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Fran Albrecht is stepping down as the executive director of Watson Children's Shelter in January to become the new executive director of the Providence Montana Health Foundation.

A longtime Missoula nonprofit leader is leaving her position to head one of the city's largest foundations.

Fran Albrecht, executive director of Watson Children’s Shelter, will leave that role in January to become the new executive director of the Providence Montana Health Foundation at Providence St. Patrick Hospital.

Albrecht has led Watson Children’s Shelter for more than 17 years, since she was hired in 1997.

“It was a good thing I was young, naive and passionate. Those were my strongest assets,” she said Monday.

She said the decision to join the foundation came after many conversations with the search committee, as well as Providence St. Patrick Hospital CEO Jeff Fee.

“I needed to make sure it was a good fit for me,” Albrecht said, “that I could make a meaningful impact in that role.”

Watson Children’s Shelter has two 16-bed locations in Missoula, providing a safe and nurturing environment for Montana children up to 14 years old who have been neglected, abandoned or are the victims of family crisis.

Although Watson and the hospital's foundation serve people with different needs, Albrecht said the approach to the positions has many similarities.

“It comes down to helping people and the real story that any one of us could be walking in those shoes,” she said.

Her new position with Providence will give her the opportunity to “share and celebrate all of the amazing things they do for Montana.”

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Albrecht is proud of everything that has been accomplished during her time with Watson Children’s Shelter, making a difference in hundreds of young lives.

“I’m so proud that, at this point in transition, the shelter has never been on more sure footing,” she said. “I’m excited to be able to hand off the baton to somebody else who will lead it differently and beautifully.”

Although she had been offered other opportunities in the past, Albrecht said the timing never felt right, that she wasn’t confident Watson was where she wanted it to be yet.

In particular, she mentioned the two major capital campaigns that led to construction of Watson’s two shelters, the most recent of which was completed in 2010.

She said during those fundraising efforts, there were people who said it couldn’t be done. More difficult and heartbreaking than that was having to turn away children because the shelter lacked the space to house them.

“That’s why I have a pig with wings in my office. People say that you can’t do it, or it will happen when pigs fly. I say I happen to have a flying pig,” Albrecht said.

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There are also the stories that Albrecht said she will never forget. Among them, bringing in two young girls who had been the subject of severe neglect.

They would hoard food, didn’t know how to use utensils, had never attended school and did not know how to read. Albrecht said the transformation they’ve made is remarkable.

“There’s holding an 18-month-old in a body cast with a broken femur. Looking into his sweet little eyes and saying, 'We will make sure no one ever hurts you again,’ ” Albrecht said. “I’ll never know what the ultimate impact is because we have the privilege of caring for these children for only a couple months of their lives.”

In mid-January, Albrecht will end her time running Watson Children’s Shelter, and will start her new role at the end of that month. She said she will also continue serving as a member of the Montana University System's Board of Regents, a position she was appointed to by Gov. Steve Bullock last year.

Albrecht said as the director of the foundation, she’ll have a place at the table with the rest of the hospital’s leadership team, making sure that both entities are working together in achieving strategic visions.

“In order for me personally as a leader to be effective, I need to be engaged and have an understanding of what the vision is,” she said.

Bob McCue, the incoming chair of the foundation’s board of directors, said when the hiring panel was deciding on qualifications they would look for in a candidate, organization and the ability to manage a staff for fundraising efforts was high on the list.

“She has the experience in the areas of not only dealing with small gifts but larger ones as well,” he said. “We wanted someone who had a good understanding of philanthropy in western Montana.”

Albrecht had those qualities, and was the eventual choice after the list of potentials was narrowed down to a field of five.

“Fran won out because she has such a good proven track record,” McCue said.

The search for a new director for Watson will begin right away, with a hiring committee made up of board members. The Watson board has also established a fund in Albrecht’s honor that will benefit the shelter, and will hold an open house event celebrating her time there in January.

Albrecht, who is from Great Falls, said it was important to her that if she did leave the organization, she was able to stay in the state.

“I’m a native Montanan, my children love it here and I believe so deeply and passionately in doing whatever I can do to serve this state,” Albrecht said.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for The Missoulian.