Ministry providers aim to delight, honor employees this Christmastime

December 15, 2021

Some facilities are reviving traditions put on hold in 2020


Ministry leaders are hoping that the fun and merrymaking of the holiday season will lift the spirits of pandemic-weary clinicians and staff.

Preschool children at the Bon Secours Family Center at Bon Secours St. Mary's Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, practice for their reenactment of the Christmas story. The pageant was open to hospital employees as part of the hospital's Dec. 6 holiday lighting festivities.

Chuck Prosper, chief executive of PeaceHealth's Northwest Network, says, "These last 20 months have been incredibly challenging for our caregivers. They have given so much of themselves. We have worked closely with our spiritual care and human resources teams to support our caregivers in multiple ways, and we agreed this year that it's more important than ever to find meaningful ways to connect with each other — safely — over the holidays."

He is among a sampling of ministry leaders who tell Catholic Health World that their desire is that the gifts, celebrations, feasts and frivolities — plus some well-deserved respite — will begin to rejuvenate employees who have been tested over the course of the pandemic.

Prosper says, "There's a return to traditions and renewed hope as we safely gather with friends and family. I think our caregivers, like many other frontline workers, are recognizing that COVID is likely to be with us for some time to come, but we can adapt to celebrate the holiday season."

Like numerous other ministry facilities, PeaceHealth Northwest sites are taking COVID precautions as they resume some of their holiday traditions and add some new ones.

Deck the halls
Deacon Paul Lim, vice president of mission integration and administration at Wheeling Hospital, West Virginia, says the campus was very locked down and visitation heavily restricted last Christmas, but this year there are far fewer restrictions and many more visitors coming and going. He hopes the holiday bustle and trappings will bring joy to employees. (See sidebar.)

As part of the 36th annual Bon Secours St. Francis Festival of Trees in Greenville, South Carolina, teams decorate Christmas trees in three hotels, including the Hyatt Regency Greenville shown here. Tree sponsorships generate money for the Bon Secours St. Francis Foundation.

All around the ministry in late November and early December, staff and volunteers were festooning facilities with Christmas trees, wreaths, garland and lights.

In addition to competing in tree decorating contests, employees at HSHS St. John's Hospital in Springfield, Illinois, are decking themselves out for "Festive Friday" celebrations this month, sporting Christmas sweaters, socks and accessories.

Employees of PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Washington, are bringing in ornaments and other decorations that represent their own cultural heritage or traditions. The hospital is displaying the treasures along with description cards in glass cases outside its gift shop.

PeaceHealth's Prosper says, "I want this year's festivities to reflect and honor the diversity of our workforce. We have people of many religions, ethnicities and cultures working together — Latinx, Filipino, Ukrainian, Russian, East Asian, to name a few — and I want to be sure there's an opportunity for both education and celebration of the different traditions around Christmas and other winter holidays."

All aglow
Facilities across the ministry set their buildings and grounds aglow for the holidays. Before COVID, many welcomed the community to campus lighting celebrations. Those large gatherings had to be halted or scaled back significantly last year, but many facilities are reviving elements of their pre-pandemic lighting traditions this year. A few are limiting the festivities to employees and their guests.

At Christmas, staff and family members of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, take part in a reenactment of the birth of Jesus. The performance is usually outdoors with live animals. Because of COVID-19 precautions, it was virtual last year and again this season. The hospital recorded the nativity and a performance by its hospital choir for online viewing.

Bon Secours, part of the Bon Secours Mercy Health system, traditionally hosts "Grand Illumination" lighting festivals at sites around Richmond, Virginia. Last year, Bon Secours Richmond hospitals pared such events back considerably, including by barring or significantly limiting public participation. This year, they brought back elements of past celebrations, including a pageant featuring employees' children, tailoring the events for employees.

Drew Burrichter is vice president of mission for Bon Secours' Richmond market. He says St. Mary's Christmas pageant and service Dec. 6 included a performance of the Christmas story by children who attend the hospital's on-site day care center. The kids flip a symbolic "On" switch as the building engineers light up the campus.

"At the end of the day, we just really need this — to continue to celebrate with each other," says Beth Keehn, director of government and community relations for Mercy Health – St. Rita's Medical Center in Lima, Ohio, which also held a tree lighting ceremony.

Christmas pudding
In late November, Mercy Health – St. Vincent Medical Center and Children's Hospital in Toledo, Ohio, was planning its annual Christmas meal for employees, set for Dec. 14, 15 and 16. Last year, says hospital President Jeffrey Dempsey, the hospital had to have "grab and go" Christmas meals for employees. This year the culinary staff is serving the meal in the hospital cafeteria, where there will be limited seating available, or employees can choose to take the meal back to their unit and dine together.

Taylor Murray shows off ornaments she had a hand in creating for the Bon Secours St. Francis Festival of Trees in Greenville, South Carolina. Taylor and other first year members of the Junior League of Greenville made ornaments for the fundraising event and the Junior League decorated a tree.

Dempsey says, "All of us are striving for normalcy and bonding, and we want to celebrate this special holiday of Christmas with others. The isolation (of the pandemic) has been very hard on people, and so we want to bring back the camaraderie, and reconnect those relationships. Christmas is all the more special when we can spend it with others."

Wheeling Hospital's Deacon Lim says having a meaningful Christmas 2021 is very important for hospital staff in part because they are exhausted from the strain of the pandemic — including grueling hours, staff shortages and extra stress.

A crèche in the chapel of Stella Maris, an eldercare campus in Timonium, Maryland.

Plus, there has been such a high turnover in nursing staff that many nursing units look much different than last year, with some long-timers and many new faces. Deacon Lim says some downtime enjoying Christmas celebrations together will give the nurses a chance to build relationships and gel as a team.

PeaceHealth's Prosper says he has great expectations for this Christmas season. "I hope our facilities will feel comforting, peaceful and cheerful. I hope all of our caregivers will feel supported by us and each other, and comfortable in celebrating and sharing their own cultural traditions.

"I hope each of us will have time to breathe, rest and reflect, and celebrate in unique and meaningful ways with each other, as well as our families and loved ones," he says.

Staff and family members of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, reenact the Christmas story in this living nativity performance:

Ministry eldercare facilities anticipate a much merrier holiday this year

Holiday carols, Christmas Masses, gingerbread house decorating, brunches, and more — the Stella Maris eldercare community in Timonium, Maryland, has quite the Christmas season underway for its 500-plus residents and approximately 750 staff.

And, why not? While the facility had gone to great lengths to make last year's holiday season meaningful for residents, the extensive visitor restrictions, social distancing requirements and other COVID-19 protocols made Christmas 2020 a more solitary, lonesome affair for some residents.

Crystal Hickey, executive director of Stella Maris, says, with vaccination rates of residents, staff and families increasing, the eldercare facility's mission committee and programming and activities staff have put together a classical Christmas that would set Bing Crosby a crooning. Activities include Advent liturgies, Christmas carol sing-alongs with visiting musicians and movie nights featuring Christmas classics. The campus, sponsored by Baltimore-based Mercy Medical Center, includes both independent living and long-term care "neighborhoods."

Hickey says, "The biggest difference between the holidays last year and this year is simple: With visitation restrictions lifted, our families can come and visit their loved one whenever they want to, and for however long they want to, which will make a really big difference in the lives of our residents."

About 300 miles northwest of Timonium, another Catholic eldercare community is welcoming family and friends for Christmas fun — with only very limited restrictions, such as masking and temperature checks. The residents of the Continuous Care Center of Wheeling Hospital in Wheeling, West Virginia, are able to leave with their loved ones for off-campus celebrations.

Last year, residents had to make do with short, staff-monitored visits with just one or two loved ones at a time in their rooms. Recently, restrictions were eased — loved ones now can visit residents without a reservation and without staff monitors.

"With these changes so far, life around the Continuous Care Center feels different," says Deacon Paul Lim. "I think they feel more free to celebrate the holidays. Our employees love seeing our residents more free to see their families." Deacon Lim is vice president of mission integration and administration at Wheeling Hospital. The hospital operates the eldercare campus.

Deacon Lim adds that residents are very eager to be able to touch the people they love during the holidays this year, and that sweet anticipation is an early gift of the season.




Ministry facilities provide holiday help to struggling employees

Many Catholic health facilities make philanthropy part of their Christmas traditions. And several ministry leaders say during the holidays their facilities are assisting employees who have been struggling financially. Volunteers at the facilities are treating their colleagues and those colleagues' loved ones to special Christmas surprises.

In the six years since Kevin Slavin joined St. Joseph's Health as president and chief executive, that Paterson, New Jersey, system has been carrying out its "Holiday Make a Difference Program." Managers and executives assemble into about 15 teams of up to 10 people and sponsor an individual or group in need. Many of the recipients have been employees who have hit hard times.

Sr. Patricia Mennor, SC, St. Joseph's Health vice president of mission, says 2021 has been rough, with some employees suffering losses due to COVID-19 generally and to Hurricane Ida's impact in September. She says this year St. Joseph matched many of the teams of managers with a particular staff member who is having trouble affording Christmas gifts, due to financial struggles. Each team is receiving $500 from St. Joseph's and often supplements that with their own donations. They're purchasing personalized gifts for the staff member and that person's family. Sr. Mennor says the givers are always very creative in their gift selections and wrap the presents in lovely packaging.

Sr. Mennor says that through Holiday Make a Difference St. Joseph's leaders are tending to people's spirit. Their volunteerism is a natural extension of a broad interpretation of St. Joseph's mission to sustain and improve individual and community health, with a special concern for those who are poor, vulnerable and underserved – both within and outside facility walls.

Similarly, in Wheeling, West Virginia, Wheeling Hospital is undertaking its annual employee holiday assistance program. The hospital matches sponsor employees with a colleague who is in financial need. The sponsor purchases Christmas presents for the colleague and that person's immediate family.

PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Washington, this year launched its Dove Pantry Toy Drive, inviting associates to sign up to donate toys for their colleagues who are struggling financially to give to their own children.

The hospital established the pantry for its employees early in the pandemic, according to Chuck Prosper. The pantry stocks food and hygiene items for any associate who needs them. Prosper is chief executive of PeaceHealth's Northwest Network.


Ministry facilities enliven their communities during the holiday season

As community anchors, many hospitals traditionally have invited the public to their Christmastime festivals and fundraising galas.

Last year was an exception as COVID-19 forced hospitals nationwide to scrap communal festivities. In some cases, the facilities came up with ways to celebrate safely.

Mercy Health — St. Rita's Medical Center in Lima, Ohio, partnered with the Allen County Fair to create a drive-thru interactive light show at the fairgrounds. The hospital sponsored the display, and ticket sales generated about $25,000 for the nonprofit that runs the fair, which had limited income in 2020 due to event's cancellation.

The hospital is sponsoring the drive-thru display again this year and it just might become a tradition in the city of about 35,000, which is in a county of about 100,000.

"The last few years have been a blur – the best thing for everyone is to have something to look forward to, and to make good memories even in the midst of this stressful time," said Beth Keehn, director of government and community affairs for St. Rita's.

Keehn says having grounding moments, such as family times enjoying Christmas lights, "are critical to our mental health," particularly while everyone is dealing with the fallout of the pandemic.

Scale back
In 2017, Mercy Health – St. Vincent Medical Center and Children's Hospital in Toledo, Ohio, revived a tree-lighting festival that once had been a Toledo tradition but that was halted years prior. The pandemic stopped the gathering once again last year and employees simply watched through hospital windows as the display was turned on.

Rising infection rates in the community put a halt to a public tree-lighting again this year. St. Vincent still decked out the campus for hospital employees, patients, visitors and passersby to enjoy. Matt Sapara, vice president of regional development and operations for Mercy Health, said the immediate community that St. Vincent serves has not seen the economic upturn that the rest of the community has. Sapara says the Christmas lights are symbolic of the hope that development opportunities advanced by the ministry will bring to these residents.

For all to see
Bon Secours St. Francis' Festival of Trees in Greenville, South Carolina, has gone on uninterrupted for more than three decades – except for the cancellation of the in-person gala that normally marked the debut of the trees.

Ornately decorated trees are displayed at three Greenville-area hotels. Companies and organizations pay to sponsor trees. The Bon Secours St. Francis Foundation uses the profits to fund different programs, projects or other needs within St. Francis. This year's recipient is Project SEARCH, which provides skills and a path to a job to adults with autism and other developmental challenges. Many Project SEARCH graduates work at Bon Secours St. Francis.

Erik Whaley, foundation president, says Bon Secours St. Francis is pleased that it has been able to continue the 36-year tradition uninterrupted. He says people find this annual tradition very meaningful, even during these years of increased loss and challenge – amid the pandemic, people have suffered the loss of loved ones, of livelihoods, of important social connection and other losses.

From indoors to out
At St. Mary's Hospital in Amsterdam, New York, an annual home tour has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in ticket sales for the auxiliary over its 13-year run.

Until last year, volunteers would elaborately decorate the interiors of tour homes. Last year, the popular home tour took a pause because there was no safe way to accommodate lines of visitors in private homes given the viral threat.

This year, St. Mary's auxiliary revived the home tour tradition – with a twist: volunteers decorated the outside of the homes and sold a driving map. Proceeds went to the auxiliary.

Colleen Medwid is director of volunteer services and guest relations for St. Mary's Healthcare. She says entire neighborhoods got in on the fun turning on their holiday lights during the Nov. 19 and 20 tour dates. Some neighborhoods had carolers serenading the visitors driving by.

Medwid says the pandemic has been tough for everyone, and auxiliary planners wanted to revive the tradition "to lighten and brighten up" Amsterdam.



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