Our Staff Pandemic Stories

Over the past five months, most of the Schuylkill Center staff has been working at home. For us, being indoors is anathema to the spirit of our mission of connecting people with nature. But, we have pressed on with our Zoom meetings and online teaching while continuing to learn how to share our passion for the environment with our students, members and the public via a virtual platform. Here are three vignettes of how our staff is facing the Coronavirus head-on.

Teacher Ann with feathered friends Louis and Serena

Ann Ward, Kindergarten Lead Teacher
When the virus hit, Ann, together with her co-teachers, embraced the new digital format and delivered Nature Preschool to her virtual classroom, the Mighty Oaks.

While she missed the in-person morning meetings, she noted, “the fun thing about the virtual meetings was that our students were bringing guests with them like pets, siblings, and the occasional parent.” She smiles, “the children could share their environment with us through their computer or Ipad and there became this sense of normalcy in the midst of all this uncertainty.”

Towards the end of the school year, Ann decided that having each student raise their own silkworm at home would lend itself to emergent learning, an approach that relies on the children’s interests and the circumstances of the day to dictate the learning content. ‘Project silkworm’ became a chance for children to have hands-on observations of the lifecycle of their silkworms; they could then share their observations with each other online. While the school year is over, the silkworms continue their metamorphosis of spinning their cocoons which will molt into a moth.

Naomi and Aaliyah Green Ross

Aaliyah Green Ross, Director of Education

Aaliyah was managing her work/family balance until her spouse suspected he had contracted the Coronavirus in April. Despite his test coming back negative, “he had all the symptoms and was sick for five weeks,” she says.  “That meant that he couldn’t help take care of our two kids.”  This was especially time-consuming with her daughter, Naomi, who was attending 2nd grade virtually. 

While Aaliyah appreciated the work and dedication of Naomi’s teachers, she still had an incredible amount of responsibility as a parent.  “I had to copy down all Naomi’s assignments, print them, photograph them then upload them to submit.  I felt like I had two full-time jobs.”  Fortunately, her husband has recovered from the virus and Naomi is enjoying the warm weather and sharing in the joy of the outdoors with her mom. 

Chris and Sarah Strub

Chris Strub,  Assistant Director of Wildlife Rehabilitation

In mid-March, the Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic staff quickly assessed their situation and realized protocols were going to have to drastically change in order for them to safely care for the patients and each other.  

Even with a reduction in the intake of patients and an absence of volunteers, they faced an additional challenge when Chris’ spouse, Sarah, contracted the Coronavirus in mid-May.  This forced Chris to quarantine for 14 days and the Clinic temporarily closed due to limited staffing.  “While I never tested positive for the virus,” Chris says, “I didn’t come into the Clinic because I  didn’t want to infect my co-workers.”  Happily, Sarah recovered from the virus and the clinic reopened in mid-June.

Donna’s mom, Nicoletta, and her granddaughter, Lea, celebrate their “twin” birthdays on April 2.

Donna Struck, Director of Finance

Donna Struck has been juggling her work/life balance while caring for her mother who was moved into her assisted living  facility’s memory care unit in February. With three siblings in close proximity, each one would try to visit her mother regularly.  “Having that human contact really helps her,” Donna says. “But since March, they’ve curtailed all visitors, stopped all memory care activities and eliminated communal dining.”  For a person with dementia, removing these familiar routines compromises their mental health and Donna is concerned about her mom’s rapid decline.  Instead of visiting in person, “we see my mom through the window of her first floor apartment.  It’s kind of ridiculous watching us make our way to her window through these beautifully manicured flowers.”  As of this writing, scheduled outdoor visits have commenced and Donna and her siblings are starting to see signs of improvement – a huge relief.

Amy Whisenhunt, Assistant Director of Individual Giving

The impact of the virus hit close to Amy’s family.  Her aunt Margaret passed away from COVID-19 in April in Richmond, VA.  “My aunt was always very supportive of me,” Amy reminisced.   “I remember her sharing her love for animals.  That has definitely had a positive impact on me and the work I do at the Schuylkill Center.”

All of the Schuylkill Center staff is still navigating the challenges/opportunities the virus continues to have in our home and at our workplace.

By Amy Krauss, Director of Communications

Kindergarteners reboot their relationship with nature

“To Cattail Pond! To Cattail Pond!” several of the kindergarteners shout as they skip towards the Schuylkill Center’s serene, sunlit woodland opening at the edge of our forest, just a few quick steps outside our back door.  This is one of our most active sites on the property in the late winter and early spring when water is abundant and vegetation is emerging.

For our 5- and 6-year-old kindergarteners, it’s an ideal place to set the outdoor classroom scene. Given the overwhelming evidence of the many health benefits of learning outdoors, especially in the context of the current health crisis, the Schuylkill Center kindergarten is shifting to all outdoor classes.  This fall Ann Ward, a 30-year veteran in the field of early childhood education, will lead the class.

As a nature preschool, one that uses nature as the primary context for learning, research confirms that being outdoors improves physical, mental, and emotional health and development in children. 

Ann, and her co-teachers, embrace an emergent (child-led) curriculum rooted in the outdoors with the intent to create meaningful learning experiences that capture children’s passion while instilling a love for the environment.  A typical day includes child-led play in the understory of the woodlands or a hike along the banks of the ponds or streams that traverse our space here.  We bring materials with us on the trails including, writing paper, art tools, books, magnifying lenses and bug boxes, journals and  cameras; all with the intent to collect documentation of our day’s adventures. All of our “natural” learning is interwoven with the Pennsylvania kindergarten standards.

As Teacher Ann well knows, these “mindful adventure seekers are becoming lifelong stewards of the earth propelled by an innate curiosity.”  In this organic way, we enable these young minds the ability to build an intimate understanding of the natural world, one element at a time.  

Nature Preschool has honored the relationship between children and nature as the core of our mission since its founding.

According to Interim Director of Nature Preschool, Marilyn Tinari, “in both the preschool and kindergarten classes, the children are offered the gift of developing their emerging skills – in literacy, in learning, and socially and emotionally – through engagement with the natural environment on the grounds of the 340-acre Schuylkill Center.”  

Teacher Ann observes that “the majority of other schools have indoor programs where they need to take the student outdoors to learn or they take them on short field trips. What we’re doing here is essentially flipping that and our children will be spending all of their time outdoors this coming year.”  We incorporate all of the Pennsylvania standards into those activities so our children are growing physically and cognitively.

In terms of their sensory integration, playing and learning in nature is helping them develop fine and gross motor skills in a very organic way.  When they’re outside, children naturally encounter different types of surfaces as they’re hiking. At the Schuylkill Center, they navigate over logs, rocks and up and down hills; they adapt to changes in the environment, across different weather systems, and different seasonal experiences so their bodies are constantly engaged in vastly different ways.  

Our graduates of our state-licensed Kindergarten are raised to be stewards of the environment and how to find their place in it.  Ann observes, “they know how to engage with the outdoors without destruction, without conquest, without overpowering, and therefore their mark on the world is sustainable.” 

Our outdoor programming offers a rich and healthful alternative to traditional early childhood education, something that is essential now more than ever.

In the midst of natural and social crises, we have the opportunity to reboot and, reenvision our relationship with Nature and one another, starting with the education of our youngest citizens.

The Schuylkill Center Nature Preschool and Kindergarten will offer on-site programming outdoors for the 2020-2021 school year.  We will be following all required safety procedures as described in our COVID-19 plan (required by the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning, one of our regulatory agencies).  Masks will be required for children (over 2 years of age) and adults, cleaning and sanitizing, monitoring health (of children and staff)  and, as much as possible, social distancing.  Additionally, in order to reduce exposure, we will be working to create “pods,” small consistent groupings of 6 children with one teacher.

For more information about the Schuylkill Center’s Nature Preschool, contact Marilyn Tinari at marilyn@schuylkillcenter.org

Schuylkill Center’s latest response to COVID-19

While the Visitor Center remains closed during the week, we are open on Saturdays for the month of August.  Hikers and visitors to our trails will be able to use our facilities and visit our gift shop from 9-5 on Saturdays only.  To ensure the safety of our summer campers and counselors, the Visitor Center will remain closed weekdays

The gates to our main parking lot are now open 9-5. 

The Wildlife Clinic is functioning with limited staff at this time and is taking calls through voicemail only 215-482-7300 x (option 2). Leave a detailed voicemail and we will return your call as soon as possible. For non-urgent wildlife questions or concerns, please email wildlife@schuylkillcenter.org.

Please use the following resources to locate a wildlife rehabilitation center for assistance with an injured or orphaned wild animal.

For a list of PA rehabilitators by county: pawr.com
To search for local rehabilitators by zipcode: ahnow.org
For assistance with capture and transport of injured wildlife: winemergencyresponse.com – (877) 239-2097

All on-site public programming is suspended until further notice, with the exception of Camp Schuylkill, which runs through August 21. To learn more about summer camp, please click here.

We are taking the month of August off for online programming, but you can view our virtual offerings about nature and the environment from our YouTube channel.

Thursday Night Live: Free weekly online events/programs presented by Schuylkill Center staff with special guests

Ask a Naturalist: Get your nature groove on with an environmental educator recorded from FB Live every Monday at 5

Schuylkill Saturdays: Live video recorded each Saturday at 10:30 with one of our environmental educators.  Leave with an activity to continue your nature exploration at home.

Year of Action: Call-to-action videos to learn how you can help the environment

Backyard Biodiversity: Fun outdoor nature exploration right in your backyard

Nature Crafts: Make-it videos with natural materials

Our trails are open dawn to dusk, every day. Enjoying sunshine and fresh air will help get us through this unusual time, as nature alleviates stress and anxiety. Please practice appropriate physical distancing while on the trails and give those around you at least 6 feet of space—one full stretched turkey vulture, to be exact! As per the governor’s and CDC’s recommendations, please wear a mask when walking our trails.

We ask you to keep the nearby roads safe by parking appropriately in designated lots and take all of your trash and belongings with you when you leave. Please also keep your pets at home.

Thank you again for enjoying the Schuylkill Center.

Film Screening: The Story of Plastic

As if the pandemic, the economy, and racial justice were not enough to worry about, as if last week’s hot spell doesn’t remind us that climate change needs to be addressed too, the Schuylkill Center invites you to consider one more threat to your health and well-being: plastics.

On the cusp of the pandemic, Philadelphia was about to ban plastic bags in the city– something many neighboring municipalities have already done, as the rising tide of single-use plastics has come under increasing scrutiny. But plastic bags are just, pardon the pun, the tip of the plastic straw.

For our planet is drowning in plastic waste. Literally. A report from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimates that “there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 if drastic measures are not taken to move away from our disposable plastic culture.” Today, the world consumes an estimated five trillion plastic bags per year, with only about 1% being recycled. We have produced more plastic bags in the last decade than we did in the previous century.

And don’t get me started about single use plastic water bottles. 

Worse, studies confirm that people are ingesting thousands of microplastic particles year after year, in our food and in our water– yes, microplastics flow through our drinking water– and that human blood carries with it some of the most persistent and toxic chemicals associated with plastic. What all this is doing to our health and well-being is a rising concern. 

To address the issue, a new documentary, “The Story of Plastic,” has been released, and the Schuylkill Center is offering free virtual screenings. When you go to our website at www.schuylkillcenter.org and register for the event, you will receive the link to the screening– which you watch privately whenever you’d like.

On Thursday, July 30, join me at 7 p.m. for a live Zoom conversation about the movie and the issue.

The film takes a sweeping look at the crisis of plastic pollution and its effect on both people and planet. Spanning three continents, the film illustrates the ongoing catastrophe: fields full of garbage, mountains  of trash, rivers and seas clogged with waste, and skies choked with the poisonous emissions from plastic production and processing. With engaging original animation, archival footage beginning in the ‘30s, and first-person accounts, the film shines a bright light on this increasingly important issue.

Many people– including concerned Schuylkill Center staff and members– have already been reducing the amount of single-use plastics we consume, forgoing water bottles, sandwich bags, produce bags and those ubiquitous shopping bags for permanent products. Water bottles are easy, but weaning yourself off shopping bags can be quite the challenge. And there is much more to do.

The plastics industry has long promoted the idea that recycling is the best way to keep plastic out of the landfill, but more than 90% of all the plastic ever produced has not been recycled. Plastic is far more likely to end up in landfills, incinerators, or in the environment than to be recycled, and recycling systems cannot keep up with the huge volume of plastic waste being generated. Plastic recycling is always complicated– you need to first unlock the secret code on the bottom of your yogurt container and then remember which numbered plastic your municipality takes.

Consequently, much of the plastic we ship to recycling facilities– usually in China– are hopelessly contaminated with the wrong plastics. And too much of our plastic is “downcycled” anyway, turned into products like plastic lumber, which itself is not recyclable; neither is that down jacket made from spun plastic bottles. While that one more use is better, it is not classic recycling, where an aluminum can becomes an aluminum can becomes an aluminum can…

While soda and water bottles, milk jugs, and laundry detergent containers are commonly recycled, recycling rates are still shockingly low: half of the PET sold (PET is the plastic in bottles) is never collected for recycling, and only 7% of those bottles collected for recycling are turned into new bottles. 

This has an impact on nature, of course, in addition to the infamous photos of animals like seals and turtles with six-pack rings choking their necks. Earlier this year, a sperm whale washed ashore in Spain, having died from ingesting 64 pounds of plastic debris. Carcasses of sea birds on remote islands have been found– decomposed– with a pile of plastic where their guts would have been; they pick bright floating objects off the ocean surface, which are not jellyfish or dead fish, but are plastics, and die as a result.

The rising tide of plastics is not the happiest story, of course, but it is  an important one, perhaps even a necessary one, as that microplastic floating in your gut and those plastic chemicals in your blood present yet-unknown consequences. Join the conversation; go to our website. See you Thursday on Zoom.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Three Musketeers Walking our Trails

If you’re out on our trails early on a weekday morning, most likely you’ll happen upon an energetic trio enjoying the sights and sounds of our 340 acre forest.  Dr. Evamarie Malsch, Dr. Louise Lisi and Gail Harp are our neighbors from Cathedral Village, the continuing care community around the corner.  As frequent visitors, they have come to know our trails intimately.  “We’re really lucky to have the Schuylkill Center so closeby,” Evamarie comments, “and we’ve been going there at least twice a week to hike since the start of the pandemic.”

Three “masked” Musketeers walking our trails.

Evamarie took up hiking soon after she retired and was fortunate to meet Gail and Louise, avid hikers who also reside at Cathedral Village; together they are affectionately referred to as the Three Musketeers in their community.  Evamarie is delighted to explore the far reaches of the Schuylkill Center because every time she goes out, she finds something new in bloom.  “We have been having such fun learning about animals and ephemerals.”   

One creature that recently caught their attention was a red eft, a stage in the left cycle of the Eastern newt salamander.  The hikers disagreed about whether the bright red coloring was poisonous, but they eventually confirmed that, indeed, this was the most toxic stage of the eastern newt and a clear warning to predators.   

Red eft salamander

Louise muses, “because the Schuylkill Center landscape changes so rapidly, our hikes never feel the same.”  Her favorite spot on the property is Smith Run. “I feel like I’m in some far away country when I’m listening to the stream while enjoying the trees and foliage.”  Now that restrictions have somewhat eased, she has extended her love of the Schuylkill Center to her grandchildren and even made up a scavenger hunt for their introductory trip.  Gail remembers the pear trees in bloom.  “You see these beautiful flowering trees and yet they’re only flowering for a short time.” 

Evamarie has been a loyal member of the Schuylkill Center for five years and shares why she supports it.

“I get so much pleasure from going there so I choose to give to a place that aligns with my values of educating people about nature.” 

She also appreciates the fact even though it’s “in the city limits, it feels like I’m in the wild.  Here, everything is natural which is calming and peaceful.”  

We invite you to explore our trails this summer.  We’re open dawn to dusk every day and studies show that being in nature helps relieve anxiety and stress.  Who knows? Perhaps you may run into our Cathedral Village friends.  Ask them a question, they may very well know the answer given their time spent at the Schuylkill Center.

If you’re enjoying our trails, please consider helping us to maintain them by becoming a member for as little as $50/year.

By Amy Krauss, Director of Communications/Digital Strategy

Foraged Flavor: Eat Your Weeds!

Visit almost any open space in Roxborough or Manayunk, and you’ll find a surprising cornucopia of wonderful taste sensations: dandelions and daylilies, Queen Anne’s lace and curly dock. That’s right, these are all weeds that simply taste great, and are free for the taking.

Wild plant forager Tama Matsuoka Wong has written a gorgeous cookbook, Foraged Flavor, featuring 88 recipes for the plants named above, and more. Recipes like chocolate-dipped wild spearmint leaves. Sumac and fig tart. Chilled mango soup with sweet spruce tips. Wild mustard greens and chorizo wild rice. Sound yummy? You bet.

Tama, a New Jersey resident and old friend of the Schuylkill Center, will take center stage in our next Thursday Night Live! series, set for July 9 at 7:00 p.m. The evening is free and takes place on Zoom; you can register on our website.

Many high-end restaurants offer foraged food sensations on their menu

And foraging is catching on big these days.  Tama supplies foraged plants to many, like Daniel in New York City, the acclaimed Michelin-starred restaurant whose chef de cuisine, Eddy Leroux, co-wrote the book with Tama. I walked into Whole Foods recently, and cracked up when I saw dandelion leaves on sale for a surprising high price. Dandelions? For sale? Really?

But dandelions are edible in so many ways, and were actually brought to the New World from European settlers wishing to bring greens with them. You can find green dandelion leaves deep into December, and find them again as early as February. Rich in vitamins, these greens saved many winter-starved colonial settlers. In fact, its long scientific name translates roughly as “the official cure for everything.” Those settlers planted it outside the kitchen door, where the plant of course escaped, and is now the bane of most suburban lawn owners and the featured pest in too many lawn chemical commercials.

Not only are its leaves edible. The sauteed buds are really tasty, the taproot can be roasted for coffee, and its flowers have been turned into wine. Tama of course kicks it up a notch or two: she creates a dandelion flower tempura with savory dipping sauce. Whoa.

What sets Tama’s book and philosophy apart from so many other similar books is that the previous ones would exhort you to boil the tough weedy leaves of many plants with like three changes of water, turning them into mush. Or fry them with bacon and butter– where everything tastes good, even cardboard.

Tama’s search is for wild plants that are not just edible, but taste great.

In her book, she recalls hauling garbage bags filled with stinging nettles– stinging nettles! The bane of so many hikers as when you rub up against it wearing shorts, your legs start burning right away!– onto a NYC subway from her Jersey home, toting them to Restaurant Daniel where “Eddy immediately pounded on the nettles, turning them into a foam to partner with a hazelnut-encrusted scallop dish.”

Tama even eats devil’s walking stick, one of the most hated plants at the Schuylkill Center (we don’t hate many plants, not even poison ivy, but devil’s walking stick is hard on us). Not native to the America’s, this invasive fast-growing shrub sprouts long skinny trunks loaded with thorns, lending the plant its name. Heck, even its giant leaves are covered in thorns– if Klingons had vegetables, this would be them. But it crowds out native plants, and grows like a monoculture of one plant, which Tama notes are “clonal stands.”

In its native Japan, where it is better known as the angelica tree (Aralia elata), its buds are treasured as a delicacy called tara no me. So Tama forages for the buds, picking them at the exact right time of year, turning them into such treasures as tempura-fried Aralia buds and just-poached Aralia with mustard vinaigrette.

Intrigued? We’d love to introduce you to the charismatic Tama, one of the most dynamic people you’ll ever meet– just spending an hour with her is upbeat balm for the pandemic soul. Go to our website, look for the link, and join us on Thursday evening. When our gift shop reopens, which we pray is soon, Foraged Flavor is for sale; of course, you can purchase it online.

After the event, you’ll never buy dandelions at Whole Foods again. You’ll forage for them along Germany Hill and the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Reserve Park. And you’ll stop spraying your weeds– you’ll harvest them instead.

The Schuylkill Center’s Thursday Night Live! series includes additional events into the summer. Coming topics include the surprising lives of moths, climate change in Philadelphia, and the Green New Deal.

Love to have you join us.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Help us Restore our Damaged Pine Grove

P3 - Pine Grove_2Pine Grove is easily one of our most beloved features, kids climbing in its many branches, parents inhaling the calming scent, everyone grateful for its cooling shade. But the grove was devastated in early June from a derecho– a supercell thunderstorm– that slammed into the region, knocking down trees and branches everywhere, causing massive power outages, and killing several people. 

The storm sliced through Pine Grove like a knife cutting butter, a straight-line of trunks tumbling to the ground, more than 20 trunks snapping off and piled unceremoniously on the ground– and each other.

We closed our trails for a week to wrestle with downed trees and dangerous branches overhanging our trails. While our trails are now reopened, Pine Grove remains closed even now– our staff needs to pull down lots of hanging branches before we allow you back in.

Which is where you come in. We are starting a fund to restore the grove, as we need to both remove branches and trunks while planting new trees in the canopy gaps now present there. Please go online to donate to the grove’s restoration; please help us bring back this unique feature of our campus.

About that storm: a derecho is a line of intense, widespread, and fast-moving windstorms, often thunderstorms, that moves a great distance. This one rolled 250 miles to the Jersey shore, where a gust was clocked at 92 mph, hurricane force. From the Spanish for “straight ahead,” derechos are associated with warm weather– they need heat energy for fuel. While no one storm event can be pinned on climate change, a warming climate increases the chances for large storm events. What we saw that day was weird, excessive, and points to large amounts of heat in the atmosphere in only early June. For me, that derecho was spawned by climate change, a stark reminder that, with power outages, people killed, and houses, cars, and trees damaged, the price tag for ignoring the climate crisis is steep, and rising. We will continue this conversation in our programming, of course.

And I hope you will join me in donating to the Pine Grove Fund.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

Natural Selections: COVID at Cathedral Village

As COVID-19 deaths in America hit the 100,000 mark, there has been a lot of attention– TV news stories and front-page newspaper accounts– on senior centers and nursing homes, and rightfully so, as fully one-third of those deaths have occurred at these sites.

So as Roxborough wrestles with the virus, it seemed especially important to talk with Charles Gergits, who for the last five years has been the executive director of Cathedral Village, the continuing care retirement community off Ridge Avenue by the Andorra Shopping Center. How has Cathedral Village fared?

“We’re holding our own,” Charles told me last week, “we’ve been very fortunate so far. With 400 residents and a staff of 300, we’ve had a total of five residents and three staff contracting the virus, and there currently is one active case on staff and one active case with residents.” Sadly, he reports, “there have been two deaths here.”

But that’s– to me, neither skilled in journalism nor medicine– a remarkably low number compared to how the virus has ravaged so many nursing homes. How have they avoided what has happened elsewhere? “Our staff has talked about that a lot,” he told me, “ and we think it starts with a lot of little things. For one, our team is very experienced at infection control. This virus is more deadly than the flu, but we have not had a flu case in our skilled nursing facility in the last two years. We were also the first skilled nursing area to close to visitors.” They closed on March 8, almost a week earlier than many other centers. “We were proactive, which helped keep numbers down.”

He does worry about the reporting on his peers. “Senior centers have been villainized as far as reporting,” he offered, “because those who are elderly and those whose health is compromised are the ones hit hardest by the virus, and that’s who resides in skilled nursing facilities.” He feels that perspective has not been communicated in these pieces. Point taken.

For both residents and staff, there has been “a lot of anxiety” over the unknown path of the disease. “I feel bad and sorry for the residents and their families,” he continued. “It’s hard for the residents not to visit and socialize; hard for the families not to see them. I feel bad for what’s going on.”

But it has also “made the community stronger,” he told me. With the dining rooms closed, staff delivers food to each resident’s room, and one staff member’s job is to go shopping for three or four hundred people. When the deliveries were being made recently, “every door and window had a thank-you sign on it. Our residents are increasingly appreciative of the little things and very supportive of our staff– we’ve been flooded with letters and signs.

“And our staff,” he continued, “has a renewed sense of pride. It’s been good to see the emphasis nationwide on staff as frontline heroes– it’s good to see the pride. At the same time, there is this anxiety of not knowing whether you might contract it, of bringing it home to your family, or bringing it to one of the residents– and they couldn’t live with that.”

Knowing this has been unbelievably stressful on staff, he says they have tried very hard to be flexible with their staff, accommodating to adjustments like childcare, which collapsed for many in the pandemic. “We also have apartments we can put staff up in when we need to,” he said.

I called him from my home, where I am working, but Charles was at Cathedral Village. “Everything we do is hands-on,” he volunteered, “we’ve all been still at work, haven’t been able to work from home at all. And we’re all working long days, staying here when needed.” I joked about his frontline staff earning combat pay, and he quickly said, “yes, we’ve made adjustments to pay at times.”

His parent company, Presbyterian Senior Living, for whom Charles has worked for 20 years now, “has been very supportive, getting us the PPE we need. We have enough for our residents now. But if something happens, kike if there is a mad rush, getting more equipment worries me.”

Charles says “we are very thankful for the support we’re received from the Roxborough community– people have volunteered to make masks and shields for us, and there have been lots of posts online.” He’s thrilled at the outpouring of support from our community. As the hospital sign notes, we are #RoxyStrong.

Moving forward, he says “state and federal governments need to make sure skilled nursing staff have more support faster. People were really focusing on hospitals at first– they were not really focusing on skilled nursing facilities.” That needs to change.

And he confesses that “like everyone else in the United States, we’re getting a little tired of being inside, coming up on three months now. But I do believe that some of the guidelines have prevented the spread of the disease– social distancing and wearing masks have helped. And I’m nervous, as most people are, as things start opening up– will COVID rebound? Will there be an increase?”

He hopes not; we all agree. But here’s some love and prayers to the entire Cathedral Village community, staff and residents. We look forward to seeing you outside again soon.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

How We’re Navigating the Pandemic’s Whitewaters

DSCN1172

Like all businesses, nonprofits, and even families, the Schuylkill Center has been struggling through the pandemic and the now-two-months-and-counting lockdown. While hikers and families have happily discovered the benefits of our 340 acres of forests and meadows, our staff is chafing to return, and we’re waiting for the science (and the governor) to tell us when this might happen.

It might surprise you to learn that we hire more than 50 employees: educators who lead school field trips on environmental science, rehabilitators who heal injured and sick wild animals, preschool teachers who use our forest as their classroom, artists who install exhibitions in our gallery and along our trails, and all the support staff this activity requires: a fundraising staff, a finance staff, a crew managing our land and facilities, and so much more.

On Friday, March 13th, a date seared forever into my memory, we sent everyone home, including staff and preschoolers. Schools stopped coming for visits; we cancelled programming initially through March, and now of course into April and May. Our finances fell off a cliff: one projection showed revenue dropping 70% in this quarter from budgeted expectations.

We carried those employees through the first month, paying them all and retaining their health benefits, whether or not they were able to perform their jobs remotely (it’s hard to mow virtual trails, for example). But we couldn’t continue this forever–the pandemic was outlasting everyone’s patience and our cash. So, on April 10 we furloughed most of the staff, retaining a skeleton crew of people to run the business: maintenance staff to make sure the buildings were secure and all systems operating; a finance crew to pay the bills; a fundraising crew to try to bring additional donations into the organization; a wildlife rehabilitation team to care for the animals in or Wildlife Clinic; and more. But not much more.

Here’s every executive director’s nightmare: to host a Zoom call for 50 people and tell most of them they are about to be furloughed. Neither easy nor fun, it was essential, as we simply ran out of the ability to retain our staff, and anyone who stayed on in the skeleton crew had either their salaries or hours reduced–the pain was shared among all 50 of us. But I was relieved that our Board of Trustees, the wonderful volunteers who make sure our organization is pointed in the right direction, agreed that we not only keep all furloughed employees on our group healthcare plan, but we foot the bill for the entire benefit, as there was no longer any salary to deduct the employee’s share from. We were not going to launch our staff into a pandemic without health coverage.

But then an extraordinary thing happened: during the first week of furlough, we got word from our bank, S&T Bank, the new name for the bank on Ridge Avenue not far from the new pocket park, that we had successfully secured one of the coveted but controversial Paycheck Protection Program grants from the Small Business Administration. It was Christmas in April: the furlough lasted only one week for the lion’s share of our staff.

There is a surprise here. One month later, both us and the bank are still wrestling with the program’s murky requirements, especially whether or not the loan is forgiven. (Just talked with our banker, and it is as clear as mud–no fault of the bank at all.) Still, while you might have read about controversies around this program, this one nonprofit at least greatly benefited: without the loan, our people would have remained on furlough and would have been tapping into the state’s overtaxed unemployment compensation program. Say what you will, it worked for us. In spades.

We are, of course, among the lucky ones, as we received the loan; so many sister nonprofits and businesses are still waiting to hear if their PPP ship has sailed in. I’d like to personally thank S&T Bank for being on top of this program–that has been a godsend.

Suddenly it is mid-May, and we are staring at two new hurdles in front of us. For one, our summer camp usually starts in early June, and a cohort of summer camp counselors still expect to show up to work with us this summer. We have exactly zero clarity on whether or not this happens right now, and our staff is doggedly trying to prepare for all scenarios at once, everything from a full summer of camp to a greatly reduced camp, whichever that virus throws at us.

Second, the PPP money runs out in June, which back in April read as tiding us over until summer camp revenue would kick in to support our operations and our staff. That is no longer a certainty. So a possibility exists that in mid-June we end up exactly where we were in mid-April: staring at an unending lockdown with cash again running low.

Like you, I’m waiting for this rollercoaster ride to end, urging our staff to be patient, and praying for something akin to a miracle, a summer free from the virus, one that allows families to pick up the pieces of our shattered lives.

That’s how the Schuylkill Center is doing.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Manayunk’s Falcons

Female peregrine falcon eating

Female peregrine falcon eating

Here’s a good news story for these COVID-consumed times.

For Philadelphia’s birding community, spring means many things, especially the return of migrating birds to famous haunts like Carpenters Woods in Mt. Airy. To Roxborough’s Judy Stepenaskie, spring means the return of a pair of peregrine falcons – famously the world’s fastest animal – to the nesting box tucked into the top of the steeple of St. John the Baptist Church, the tallest stone spire in Manayunk’s skyline.

As Judy has become the de facto adopted godmother of the peregrines that nest there, following them assiduously, photographing them, sharing their story with fellow birders, this year’s edition of the peregrine story would prove especially poignant. The pair residing in the steeple had been together since 2011, Judy christening the male “Manny” and the female “Yunk.” Last fall, as I shared in this column, Judy was stunned to learn that Manny was found dead, its leg cleanly severed, possibly in mid-flight. Judy suspected a drone she had seen buzzing the steeple, its owner likely only wanting to film a flyover around Manayunk. But Manny perhaps assumed the drone was another large bird, and being territorial, dove for the drone – and got its leg sliced off, the bird falling to the ground and perishing. This is only a theory, but it sadly reads as logical.

So would Yunk find a new mate? Surprisingly, Judy didn’t have to wait long.

Peregrines on christmas day

Peregrines on christmas day

“In December last year,” Judy told me, “the female was out on the nest box’s ledge every day for most of the day – I guess she was advertising her site.” On Christmas Eve last year, she continued, “I saw a male on the steeple, perched on one of the finials. On Dec. 25, they were sitting at the steeple together.” Such a great Christmas present!

“Both peregrines stayed around during the winter,” she offered. “And I did see them mate once,” she confided, “on one of the electrical towers over the train tracks. They mate multiple times.”

In mid-March, she knew from their behavior that they had laid eggs. Success!

“I saw them do a nest exchange,” she noted, “where the female comes out of the nest box and the male goes in,” taking his turn incubating the eggs, a process that takes a full month or so. “She was out for about an hour and a half, preening herself, as her feathers were all fluffed up.”

Also in mid-March another new male came by, checking out the site and possibly sizing up the male as a competitor.

“He perched on the steeple for quite a while, watching. The female came out and chased it off, and the male went up to the nest box.” The male cleverly let the much larger female – that’s one way Judy can tell the two apart, the female is significantly larger – handle the territorial chores. Our female stayed loyal to her suitor.

She recounted a similar 2015 story from Baltimore where one of the males raised in this nest – one of Manny’s boys – challenged an older male peregrine on a nest box that already had eggs in it.

“He successfully chased off the existing one in Baltimore,” Judy said, “so the female simply pushed the existing eggs off to the side, mated with the new male, and laid a new set of eggs.” They do mate for life, but it seems they are not sentimental.

That didn’t happen here – the newer male was chased off, and presumably is looking for opportunities elsewhere.

Sometime in mid-April, Judy thinks between the 16th and the 21st, the eggs will hatch.

“That’s when I’ll see the female come out on the ledge – she’ll be out a lot, and she’ll sit at the nest box opening while looking back.”

It is a bittersweet ending to the story.

“I’m sad,” Judy volunteered, “because I miss the old male. I’m not sure how the new one is going to perform as a dad, and the old one was great.” Manny did father almost 30 new peregrines over his nine-year reign, including the Baltimore one.

Has she named the new one?

“I was thinking of MM2, short for Manayunk Male 2.” And she has already renamed Yunk, as there is no Manny as her companion anymore. Its new name? “I call her Liz,” Judy said, “as in Elizabeth, because she was hatched from a nest up in Elizabeth, New Jersey.”

While the names Liz and MM2 don’t have quite the cache of Manny and Yunk, it’s great to have a pair of peregrines back atop the steeple at St. John’s, producing more of these extraordinary but still-endangered birds.

Continued thanks to Judy for serving as the loyal falcon godmother, and thanks to the church for so graciously hosting them all these years.

peregrine falcon 3.15.20

 

Written by Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director