For Ontario lawyer Karen McCleave, public service provided a meaningful and purpose-driven life. Karen knew from a young age that a barrister’s path would be the most fulfilling, as she enjoyed reading, writing, public speaking and helping others.
Those interests materialized into serving as an Assistant Crown Attorney for over 30 years, prosecuting criminal cases on behalf of the community in the Ontario and Superior Courts of Justice, primarily in York Region, Dufferin and Simcoe counties.
Then followed, in 2017-2018, assisting a Senator in Ottawa as a Policy Advisor.
She complemented her career with volunteering. Karen served for nine years on the Board of Directors of Blue Hills (now York Hills) Child and Family Centre, a youth mental health agency. During that time, she acquired experience in governance, by-laws and policies concerning not-for-profit agencies. She also was a member of professional boards.
Karen helped to raise funds, while a member of Beta Sigma Phi for 17 years, to support local, Canadian, and international causes. She has also been active in programs such as Feed the Hungry, Salvation Army, Courthouse Food Bank Drive, and the Simcoe County High School Mock Trial program.
She was appointed in 2020 to the Board of Trustees for the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, where she brings her knowledge of governance and an appreciation of the art of Canada: “I am grateful and excited for the opportunity to contribute in any way I can to assist this important organization that is devoted to diverse and exciting programming involving the art of the Group of Seven, their contemporaries and Indigenous peoples of Canada”.
Karen McCleave is embracing this chapter in life by contributing as a community advocate and pursuing personal passions. We recently sat down with her to discuss these latest endeavours and how she strives to live a well-balanced life.
You have lived a life of service. How have you been rewarded emotionally by the act of giving back?
Karen McCleave: Absolutely, I feel rewarded! Once you experience the meaning that public service gives to your life and the lives of others, it will become a life-long quest. One of the best illustrations of career satisfaction came whenever a victim or a deceased victim’s family told me that my involvement, support, and information made a material difference to them. This type of feedback reinforced that my vocation has been impactful to others, many of whom are vulnerable members of society. A sense of purpose can be directed to help so many people.
The volunteer work educated me in many ways, such as advancing my knowledge of mental health, especially as it impacts children and youth. I have committed years to assisting in this area. Families affected by mental health need and deserve sufficient support and information to navigate this difficult journey. We all need to become involved to provide it.
As an Assistant Crown Attorney, you must have been putting in many hours. What are the side effects of making that kind of commitment and how did you find time to recharge?
Karen McCleave: A sense of fulfillment from your chosen field can sustain you when going through those stretches of unrelenting hours. It can help to ease the impact of a job’s demands. That said, it was often grueling.
Be realistic that there will be times in any job where there is no balance or time to recharge. My suggestions: Clearly communicate with your family about what is ahead and when you expect it will ease. Ask for their support in articulating what you will need and reiterate how much it is appreciated. This may better enable you to lean into what must be done while maintaining understanding at home. Second, remember that you will come out of the tunnel and have a chance to recalibrate. Plan a refreshing getaway or activity after an unbalanced stretch. Should you experience sleep disruption or other behaviours unusual for you, make the time to seek help.
What if the imbalance isn’t situational and becomes a permanent part of the job? A longer-term strategy that got me through the long haul was to job-share during a period when I needed to spend more time at home. Employers are motivated to retain good employees. Don’t be afraid to pitch a plan that will be a win-win.
What did you consider your strengths in balancing work/life responsibilities and how has that changed today?
Karen McCleave: I won’t pretend to be a role model for work/life balance! Sometimes, I was the poster child for what one should not do to achieve it. That said, kudos to my family team and generous colleagues who were supportive. Adored friends were helpful in commiserating or making me laugh…or drink some chablis!
Strengths in organization, work ethic and optimism assisted me. I tried to keep up some vestige of an exercise regimen and good diet. Not always perfect, but necessary to well-being.
As for today? Challenges to healthy eating and time to stay fit have diminished as I have more control over my schedule, but as other responsibilities and activities fill in, I find myself balancing more than I had envisaged! I have read that one of the countries in the Blue Zone (known for longevity) doesn’t have a word in their language for “retirement”. Consider the continuing demands of balancing life’s responsibilities as a blessing in disguise. It means you are living a full life! Embrace it.
What is a hobby or activity that you are truly passionate about and how have you pursued it?
Karen McCleave: I love horses and watching them race! Time spent with these beautiful, sentient animals is good for the soul. I am currently pursuing the path of acquiring some form of ownership in a thoroughbred horse to become connected again after many years away from them.
I blogged about this here.
There’s a quote, “Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.” For you personally, what does it mean to live a well-rounded life?
Karen McCleave: For all the trite things written about a balanced life, the one I always remember is that every day we have a choice as to the attitude with which we will greet and meet the world. Perspective can help facilitate harmony. During my career, I met many people who had been terribly aggrieved, damaged and injured by the conduct of others. Yet, among them were those who were positive, doggedly determined to carry on and not be held down by what had happened. To that extent, I think happiness is attainable, even in the face of struggle. It does not require money. It requires careful curation and insight as to what brings you peace and joy. Surround yourself with music and people who support that environment.
This current life chapter has few constraints and little structure as I build a new balance. Hello, spontaneity! I am dipping my toe into many new ponds. I am working through my “List of Untapped Loves”. No, not people, but activities! For example, I discovered that I can meditate. I just needed to find a compatible program. I have taken painting lessons because I want to better appreciate why I am drawn to certain pieces of art. I want to learn to play the piano.
How about you? Recalibration can improve balance, but it takes planning. Try it out!