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Taking the Time: How a Sabbatical from Cal Wellness Helped One CEO Recharge

Debbie Case (left) and a friend explore Iceland during Ms. Case's sabbatical.

When Debbie Case, CEO of Meals on Wheels San Diego County, heard that she had been awarded a Cal Wellness Sabbatical Award, she knew exactly where she wanted to go.

“I did the bucket list things that would bring me joy and happiness, including spending 12 days in Iceland,” Ms. Case said of her sabbatical. “I went to Iceland with my first cousin and my aunt and we had a blast – I hiked the ice caves, I hiked the waterfalls, I saw the Northern Lights.”

The California Wellness Foundation Sabbatical Awards, granted to nonprofit executives leading health- and wellness-focused organizations in California, aim to improve the long-term effectiveness of nonprofits by investing in the health and wellness of leaders. The program also aims to build staff capacity to manage operations.

But Ms. Case did more than travel on her sabbatical. After serving for 10 years as CEO of Meals on Wheels San Diego County, Ms. Case was able to take the time during her sabbatical to handle family responsibilities and heal from terribly difficult personal events. In 2018, Ms. Case’s mother was in a near-fatal accident. Plus, during that same year, Ms. Case also weathered the loss of three other cherished people: her best friend, her husband, and her father. In processing her losses, Ms. Case said that she found particular significance in being able to use the sabbatical for recovering and mindfully recharging.

“On the third day of the sabbatical, I realized the purpose of this sabbatical was ‘I have to stop.’ I have always had to be somewhere at a certain time for people. And I decided on that day I wasn’t going to do that – I wasn’t going to overcommit myself like that. That’s what I’ve been doing all my life.”

“The sabbatical was probably one of the most amazing things I have ever done,” Ms. Case added. “I did a lot of that 'stuff' that I just never made time for. It put me in a much better place.”  (Story continues below)

During her time away, Ms. Case also took the time to visit friends on a desert vacation, visit Disneyland, and fix up her house to sell. She said that feeling supported by her board and staff gave her the ability to take the time to truly unplug.

“I had a board that really stepped up and understood that they were there for support and as a sounding board,” Ms. Case said. “And the working relationship between the board and the leadership is great. I’ve always had energy – but with the sabbatical, I was able to have a new energy. The energy was more focused on believing in my team and letting them run with it.”

Ms. Case has advice for executive directors who are contemplating taking a sabbatical.

“If you step back and say to yourself, ‘I’m doing things the same way all the time, and I can’t see the forest for the trees anymore,’ consider applying for a sabbatical. If you know you have a good staff and it’s a good time, put in an application.”

For executive directors who receive a sabbatical, it’s also a good idea to fully step away, she added.

“Decompress. Take that time,” Ms. Case said. “And trust – you have to trust everybody that it’s going to get done. And when you come back, find everything that they did right and give your people kudos.”

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