There are few workers more deserving of the “Heroes Work Here” sign than the Direct Care Providers at St. Mary’s Home in Norfolk. Housing Virginia’s most medically susceptible children, the masked superheroes are critical to helping children not only stay infection free, but achieve their fullest potential.
Nestled in a wooded spot off Kempsville Rd. in Norfolk, St. Mary’s has come a long way from its downtown Norfolk origins. Now in its 75th year, the home has evolved from serving as an orphanage during wartime to providing personalized care for children and adults with complex medical needs. With 88 children in the main home and 12 adults in the adjoining Albero House, St. Mary’s is the only facility of its kind in Virginia.
During a virtual tour with Kristen Nelson, St. Mary’s director of communications, she confesses to being nervous about her first Zoom tour, but like everything else 2020 has thrown at the team, Kristen adapted flawlessly. From the light-filled rooms and floor-to-ceiling windows and wide hallways to accommodate wheelchairs to the welcoming courtyards and bright murals of community artwork, the sheer warmth and generosity of this place came through the computer screen loud and clear.
“To be in our 75th year and have this pandemic happen, seeing how we’ve come together in this crisis, there’s no doubt we’ll be around another 75 years,” said Kristen. Long term care facilities are the most susceptible to outbreaks, and many of St. Mary’s residents are fed via G-Tubes and also have tracheal tubes and serious respiratory issues.
While the family visiting room is empty of couches, the outside visiting areas boast tents, privacy screens, and distanced benches. Infection control protocols started in early March with restricted visits and intense staff screening. The entire staff has done everything possible to keep their residents safe and connected with their loved ones.
It’s all about love and providing the best care and atmosphere to grow and thrive in. St. Mary’s residents show off their artwork, impress with their cooking class skills, and celebrate every achievement. It shows in the smiles of the people who call St. Mary’s home.
Cheer Captain Leila is Surpassing Milestones
St. Mary’s Team Ensures She Never Has a Bad Day
Family is at the heart of St. Mary’s, and meeting one of the home’s youngest residents, Leila, is pure joy. As her aunt Sarah says, “Leila is life.” Leila’s family of caregivers include her aunts Sarah, Jenna, and Danya and grandmother, Maryalice. Leila was born with a multitude of medical issues including a hole in her heart, pyloric stenosis, and neurological and breathing issues. Her family was told that she would never crawl or walk, feed by mouth, use her hands, or be off oxygen.
In July 2019 at just 7 months old, Leila came to live at St. Mary’s Home after multiple stays in hospital NICU care. “We were nervous at first, but the minute we started opening our hearts to this opportunity, every single day since then has been a blessing,” said Maryalice. “St. Mary’s gives children the ability to excel to their maximum potential, which is not something we could get in hospital care.”
When I met Leila via livestreaming, she was grinning ear to ear, clutching a ball in her tiny fist, tossing it, and running full speed to follow it. As Kristen and I walk away, my computer screen shows Leila running after us and blowing kisses. Within her first month at St. Mary’s, Leila was off oxygen. “She’s surpassed every single milestone they said she could achieve,” said Maryalice.
Even though the family has had to adapt to infection control procedures, they’ve felt total inclusivity. Pre-Covid, if they wanted to stay with her all day, bring her toys and play her music, they could. “At St. Mary’s, you’re all part of a big family. We Facetime as much as we like [and] hold drive-by window visits that involve the whole family. Leila is our cheer captain. The flexibility even now has been amazing.
This is not just about Leila, this is about protecting every other vulnerable child there,” said Sarah.
“When she was born, we knew there would be challenges. As a family we were all ready to rise to them,” said Maryalice. “We said no matter what, she will never see a sad day. I’m so glad St. Mary’s set the path for her, so that she never has to have a sad day.”
Keeping Everyone Safe Is The Number One Priority
Virtual Volunteers Provide Much-Needed Support
For Liz McCuean, St. Mary’s chief of nursing and clinical services, the Covid-19 pandemic has been all consuming, but she is there because she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. “When the mission and vision of your workplace is ‘A Good Life,’ how could you not want to be here?” she asked. She refers to St. Mary’s as a city, accommodating everything from doctors and dentists, barbers and beauticians to pharmacies and dining, all of it to serve the remarkable residents of St. Mary’s.
“Because it’s a city, we’ve had to modify the way we’ve done everything, and we had to quickly enact a multi-tiered Covid-19 response plan,” said Liz. St. Mary’s had an excellent infection control foundation before Covid-19, but they built on that with everything from visitor control, to virtual schooling, to masks and intensive education of the staff.
“I’m so amazed at the staff. They have embraced all the hard and often crazy things we have asked them to do because they care so much,” said Liz. “These children all have this huge family.” St. Mary’s follows the Norfolk Public school schedule, which means the staff support in-house virtual schooling, serving as both Direct Care Providers and teacher’s assistants.
The home is now divided into four neighborhoods, designated with bright colors and cheery notes. The children are in smaller groups with classrooms consisting of the same children and staff who are screened daily. “Everything we do is based not only on the individual needs, but their wants, as well,” said Liz.
While the residents don’t have their usual volunteers to read, play music, and hold art classes, there have been virtual volunteers, food donations to staff, and a slew of support cards. “It means so much when the community says, ‘We see you,’” said Liz. “It’s a challenge to see everyone’s perspective and create one policy to keep the kids safe. As much as I’d like to wrap them in a bubble to keep Covid away, it’s meant doing hard things, but the families have been so supportive, and we’re all in this together,” she said.
Volunteer Nancy Wilcox Says St. Mary’s is Life Changing
Open Invitation To Anyone Who Wants To Help
Making sure the resident’s needs and wants are met are partly the responsibility of Norfolk resident Nancy Wilcox, who serves as both a member of the board of directors and a 35-year member of the St. Mary’s volunteer auxiliary board. This team makes sure that the residents are able to get everything they need above and beyond what is funded by Medicaid. Much of the “extras” that make this home so special come from grant-funded awards and donor contributions.
Nancy is a mother of six and first heard of St. Mary’s Home in 1985 when a member of her church told her about it and asked her to join the auxiliary board. She’s been an advocate and a part of the organization ever since. As a mother of a son with a disability, she fell in love with the mission of St. Mary’s. “It’s amazing what the staff does for the children,” Nancy said. “What a beautiful option for parents. Coming from a place of being a parent [of a child] with special needs and seeing not only the love of the staff, but the growth and success of the children in their care, it’s just such a special place.”
The auxiliary board raises funds that go directly to the children and their needs. “We feel good about the difference that we’re making for the children and their families. It’s life changing for both parties,” Nancy said.
This advocacy is part of what allowed for a hydrotherapy pool to be installed, an amazing sensory room, a transportation bus, and many other accommodations and special personalized touches that make St. Mary’s a true home. “Why should these children be deprived of anything that a typical child would have?” Nancy asked. Why indeed?
Virtual fundraising efforts are underway, and Nancy expressed an open invitation to anyone who has the time and desire to help. She keeps a picture with her of a former resident, KoKo, who was so successful in treatment, she is home with family. “I look at this picture, and it makes me grateful for the lives I’ve been able to impact,” she said.
St. Mary’s Home needs fundraising support more than ever with increased PPE needs and $80,000 spent in Covid-19 testing alone. “For people in the community who didn’t know we were here, I’d invite them to experience the joy of the people who live here,” said Liz. “Volunteer virtually, and if you see a need you can fill, lend your time, talent, or expertise.” The children and young adults that call St. Mary’s home deserve to be seen.
The importance of wearing masks is especially relevant at St. Mary’s. The masks worn by the more than 300 staff members there are handsewn by an in-house staff that not only hand sews masks in triplicate for every staff member and resident but is responsible for Virginia’s largest closet. Each child has his or her own brightly labeled closet with clothing specifically adapted and customized to help them dress on their own. These sewing “angels” replace buttons with Velcro, add custom-fit panels, and tailor princess gowns and superhero costumes for their residents.
We often hear it takes a village to care for children, but this type of care takes a city, a community, an army of superheroes and caregivers. How much love is contained in a home? At St. Mary’s Home, it’s boundless and ripples throughout Hampton Roads and the lives and families of these exceptional residents.
For more information about St. Mary’s, visit www.saintmaryshome.org.
Kindra McDonald Greene is a poet, freelance writer, and adjunct associate professor. She can usually be found in the woods or at www.kindramcdonald.com