Rebecca Priest’s Story

“You were put on this earth to achieve your greatest self, to live out your purpose, and to do it courageously.”  author/philanthropist Steve Maraboli

Sometimes we all just need somebody to show us what is possible. A person to take us by the hand and offer a glimpse of something achievable. Someone to guide us past all of the reasons why it cannot be done and get us thinking differently. Eventually this vision for a better way of doing things no longer seems so out of the question. Instead, we begin to see it as a necessary path forward—so much so that we become uncomfortable with the status quo we have lived with for years.

Rebecca Priest has served as that guiding presence for hundreds of people over her 12 years at St. John’s. She has empowered so many of us to achieve our greatest self and has even helped us cultivate our own sense of purpose. All the while she has provided us with examples of how it often takes real courage to bring fundamental change.

In 2012 Rebecca became the first Guide (or manager) of the new St. John’s Green House Homes after years as a social worker at St. John’s Home. She was intimately involved in creating a world where the voices of everyone—both the residents who live there and the staff who work there—are not only heard but serve as the driving force of day-to-day life in the house. Through this experience, Rebecca and her team saw what could be accomplished when we tear down the walls that separate those who are most vulnerable.

Helping to build something truly unique sparked a familiar feeling inside of Rebecca. As a lifelong advocate for her older sister living with severe intellectual and developmental disabilities, she understands that institutional models are not just the inevitable conclusion for those who cannot take care of themselves. Her experience at the Green House Homes reminded her just how much is taken away in a traditional nursing home. For Rebecca, there was no turning back.

“A sentinel moment” in the transition from the institutional standard of nursing home care to the new small homes model happened soon after she assumed leadership of skilled services at St. John’s in 2013. St. John’s Home would begin shifting meal delivery from a military-like conveyor belt tray service to more individualized meal preparation. “We as an organization did something tangibly courageous that really shifted the model,” remembers Rebecca.

She is proud of this first step away from the way things had been done, though she admits many of the moves she has made were unpopular at the time. “When we made that switch, people were so angry.” Not only were longtime staff members weary of implementing components of drastic organizational change, but many residents and their family members were especially resistive.  “But you have to have the courage to make tough decisions,” says Rebecca. “Especially if you know where you’re headed.”

Today we can see the great benefits—both anecdotally and through improved clinical outcomes—that have come from shifting towards a model of elder-directed houses within a large, established nursing home. Rebecca was the first to recognize the need for this shift and has become known throughout the long-term care industry as a champion of the small homes movement. As a result her insights have been regularly featured in industry publications and her popular Ted Talk has inspired many across the country to think differently about long-term care.

As Rebecca says goodbye to St. John’s we know that her legacy here is much more than that of one visionary leader following her passion to change how elder care is delivered. We know how she has inspired us to become the greatest version of ourselves possible while also helping those around us do the same. We now understand how living with a sense of purpose can be liberating (and contagious). More than anything we saw firsthand how living courageously—in ways described in this space and others that were not — is the only way to get others to truly follow your lead.