That’s when I learned that it doesn’t matter what the role is, you just do it to the very best that you can.” Her grandmother was another strong influence early in her life, as someone who had many divergent interests and a great deal of practical knowledge and self-sufficiency as she continued to learn and apply new things well into her older years. “From her I learned that it’s important to keep striving to learn and apply what you learn in the world.” Susan put these values into her adolescent pocket and ran with it all the way into adulthood.

During her early education years, Susan had the impression that all she could do as a woman in the workplace was to become a secretary, so she learned the skill of typing. However, she wanted more and decided to go to college, and earned her BA in Psychology and Anthropology from The University of Vermont. From there, she knew she belonged within the mental health field and that this was her found passion. With direct service experience working in a Vinfen community apartment program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for more than a year, Susan decided to return to school and received her Master of Education in Counseling degree from Ohio University.

Susan returned to the Boston area and became a Program Director at Vinfen. After a short amount of time in the position, Susan knew she wanted to have an impact on more people. “I asked if I could supervise additional programs, and if I could start to develop new programs,” Susan stated. Over the next few years, she developed specialized programs, oversaw a large supported housing service, and worked as a Clinical Team Leader. She continued to advance her skills and became Senior Vice President of PRD in 1999, which she has remained for the last 20 years at Vinfen. “I’ve always been somebody who focuses on doing the work in front of me as well as I possibly can,” described Susan.

Susan believes that there is no linear path that will take one directly to where one wants to be in life. It is important to embrace the opportunities offered and seek out work that is of interest at the present time. This self-projection of expectations puts too much pressure on people to make the right career choices. “I think it’s important to let careers evolve in ways that are most consistent with what it is that that person wants at that time in their life,” Susan advocates.

Because she has worked at Vinfen for over 36 years, there are many memories and moments that will stay with Susan. She is excited for the roll-out of the Electronic Health Record (EHR) Cx360 digital health database, and the current transformation of systems management throughout the organization. Her time at Vinfen has also impacted her perception of society. “What I brought to Vinfen is sort of an unyielding iron will about the fact that people are people. Some people have difficulties. Some of these difficulties are defined as mental health issues. Because they are people, we need to treat them as such and help them get on with life as they define it,” Susan voiced. “We need to understand that rehabilitation is all about accepting someone where they are at, asking them how they want to change in a positive direction, and helping them get there by giving them resources, providing them with education and opportunities to practice, and when needed, modifying their environment.”

Remembering the innate human element to the work one is doing is very important. Susan recalls a time in her career where a person Vinfen served was nervous about traveling to meet her brother after many years, and did not have the proper footwear to embark on her journey. When Susan and this woman went to a shoe store to address this barrier, the store had run out of peds socks for customers to put on before trying on shoes. “So I just took my socks off and I said, do you mind wearing my socks so you can try the shoes on?” This moment of compassion was so memorable to the woman that twenty years later, she approached Susan and reminded her of that time that was so special to her. “I had forgotten all about it – but the smallest and most direct gestures of helpfulness are often the most meaningful to people,” shared Susan. Susan believes it’s essential to understand just how important simple human gestures are, and how powerful they can be to someone. “It’s very humbling how basic people’s needs are and what true helpfulness is all about.” She encourages others to ponder what is helpful versus intrusive in helping the people Vinfen serves reclaim their lives and to match your helpfulness to what the person needs now.

Vinfen has been such a constant in Susan’s life. Susan has thoroughly enjoyed putting positive messages out there in the community about both the meaningfulness and value of the work at Vinfen. “I also like developing the capacity of the direct reports that I have, and developing the capacity of women leaders,” Susan added. Susan is an advocate of women in leadership and believes Vinfen embraces the power of women.

Mentoring is very dear to Susan, and she feels that she has learned a lot from many people throughout her life. “I think mentoring is really important because aside from the learning that happens, there is no substitute for someone taking a specific individual interest in you, and that is hard to find in our hurried work lives.” Susan believes that being someone’s mentor is absolutely rewarding and there is nothing like it. It is special and unique, and there is no substitute for having someone that genuinely cares about you and your future success.

When advising the future generations of women in leadership, Susan wants people to remember what you are passionate about and to never lose that. One of her greatest sources of grief is the loss of working directly with the people Vinfen serves. As a person in a leadership role, one naturally becomes removed from the everyday interactions with people receiving services, due to a broader sense of duty. Nevertheless, Susan has always held on tight to those lessons she has learned over the years working directly with people Vinfen serves, and they remain in her heart forever. She also encourages women to trust their intuition and to not let someone else define their future. “Do the work. Do the best you can. Do the work with all the energy you can muster. Do your best work, and never stop doing your best work,” Susan recommended.

Women still face barriers in leadership, such as the knowledge of leadership itself. Susan hopes that leadership roles and the skill-set they require is talked about more, which is one of the reasons why she presented on the topic recently at both the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Division’s All Manager Meeting and Vinfen’s Administrative Building in Cambridge, MA. Being someone in a leadership role is not easy, and it is continuously important to have both courage and compassion in leadership roles. “Leadership is a tremendous responsibility. It’s just hard, and you have to think a lot in order to take the right action. There is a need for a constant mental map of future possibilities, and one must have the ability to adapt, to encourage others to participate and express their thoughts, and most importantly to always speak your truth. You cannot lead others if you are not thinking ahead.”

Susan encourages others to dedicate time to deciphering what is truly important in your life, and figuring out the best way to emphasize and achieve it, which can take time and that is okay. “What is it that you want to achieve, and what are the steps to get there?” asked Susan. Find your compass. Find your ruler. Find your happiness.

Vinfen is excited to announce the establishment of the Susan Abbott Women in Leadership Scholarship in honor of Susan’s legacy of being a strong leader and mentor for women. Vinfen is committed to supporting women and celebrating the perseverance, dedication, and passions of Vinfen staff.

Starting in 2020, chosen staff will be give the opportunity to attend The Massachusetts Conference for Women at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Past Conference guest highlights included Shonda Rhimes, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Amal Clooney, and Bethenny Frankel. This is a fantastic opportunity to network and be inspired by fantastic individuals who are leading the way.

On behalf of the Vinfen community, we will sincerely miss you Susan. Your presence, knowledge, friendship, and leadership will remain with us. You will always be a part of the Vinfen family.