Freshly Squeezed: Mairi O'Keefe

Iriss.fm, Episode 221
Published on 24 Oct 2018

Freshly Squeezed is an Iriss podcast which aims to 'squeeze' information and inspiration from key influencers in social services in Scotland. 

In this episode, Michelle Drumm speaks to Mairi O'Keefe, Chief Executive of Leuchie House national respite centre, based near North Berwick since 2003. The only facility of its kind in Scotland, Leuchie has specialised in providing short respite breaks for people and their families living with MS, Parkinson’s and other long-term conditions. 

In 2010, Mairi successfully led the Save Leuchie campaign, saving the centre from closure and setting it up as an independent charity in July 2011. In 2015, she received an MBE for services to people with disabilities. 

Confirming that she will be leaving Leuchie House in November 2018 Mairi O’Keefe said:

Everyone who knows me knows how passionate I am about Leuchie House and the very special service we provide. It was always going to be difficult to step down, but I know I can do so feeling proud of everything we’ve achieved. I’ve been honoured to experience on a daily basis just how much of a difference Leuchie makes to all the hundreds of families we support every year.

Michelle Drumm and Mairi O'Keefe
Date of recording
Audio transcript

MD - Michelle Drumm
MO - Mairi O'Keefe

MD Hello and welcome to Freshly Squeezed, an IRISS podcast which aims to squeeze information and inspiration from key influencers in Social Services in Scotland, today I'm speaking to Mairi O'Keefe. Mairi has been the Chief Executive of Leuchie House, national respite centre, based near North Berwick since 2003. The only facility of its kind in Scotland, Leuchie has specialised in providing short respite breaks for people and their families living with MS, Parkinson's and other long-term conditions. In 2010, Mairi successfully led the Save Leuchie campaign, saving the centre from closure and setting it up as an independent charity in July 2011. In 2015, she received an MBE for services to people with disabilities, confirming that she'll be leaving Leuchie House in November 2018, Mairi O'Keefe said, "Everyone who knows me, knows how passionate I am about Leuchie House and the very special service we provide. It was always going to be difficult to step down, but I know I can do so feeling proud of everything we've achieved. I've been honoured to experience on a daily basis just how much of a difference Leuchie makes to all of the hundreds of families we support every year." So Mairi, welcome to Freshly Squeezed.

MO Hello, good afternoon.

MD Yeah, it's lovely to meet you and I'd just like to congratulate you on all your achievements and on your retirement just coming up.

MO Thank you very much Michelle, it's not going to be easy, in fact it's not been. It's been very emotional the last few weeks saying cheerio to our wonderful guests that I've known and built up a relationship over the last... well some 15 years, and I feel I'm losing 450 friends all in one foul swoop.

MD I can imagine.

MO Yes, we've shared so much together and to be honest it's been a huge honour for them to trust me to share their lives, not just their lives, but their families lives and for me to have a much greater insight into the challenges that they have, just living an ordinary life, it's really hard and it's getting harder.

MD And your contribution to the world of social services is very remarkable. Tell me though, did you always want to work in the Social Services sector?

MO Never saw myself working in Social Services ever.

MD Right.

MO I mean I originally trained as a nurse so, I suppose I always thought I was going to be health related, however I certainly never saw myself in Social Services. I certainly never saw myself as a CEO of a charity and in fact to be honest, coming into third sector for the first 3 months I thought I'd made a dreadful mistake but that was 15 years ago, and I got over that thankfully so, it's good. My background really is I trained as a nurse in 1973 so, as you can see that's quite a long time ago, at the Western General in Edinburgh and at the end of my training my husband took ... my then fiancé, took a very rare polio virus at the time, he'd Guillian Barre Syndrome and he went from being a very fit, professional footballer, a wonderful career looking in front of him to being in a wheelchair ... well first of all he was totally paralysed for about 9 months and we couldn't communicate, he was ventilated all that time. And then he was told he would never walk or work again and fortunately he wouldn't accept that because he was young, and he was very strong, and he wanted to get better but it made it quite difficult because he was quite stubborn about it but he was righting the wrong. So, he did manage to walk and he certainly worked again but that was when we were in our early 20's and that sort of changed my life a bit however then I went to work as a nurse for the British Airport Authority based in Edinburgh Airport so, I did that for a few years and it was a fantastic job, it was really so stimulating. So, though we were nurses, we were on the information desk and we were carrying out all the flight calls, telephone enquiries so, I can say, "Departure British Airways Shuttle Service to London Heathrow" beautifully. So, we did all that, but we were also the nurses for doing occupational health on any emergencies that happened on board the flight or within the terminal. So, it was quite an interesting job, it was a mixture of A&E and it was a mixture of occupational health but also, we had the customer service side of things which was also very interesting, and I found that very fulfilling. I then was promoted, and I became the first airport duty manager, female duty manager, at aged 25. So, that was a good job to cut your teeth on and I did that for a few years and then I was very happy to become pregnant with my first son, Liam, and at that time you either came back to work or you didn't come back, there was no such thing as job share or part time work and there was no recognition to the fact that you came back to your work. Your job was kept for you but that was it and I realised that 13 hour shifts at the weekend wasn't exactly what I wanted to do so, I had to resign from the British Airport Authority at that time and very quickly realised I was having another baby and I then had Callum and I worked for British Caledonian which was an airline. You might not remember that, or you might not know about BCal but I was a BCal girl for a while, for 2 years and that was fantastic and then I moved into immigration. I was an immigration officer for a while and then I went back to the British Airport Authority but I had to start my career journey from the very beginning back as a nurse, then an airport duty manager, I then moved into property retail, latterly a change manager as part of £100 million integrated business processes throughout the whole of the BA, all the 7 airports and enjoyed the world of change management very much and left the British Airport Authority and joined another 2 or 3 people based in the city of London and I became an associate for TPD Associates and I did change management within Europe for the International Schools System. So, I was teaching teachers about change management ad head teachers about change management. I was travelling quite a bit in Europe and it was lovely, you know you stay in beautiful hotels and things but still work, you know it's not the life that you think it is and it's quite a lonely life and also I found consultancy work incredibly frustrating because you would put in place you know, a way forward or plans or whatever and it really depended on the interest and the commitment from your customer whether they actually followed through that or not and I found myself doing more and more work for the customer, not just doing the change management aspect, simply to get the job done. We live in North Berwick and I was home and I was putting the papers out, the recycling, and I was thinking, "why does nobody else do this except me?" and then I saw in the vacancy part of The Scotsman, at the time, the MS Society were looking for a manager, senior manager, for the MS Society but primarily responsible for Leuchie House and I thought to myself, "Oh, that could be a nice wee job up the road." It's turned into that I've never worked so hard in the last 15 years, than I have the rest of my life put together however I'd lost my registration as a nurse so, I had to you know, go through that and luckily at the time the director of the MS Society supported me through that and I came to Leuchie 15 years ago, in June 2003, and I honestly thought the first 3 months I'd made a dreadful mistake, I didn't think this was my environment. It was so different from the airport environment, from the corporate environment, from the travelling environment and I wasn't quite sure if I had made the right decision or not however after a very short while you don't actually see wheelchairs, you just see people and personalities and the sense of humour and the needs of these people and it really helped me through the transition and I discovered that I had an absolute passion for the work that we do at Leuchie and also it was incredibly empowering for all the things that I had learnt through the corporate environment about change management, about the soft leadership skills, about teams, about communication and you were trying to make that happen in large environments, corporate environments. Coming to Leuchie, when you're the boss, if you want something to happen: it can happen tomorrow and you can determine, easily determine your own ethos and your own atmosphere and ambiance and the standards you want to have as a manager and also the standards you expect from your staff and actually was really empowering. A mixture of my nursing background, my experience through my husband, of being a carer, and nursing somebody with a condition and my business skills, they all came together, and they merged and we worked together as a team within my team to make Leuchie and absolute icon of respite care under the MS Society.

MD Mairi, you yourself like, I can hear your passion coming through for what you do, but what is it that makes you tick? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

MO For me it's that I think ... well first of all before, I get out ... but before I get out of bed, I'm running through, "Right, what's today? It's Monday, Tuesday ... Wednesday ... now what have I got on today, what's the diary showing today?" and then I think, "Oh, yeah." For me it's ... now I need to see this guy, because I know he can make that happen that will benefit the people at Leuchie or I need to see this person who I know has got a ... knows major donors who could give us money, I've got to raise over a million pounds a year. That's a huge thought every first of January that I've got to raise a million pounds by the end of December so, it's about what can I do today that's going to make a difference for the Leuchie guests basically and whether it's determining policy of how we can move our model forward, whether it is finance, whether it's influencing people to make them understand what our model is and why it is so unique. When we set up 7 years ago, integration was not talked about and now integration is very much part of our general chat now. Leuchie has been a true model of integration from the very concept of Health and Social Care. Things I'm going to do that will make a difference to either Luechie's model, it's sustainability, it's respect throughout the whole of Scotland, this is a completely innovative model and I really hope with the new neurological action plan that's about to be launched in the next week or two hopefully, we should be looking at more innovative ways of working. We can't look back on the 10 years of what we've done previously and expect that we can replicate that for the next 10 years, no. And Scotland's already proved that in the fantastic models that they've got already with self-directed support, self-management that the Alliance is hugely involved in, the Carers Act, integration, you know, all the things that are really innovative, but the problem has been in the implementation and the detail of the implementation. Now there's absolutely nobody that would not say that integration is not the best things that's possible for going forward but you know, as a change manager, I just think that perhaps some of the change management was not done up front and now we're suffering the consequences of that whilst if we had taken the time out ...

MD To sort of think about that.

MO ... think about it as, I think, Ayrshire and Ireland did, they actually employed some change managers and backfilled some posts and now they're a good few years ahead of most people. I'm not saying, it's bad everywhere, there's pockets of fantastic work, it's still very embryonic, very embryonic. 

MD So, my next question really was what's a typical day look like for you, but it sounds like most of your days aren't very typical.

MO No, no. The only 2 things I try and have is, I work out on a Monday and a Wednesday morning at half past 6 on the beach in North Berwick

MD Oh, lovely.

MO So, I've just gone into head torch time. Which is not quite so lovely. This week has been my first head torch week and we've had started the high winds this week as well. I've been doing it now for 5 or 6 years, more than that actually, 7 years now and it certainly is a great way of destressing and if you've met the elements over the winter, swirling snow and sand blasting in your face, you certainly feel invigorated afterwards.

MD And a little bit blind.

MO Fantastic exfoliation for the skin but it is ... so, I try and keep that, if I can keep that going obviously depending on my schedule, it depends but no there's no 2 days typically. I try and get to reports if I can in the mornings so, I can keep in touch with the guests and how they're doing, I make sure I spend as much time as possible with the Leuchie guests because if I can find out more about how their lives and the challenges that their lives are, I can campaign and be an advocate for them because they can't campaign and be an advocate for themselves because of their condition. They've got cognition issues, they're fatigued, it's too difficult to fill in forms, it's too difficult ...

MD Sure.

MO ... to go to get transport, well transport's so difficult to get ... if you're in a wheelchair, you know, transport to go to somewhere to get weighed or to fill out a benefit form or • there's so many things that we could develop our model, I mean the fact that we could check their benefits, check their funding, see if there's any other ways that we could help them. I feel that it's part of my role to be able to bring to attention some of the issues that are really facing people with long term conditions within Scotland. So, if I go back to a typical day, there is no such thing as a typical day. I can work anything between 50 to 90 hours a week, just depending if I've got ... so, I might be at Leuchie during the day but then another day starts if you've got meetings in Edinburgh, late afternoon then there might be a couple of receptions in parliament or you've got (• unclear) and I have got a reception in parliament so, I know I won't be home until 9 o'clock tonight and I've been out of the house since just after 6 this morning so, it is unusual to have 7 days like that I would have to say but there's so many fundraising events that happen at the weekend that I've got to attend and make speeches at and things so, there is no typical day.

MD So Mairi, do you have a motto for life?

MO Well funnily enough my motto for life is, is anyone dead? 
MD Where did that come from?

MO I don't know where it came from, it just ... if somebody comes to me and says, "Eh Mairi, we've got a problem." I'll just say, "Is anybody dead? No, right okay, we can get round it. Whatever it is we can get round it." I hope people will come to me ... "Right, we've got a problem however this is what I think." I think sometimes they think, "I don't know what to do." But you know you've always got to think outside the box, you've always got to think of some way that will make this happen.

MD Sure.

MO So, yes, my motto is for life is, is anyone dead?

MD So, did you have a book that you'd recommend to the people listening?

MO Yes, there's a great book called, Ahabs Wife, I can't remember who wrote it now. I should have thought of that beforehand but it's beautifully written and it's one of those books that I can recommend to ... I've recommended it to quite a few people and everybody, but everybody's loved it.

MD Is it a fiction book?

MO It's fiction yes, but it's beautifully written and it starts up in the whaling industry and actually my father was a whaler in Georgia, South Georgia just round about the time I was born and it's a really tough life, whaling was a terribly tough life and this is set in the 18th century or something and then it changes as things move on but it is a ... and it's all about Nova Scotia and Cape Breton and that's also very Celtic isn't it? The linkage with Scotland and Cape Breton so, I think it's a wonderful book. I read cookery books all the time.

MD Cover to cover?

MO Cover to cover and never follow a recipe. I've got ... I couldn't begin to tell you how many cookery books, I go to every charity shop and I've got a bookcase full of them and I read them in bed at night and I've got a stack beside the bed and I never follow a recipe ever and I've also got, Good Food Magazine, Delicious, the Sainsbury magazine ...

MD They're quite nice to look at though, aren't they?

MO I tell you ...

MD The pictures are nice.

MO ... it's a bit obsessional and also you know, if I'm watching a cookery programme in the morning, on a Saturday morning or something. It'll be on the table by that night.

MD Really?

MO Yes. 

MD (... unclear)

MO I suppose my way of destressing is chopping onions and my husband knows things are really bad when it's French onion soup cos that's a lot of onions for French onion soup. He knows that's been a bad day and he just takes himself off to let me chop my onions.

MD Right.

MO Yes, yes.

MD And when you're chopping your onions then, do you like to listen to music? Do you have a musical motivation?

MO I love ... I absolutely love music, I love every shape and form of music. My one bit of music would be, Bruce Springsteen because when I set up Leuchie, he had just brought out a new album and one of the tracks was called, "Working on a Dream" and that's exactly what I was doing, was working on a dream. I didn't know whether I would survive or manage to pull this off or not, but I was working on a dream. I love everything from traditional Celtic Gaelic music, Ishbel MacAskill, Julie Fowlis, that's very much my roots, the original Runrig from 1973/74 to you know some of the mod singers, is just beautiful some of the music and also Gaelic hymns are really nice. The island I come from had a very famous priest called Father Allan MacDonald, in fact he planted a tree in Eriskay, it was the only tree in Eriskay because it was so windswept for many, many decades and it's just been shortlisted for the tree of the year. It won the Scottish aspect of the tree of the year, but he was a wonderful • and he wrote the music for this lovely Gaelic mass which unfortunately isn't sung very much now but that was my Gaelic growing up and that was really important. I also love classical music, I love opera, I love an opera singer called Jessie Norman, I love Carl Jenkins music, but I also love live music, I go to live music as much as possible, just back from the ELO concert which was in ...

MD Oh right, yeah.

MO ... Newcastle and a friend of mine who was at the concert in Glasgow tweeted afterwards, "Just leaving the ELO concert and I think somebody's just rang the fire bell in a care home" because we were all of a certain age, you know which I thought was a great way of putting it.

MD Fantastic. Who or what would be your inspirations then in your career, do you have anybody in particular?

MO Well there's quite a few, when I started as a junior manager, as an airport duty manager at Edinburgh Airport there was a very fine lady manager who was then terminal services manager and she had a huge effect on me at that time and taught me so much. There have been various aspects of bad managers that made me realise I didn't want to be that kind of manager.

MD Uh huh.

MO I was incredibly lucky, nearly 15, no 18 years ago to be chosen on a leadership programme within the British Airport Authority and it was about transformational leadership, not transactional so, you came from being a manager with the transactional aspect to the transformational aspect and I was very lucky to go on an Anthony Robbins weekend, he's a motivational guru and I had a weekend and it really made a huge difference to my life. It made me realise, one that even if things are really in a mess round about you, you don't need to be affected, you know you can keep your own self, you don't need to be drawn into it and it's much better as a manager that you stand back and that you look at things. And I thought, "Right, how do we work our way through this, not being sucked into the minutiae of it ... and also maintain your own state, maintain your own state of wellbeing, that makes you a much more effective manager than ...

MD A bit of self-care.

MO A bit of self-care but also a bit of realising that if you don't keep strong, it's never going to change anything of the mess that's going round about you.

MD Yeah. 

MO So, that was incredibly inspirational and also to make you realise you take account of your own destiny. If you really believe in something that's ... you know, you make it happen and there are ways that you can make things happen and never just accept ... never fall at the first fence basically. You pick yourself ... it taught me resilience and I've really needed to draw deep on that for a long time and also it taught me to have a clear vision of what you wanted and how you wanted to be perceived and also the work that you wanted to do and if you've got that vision and you've got the resilience, I think it's a powerful message.

MD Yeah.

MO My director of the MS Society when I first joined, who actually gave me my job at Leuchie, who's got a lot to answer for, I have to say, he is fantastic on strategy, on health and he thinks a lot when I'm probably very much a do'er and so, I'll talk to him on the phone about various things and there was silence and I was thinking ... or I'd say to him, "That's a silence that says, "I'm processing this, I'm not sure" or this is a silence, "I've processed it, and I think you're absolutely crazy."" But you know it's great to have that opportunity to work with somebody who works so differently from me.

MD Yeah, yeah.

MO And I know that I am such a big picture person, I surround myself with detail people because they will mop up the areas that I am ... you know I'm charging down one road and I kind of think it's a bit like a tanker, a tanker out at sea and you're storming through and behind you there's all these little boats picking up the things that you've dropped and I think that's very important that you understand your failings as a manager and as a leader and make sure that you've risk assessed it and you've got the people round about you that have got the exact opposite, recognising your failings is just as important as recognising your strengths.

MD Yeah, I would agree with you there absolutely. So, do you have one piece of advice that you would give to those working or considering working in Social Services? I know it's a broad area of work but what would your piece of advice be to people working in this sector?

MO I suppose it depends on what areas you want to work in, I think for everybody it's about attention to detail and think about how you would like to be treated and the things that are really important to you. Now, it could be the most tiniest detail and it might not cost anything but it could make the biggest difference to one person. It's simple thing like remembering they take 2 sugars in their tea, or they don't like coffee, or it might be you know, really big things about how they should be positioned in bed, how they should be positioned in their wheelchair or it might be as a manager how can you have the most affect and effect on your customers, clients, whatever you want to call them, and your staff. How can you motivate and bring out the best in people that means that they will be really great at delivering social care?

MD The best person they can be, really.

MO Yes, the best pers ... so they've got to be (... unclear), you know, good on their own skin and that makes them much better. One of the most wonderful things that happened was that we had somebody who came to us probably 8/9 years ago, she's high up in financial services but she'd decided to be a Reiki practitioner and she wanted to have some more experience and she came to volunteer at Leuchie, and I thought, "that's great, the guests will love that." She said, "No, no, I want to do it." And I got this really insightful ... "I want to do it on the staff to make sure they're aligned because they will give a better service to all your guests. It will have much more of an effect." So, I suddenly thought, "Oh dear, that means I'm going to have to go through this aren't I because I'm the manager and I thought it was good to sort of encourage the staff to do that. Do you know it absolutely changed my way of thinking, she released areas of communication, she got all my meridians and chakras all aligned so, that when it came to saving Leuchie and also setting up Leuchie, at very short notice with no money, inheriting a very complicated operation, an expensive operation, I was fit for purpose because of her and also it showed that I'm leading a health charity, I couldn't be 5 or 6 stone overweight as I was at that time and that I had to do something about it. I think I might need to get that back again, a wee bit now but you know I did manage to lose quite a lot of weight because of that and it made me a better ambassador for a health charity, I think.

MD So then, what's the one thing that you couldn't live without, Mairi?

MO Music, I couldn't live without music. I couldn't live without my relationships that are very close to me and probably that includes my ability to try and pray at times. My wonderful husband and great family but most importantly my perfume. I love perfume, I've inherited ... my mother is 97 and she's exactly the same, we both love handbags and we both love perfume and yes, I'm very fussy about my perfume.

MD And that's all my questions for today. This podcast, as you know, is called Freshly Squeezed so, I ask all my guests: your juice, how do you like it? Smooth or with juicy bits?

MO I don't like it with ... I don't buy shop bought stuff, which sounds a bit awful, doesn't it but you know, I make up my own stuff and it's never got bits in it.

MD It's never got bits?

MO Never got bits in it.

MD So, you're a smooth.

MO Smooth, they stick in your teeth.

MD That's what a lot of people say.

MO They stick in your teeth, yes.

MD Mairi, you've been Freshly Squeezed. It's been an absolute pleasure to meet you, thank you.

MO Thank you for a lovely afternoon.