Rick ViselThe pandemic has affected us all in ways we could never have anticipated. St. Louis Center is no exception. In spite of the immense challenges—or maybe because of them—we have also experienced a number of blessings. Here is a look back over the last several months, observations about St. Louis Center’s response to the pandemic as shared by Program Director, Rick Visel.

This past fall, residents were eagerly looking forward to going back to school and seeing their friends and teachers. However, after a very brief time in the classroom, a resurgence of the coronavirus sent everyone back to virtual learning. Soon, the disruption of their routines and monotony of being confined to their homes began to show itself as outbursts and behaviors doubled. It was particularly difficult for the children, who thrive on routine and who need tactile ways of learning. At the same time, St. Louis Center’s summer help returned to college, and staffing levels dropped, creating a huge challenge in providing the care and extra attention the residents so greatly needed. “We realized that we were not going to be able to find enough new employees willing to work and we needed to change our mindset,” said Rick.

Fortunately, the Center’s support staff came to the rescue. “Without hesitation, all of our maintenance, housekeeping, and food service employees became cross-trained to work as Direct Care Staff,” said Rick. “As an organization, we all came together in an effort to provide our residents with the proper care. Many staff members to this day are still signing up to work 56-hour workweeks to ensure our standard of care is maintained.”

The staff pulled together to help address the children’s learning needs and to help alleviate some of the boredom. The social work department put together half-day instructional classes (aided by support from two generous grant funders) in coordination with the Chelsea School District and they created life skills learning activities for the children. But they knew that to help the residents—and perhaps the rest of the staff, too—make it through this time, that they needed to bring some fun back into their lives.

At St. Louis Center, the holiday season starts with Halloween and includes a dozen or more celebrations and parties hosted at the Center by generous outside organizations. But with these gatherings and usual events like the Trunk or Treat celebration canceled, the staff decided that they would get creative and that Halloween would go on. They worked with the Knights of Columbus, who in lieu of their annual Halloween Breakfast generously donated 70 pumpkins—one for each resident to decorate. They held a house decorating contest to see who could create the scariest haunted house. And the highlight of the festivities came with a (socially distanced, of course) Halloween parade. The adult residents dressed up in their costumes and walked through St. Louis Guanella Village, passing out candy to the children. Some of the staff who were off that day decorated their cars and came back to join the parade, throwing candy out the windows. They had so much fun they decided to do it again for Thanksgiving.

So, the grandly-named First Annual St. Louis Center Thanksgiving Parade took place just a few weeks later. The priests decorated the golf cart and adult residents made signs and carried balloons through the Village. All of the children’s homes were decorated for fall and everyone had a great time celebrating.

Although the usual Christmas parties at the Center were canceled, everyone came together to make sure that the residents would have a Merry Christmas. The staff once again got together to plan another fun parade. Mother Nature cooperated, too, and in a light sparkling snow, residents dressed up like the Grinch, Elf and Santa paraded through the Village. The priests outdid themselves in decorating the golf cart, this time to look like a giant present complete with Christmas lights. The Center’s social work supervisor and her husband came dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus, and were presented with the key to St. Louis Center, just to make sure they would have no problem getting in to deliver presents. The Claus’s brought with them hot chocolate and small gift bags filled with candy. Now with so much practice, the competition for the best-decorated house became a difficult choice. On Christmas Day, the residents awoke to brightly wrapped gifts, generously donated by dozens of organizations and individuals.

A New Year’s Eve party soon followed, and in early February, a Super Bowl party. The fun and learning continue. This month, staff and residents will turn their attention to Black History. They’ll learn about Booker T Washington and why his picture was on a commemorative coin in the late 1940s. They’ll watch The Green Book, a movie set in the early 1960s about a white man hired to drive an accomplished black musician to give concerts in the South. They’ll learn that at that time, African Americans needed to use the Green Book so that they would know where they could eat and sleep while traveling. After viewing the movie, they’ll talk about what it would be like to live under those conditions.

Bound by a commitment to care for and brighten the lives of the residents at St. Louis Center, staff rallied together to overcome a seemingly impossible situation. And the results of their hard work shown. Since November, residents’ behaviors decreased by half. Now residents and staff alike have things to look forward to and are enjoying life, in spite of the continuing challenges of COVID. “We cannot be more proud of our staff and what a difference they have made in the lives of everyone around them,” said Rick with a smile.