Sister Mary Ellen Leciejewski’s connection to the environment began in childhood, where she and her four siblings spent most of their time outside in nature playing. As a four-year-old, she looked forward to 4am trips on Sunday mornings in Ohio to go morel mushroom picking in the woods with her father and older sister. These early memories shaped her appreciation of the environment which continued when she joined the Adrian Dominican Sisters and as she pursued her career teaching high school French for 20 years.
She loved working with children, and intended on making teaching in high school her lifelong career. She frequented the motherhouse in Adrian, Michigan where Caldwell Dominican Sister Miriam Therese MacGillis held a workshop entitled “The Fate of the Earth”, which detailed the impact humans have had on the environment and the inextricable connection between the health of Earth and human health. The seminar touched Sister Mary Ellen so deeply that she spent her summers off from school working on Genesis Farm, a 140-acre farm founded by the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, New Jersey and at other environmental centers around the country. Following those experiences, she decided to pursue her interest in the environment by getting a Master’s in Ecology.
Adrian Dominican Sister Julie Hyer, who at the time was the CEO and President of Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz and Sister Susan Vickers, VP Shareholder Advocacy asked Sister Mary Ellen if she might be interested in taking a position at Dignity Health (formerly Catholic Healthcare West) doing ecology work to make the hospitals throughout the system greener. At the time, Dignity Health had been talking about reducing waste and having a positive environmental impact. The minute Sister Mary Ellen walked through the doors of the hospital, she knew in her gut that this was where she wanted to be. It’s been twenty-one years since she made the transition into healthcare and sustainability, and her passion, enthusiasm, and hard work make her one of the most influential and respected people in the sustainability healthcare field.
Question: Sister Mary Ellen, I saw in the Dignity Health Sustainability Report that, “human kindness is the lens through which Dignity Health views our decisions and behaviors.” That is such a lovely sentiment coming from a very prominent healthcare system! Can you speak to how human kindness guides Dignity Health’s sustainability and goals?
Sister Mary Ellen: It IS a lovely sentiment! And scientific evidence confirms that kindness helps in the healing process. When we are kind to one another, we help each other heal. I believe that how we treat one another spills over into how we treat Earth and all its systems: air, water, soil, animals. It’s all connected! Humankindness is a powerful lens that helps us see those connections.
Question: I have heard and observed a very strong culture and support for sustainability goals and metrics within Dignity Health. There are a lot of organizations that struggle to get interest and support for sustainability initiatives. What insight and advice can you offer to organizations that want to have a stronger culture and commitment to sustainability?
Sister Mary Ellen: Find the people who are passionate about sustainability. Empower them to do the work that needs to be done. Collect information and hard data regarding costs and benefits of adopting (or not adopting) sustainability practices. Embed sustainability practices in systemwide policies. Keep communicating the connection between the health of the planet and the health of patients and communities you serve.
Question: What components do you attribute to the success of your organization’s sustainability goals?
Sister Mary Ellen: Support from Dignity Health leadership is key! We couldn’t continue down this sustainability path without support from our corporate and facility leadership. Other components include connecting with colleagues who are passionate about the environment and want to make a difference in the world; creating networks so that we can listen and learn from one another; celebrating our successes; being humble enough to know that don’t always have all the answers. Additionally, our collaboration with organizations such as Practice Greenhealth, other healthcare systems and our business partners have helped in the exchange of ideas and best practices.
Question: What do you view as your greatest career accomplishment and why?
Sister Mary Ellen: One of my greatest joys is building relationships and creating networks so that people feel empowered to speak out in this great and sacred work. Everyone’s gifts and talents are needed—NOW!
Question: Twenty years down the line, what would you envision for Dignity Health?
Sister Mary Ellen: I would envision us fully honoring the health of our employees, patients, and planet and that after each decision we make we ask the question: “How will this affect the planet?” I see this as important because if it’s good for the health of the planet it’s good for us!
Question: Do you have any form of mandatory training on sustainability for current employees and new hires?
Sister Mary Ellen: Each hospital offers a new employee orientation that includes a section on sustainability.
Question: That’s wonderful! Is there anything you would like to add or want our readers to know?
Sister Mary Ellen: Our partnership with Key Green Solutions and the services they provide are critical to our success and have stepped up our employee engagement. I see facilities inspiring each other through friendly and fun competition. Dominican Hospital, where I have my office, used to be number one for recycling and now Saint Francis has taken our number one spot. I need to call them and see what they’re doing because we’re coming for them!