As head of Kids Help Phone, Katherine Hay is helping the charity evolve with technology and culture.
2021 Social Change - National Impact Award Winner
By Karen van Kampen
When Katherine Hay was a teenager, her mother recertified her nursing credentials so she could continue supporting Katherine and her younger sister as a single mother. Katherine’s older brother had just died in a car accident at the age of 19.
“My mom was and is the epitome of strength, courage, and grit without ever losing her warmth or ability to cast a safe and loving family net,” she says.
Katherine remembers volunteering with her sister in the chronic care ward where her mother worked. “Those were good early experiences that were anchored on some tough family times,” she says. “Young, early experiences shape a bit of the mettle you might take into your adulthood.”
Volunteering was something they always did as a family, which Katherine carried on through her own family with her two children. When Katherine decided to make a career in non-profit, “It felt deeply satisfying for me,” she says. “I knew that I was going to move the needle in some way, shape, or form.”
For more than two decades, Katherine has been driving social change. As President and CEO of Women’s College Hospital Foundation, she led record-breaking fundraising efforts to support women’s health. In her current role as President and CEO of Kids Help Phone, Katherine is advancing Canada’s mental health service for youth as a virtual health innovator that connects with young people online, by phone, and text. Katherine is an inspiring and passionate leader, and she is being recognized for her achievements.
Katherine was the 2021 winner of the Social Change Award, National Impact, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that honours an exceptional leader of a registered charity, social enterprise, or not-for-profit who is dedicated to their unique brand of social change.
“I knew that I was going to move the needle in some way, shape, or form.”
Katherine describes her journey toward her current work as a very wavy line — “I was amassing experiences,” she says — and she didn’t start out with a vision to work in the not-for-profit sector. Katherine left university and got a job as a bank teller. She worked her way up in the bank, taking on a management role and running branches. “I learned so much in those early days in banking about customer service and team experiences that I put into play, day in and day out,” she says.
In the mid-nineties, Katherine’s journey took a different turn when she moved with her family to São Paulo, Brazil. With her kids at school and husband at work, Katherine thought about what to do next. She finished her BA in psychology and economics remotely from the University of Waterloo. Katherine approached the Consul General in São Paolo, offering to volunteer. They created the Canadian Foundation and Katherine was appointed president of the fundraising volunteer organization. The goal was to raise approximately $25,000 for HIV/AIDS. At the time, mortality rates were high and there wasn’t fundraising to help families impacted by the condition. Katherine approached multinational corporations doing business in São Paolo. The foundation raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. “It was incredible,” says Katherine, who describes her experiences in São Paolo as “transformational.”
In 1999, Katherine and her family returned to Canada. After many years of volunteering, sitting on non-profit boards, and doing fundraising events, Katherine realized that she wanted to make a career of it, “knowing that the work I would do could very well enable something so much bigger than me or my world,” she says.
Katherine began doing strategy work with Big Brothers Big Sisters. She remembers making $17 an hour and thinking, I am a paid professional in this sector. “I was very proud of that,” she says. Katherine gained experience working with Families and Children Experiencing AIDS (FACE AIDS) and University of Toronto Mississauga. In 2004, Katherine was appointed Director of Advancement at the University of Toronto. Then in 2014, she became President and CEO of Women’s College Hospital Foundation.
“If you make decisions outside your values, outside your place, and it doesn’t work out, those are your mistakes.”
Reflecting on her journey, Katherine says that while there wasn’t a specific end result in sight, she had a clear feeling that she was taking the right steps for herself while also helping others, which was important to her.
Katherine’s mother used to tell her, “Stand in the right place, and you’ll be ok.” If Katherine aligned herself with her values, then she would find her way. “If you make decisions outside your values, outside your place, and it doesn’t work out, those are your mistakes,” she says. If you get back to your values, says Katherine, most things will find their path. Don’t be afraid if you don’t know fully what you want, she says. But you should work hard to know who you are.
Katherine has explored the values that are integral to who she is. “If I didn’t have them, I couldn’t be me,” she says. Katherine writes her values on the inside of every notebook and looks at them often, including before she goes into a tough meeting.
Working in the not-for-profit sector requires a steadfast belief in what you are trying to accomplish. “This is not a job,” she says. “It has to be authentic and genuinely inside you.” When Katherine was appointed President and CEO of Kids Help Phone in 2017, she was compelled by the meaningful work of the organization, which was a pioneer in virtual health, as well as the youth mental health crisis. While there is an often-cited statistic that one in five youth face mental health challenges, Katherine believes that one in one young people are impacted, whether it be personally or through a friend or family member.
When Katherine joined Kids Help Phone, it was a well-loved organization with a solid foundation. Yet maintaining a steady state was not an option. “We’d be the Kodak of the not-for-profit sector because we have innovation and technology right in our hands,” says Katherine of Canada’s 24/7 virtual mental health service for youth. The organization needed to evolve along with technology and the fast-paced world in which youth were navigating.
“We will continue to evolve and grow, and that’s what drives us.”
Katherine drove a new strategic direction for Kids Help Phone, positioning it as an innovation technology driven charity with a razor-sharp focus on youth mental health. Kids Help Phone connects with young people where they are, including gaming sites, social media, online chat and peer-to-peer forums, as well as by phone with professional counsellors, and text with crisis responders.
When the COVID-19 global pandemic hit, Kids Help Phone was ready. “The world shut down,” remembers Katherine. “We did not go dark or silent. Not for one minute.” The organization went from 708 crisis responders to more than 2,230 responders active on the platform monthly. During COVID-19, Kids Help Phone trained more than 5,000 crisis responders, enabling the high number of crisis responders to be on the e-front lines. Since January 2020, Kids Help Phone has interacted more than 11.3 million times with young people in every province and territory in both official languages; a dramatic increase from its 1.9 million interactions with young people in 2019. Wait times remain on average five minutes.
While COVID-19 has exacerbated young people’s anxiety and mental health challenges, there is a youth mental health crisis beyond the pandemic. Canada has the third highest youth suicide rate in the industrialized world and suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people in Canada. The silver lining is Kids Help Phone, says Katherine. “Not only are we here,” she says, “they’re reaching out.”
In the future, Kids Help Phone will continue to find innovative ways to connect with young people and provide mental health support. “We will continue to evolve and grow,” says Katherine, “and that’s what drives us.”