If helping people in need is in your DNA, a career in commercial and corporate law is not necessarily the most satisfying way to spend your working hours.
That is what James Hughes discovered at 37, as he contemplated dedicating himself full-time to what he was doing in his spare time as a volunteer.
Hughes consulted his wife, the actor Jane Wheeler, about entering the non-profit sector, and she immediately agreed.
Of course, the move had consequences for household income and called for downsizing.
“We sold our house and got a smaller one, in NDG, and we sold one of our two cars,” he said in an interview.
But looking back, “I couldn’t be happier, no regrets.”
Hughes, 50, is one of three Montrealers who have been awarded this year’s Sheila and Victor Goldbloom Distinguished Service Award for service to the Anglophone community, selected by the Quebec Community Groups Network.
Hughes is now president of the Graham Boeckh Foundation, which supports creative initiatives in mental health.
Born in Montreal and raised in Beaconsfield, the son of Jim and Donna Hughes, James and his two brothers spent a lot of time in his father’s warehouse where he distributed school supplies to area schools.
After a commerce degree at Queen’s, Hughes completed law degrees at Cambridge and McGill where he was involved as a volunteer.
He began working in corporate and commercial law offices, and still “made time” to fit in volunteer work, in spite of the pressures of building a professional career. He was a co-founder of Youth Employment Services, a non-profit group that helps young English-speaking Montrealers find jobs, and started the Prometheus Project, which provides mentors for students at risk of dropping out of high school.
In 2002, at 37, he decided to move away from commercial and corporate law, and work full-time to “try and make a difference for people in need.”
With “three amazing kids”– Nicholas, now at Queen’s University, Jenna at John Abbott College, and Frances at Westmount High– it was a risky move for an up-and-coming lawyer.
“I started working for EPOC, a training and mentoring organization for teens who had dropped out of high school and needed employment preparation. It was an incredibly successful, government-funded program to help young people prepare for good, permanent well-paying jobs.
“That’s where I cut my teeth as a staff member in the non-profit area.”
In 2004, he took over operations as executive director at the Old Brewery Mission – the largest men’s shelter in Quebec, and largest women’s shelter in Canada. “It was one of the best jobs in my life, if not the best job,” he said.
“It’s a fantastic and ancient organization (founded in 1889); I was happy to help it be clear about what it should be doing, what it could achieve, and moving toward its current mandate – to reduce homelessness, not just a witness to poverty and despair.”
When he left, mission president Ron Lawless paid tribute to Hughes’ “dedication to those most vulnerable in our society and his innovative approach to breaking the cycle of homelessness.”
In 2008, he became deputy minister of social development in New Brunswick before moving back to Montreal in 2012 when he was named president of the Graham Boeckh Foundation, which funds initiatives in mental health and related disciplines.
J. Anthony Boeckh and his family created the foundation after family member Graham Boeckh, who lived with schizophrenia, died following complications from his medication.
The foundation is dedicating “all of its resources and time to bring about transformational changes in the system of mental-health care, which is either broken or just doesn’t exist,” he noted.
His role is to identify projects needing support and recommend those that deserve it. “We are supporting, for example, a coalition that is campaigning for the expansion of psychotherapy as part of our universal Medicare.
“There are over 200,000 Quebecers that needed psychotherapy last year but couldn’t get it. And the wait times in the public system are so long that it is tantamount to deny it.”
Looking back at how he linked his working career and deepest commitments, Hughes commented, “If you follow your passion, follow that light, usually good things happen.”