Schuylkill Center Mandates Vaccines for Staff

On July 3, Philadelphia reported all of 177 cases of COVID-19 across the city, the lowest number since the pandemic’s beginning in March 2020. It seemed– felt, hoped– we were FINALLY crawling out of the pandemic’s pit. 

Then the highly transmissible delta variant struck, the fourth wave ramped up, and for the week ending August 7, the city reported 1,238 cases, a 700% increase in only one month. $%$#@!

So last week, to almost no one’s surprise, Mayor Jim Kenney reestablished a masking mandate in the city.

The Schuylkill Center decided we needed to respond to this disappointing wrong-way bend in the curve. Because we operate multiple programs where we invite unvaccinated children to our site, including Nature Preschool, which almost 100 preschoolers attend on a daily basis, and also because we have an obligation to provide a safe workplace for not only program participants and visitors but our own staff and their families, our Board of Trustees adopted a crucial policy last week.

In an unanimous vote, our organization’s 23 trustees agreed to require all of our employees to be vaccinated. We are now joining the growing ranks of companies and universities doing the same, including Google, Walmart, Amtrak, the US military, and many more– with more coming daily.

But we are also taking this important action because we are a science-based organization that teaches and believes in science. And the science is clear. We have sadly and strangely been conducting a year-long science experiment on the American population, bifurcating into states and communities that believe in science and those that believe in– what, exactly– fake news, for lack of a better term (like getting vaccinated will turn your body into a magnet!). 

The fourth wave has already been labeled “a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” and the data back this up. Today, there is a direct and irrefutable correlation between COVID and vaccination rates– those communities with the highest vaccination rates show the lowest caseload. Dr. Ashish K. Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, noted that on August 9, residents of the five most-vaccinated states, home to 14 million people, had only 580 people in the hospital with 12 COVID-related deaths that day. But in the five least-vaccinated states, with 16 million people, 6,600 hospitalized and 104 people had died. The least-vaccinated states have 10 times the number of hospitalizations and seven times the deaths. “So yeah,” he tweeted, “vaccines are working.”

Piling on, in the 10 worst states, those where only 38% of its residents are fully vaccinated, more than 14,000 people are currently hospitalized. But in the 10 best states, where more than 60% are vaccinated, only 1,400 people are in the hospital. Again, a tenfold difference.

Yes, there are breakthrough infections, and yes, that is troublesome– but is the rate of breakthrough infection large enough to derail the entire vaccination program? Of course not. “If you are vaccinated, you may get a breakthrough infection,” Dr Jha has admitted. “But you are very unlikely to get hospitalized. You are very, very, very unlikely to die. The horror of the delta variant will largely be felt by the unvaccinated.”

The Schuylkill Center will, of course, follow the standards similar to all of those entities named earlier, whereby medical and religious exemptions may be accommodated, and of course we will follow whatever other applicable laws are approved.

But we have an obligation to the thousands of people who visit our site, not only preschool children attending our school but summer campers coming here for a week in the great outdoors, school groups visiting for field trips, visitors participating in our many programs, walkers hiking in our forest, art lovers coming to our art gallery to see our latest art installation, and more.

You’d think a tenfold diminution in COVID cases would catch people’s attention… But no. We like to say we live in the Age of Information, but that’s not the case at all. We instead live in the Age of Opinion, and everyone not only has one, but has multiple platforms for promulgating that opinion.

As a science educator, good public policy should flow from good science– science informs policy. But like with climate change, we have become practiced at denying the science to alter the policy. To our detriment. Simply put, more people have already died, and more will die, because of the politics and deliberate disinformation surrounding COVID, not because of the science.

The science is astonishingly clear. Vaxx up, Roxborough.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Engaging with the Environment through “Homegrown Stories”

Last week, the Schuylkill Center, as well as more than 1 billion people from almost 200 countries, united for Earth Day in the name of improving our planet. As this week of honor and appreciation closes, we are left to reflect how our actions, both large and small, individually and collectively, have an impact on the Earth and our common future. The art project Homegrown Stories explores our natural environment through the lenses of video and film that the Environmental Art Team is excited to share in light of Earth Day. Already in 2020, the Schuylkill Center visually explored the meaning of Earth Day at 50 in the exhibition Ecotactical, which considered what new insights Earth Day’s 50th anniversary in the middle of a pandemic provided us. The Homegrown Stories project considers similar questions and finds that while the world around changes, so, too, do the artistic responses to climate change, environmental injustice, and humanity’s exploitation of nature. 

 

In art, environment is everything. Whether it’s the nebulous political or social sphere that influences the artist’s style, subject matter, or intent, or the physical surroundings that contextualize the viewer’s perception of the piece—the shared nature of space is what connects us so deeply through art. In a time when the planet itself is in crisis, as climate change not only threatens humanity but the very foundation of “nature” as we know it, the environment of art has focused itself on The Environment. How we experience it, how we influence it, and how we must work together to save it.

These are the concepts currently being explored by the online video project Homegrown Stories. As outlined on the website, this project began in 2013 as a way for founders LeAnn Erickson and Sandra Louise Dyas to employ a one-shot aesthetic to create videos that delve into the “questions of personal space, the act of storytelling and the primacy of place in shaping one’s world view,” the collaborators explain.

Initially, they focused on their own experiences within the website’s noted theme of “place and space,” integrating both still and moving images from their daily lives. However, Erickson and Dyas quickly realized that regardless of where they traveled or what they focused on, they were only two perspectives on a theme that had a farther reaching effect.

Thus, in 2015, Homegrown Stories began inviting other artists to join in the conversation. Borrowing from creative writing techniques, Erickson and Dyas chose prompts that would serve as inspiration for original videos. With their varied and differing perspectives, each artist added something unique that would enhance the overall experience of the collaborative project.

In an effort to draw attention to the issues that threaten the planet, the year 2020 focused on the elements of the natural environment. Under the prompts of “Water,” “Earth,” “Air,” and “Fire,” Homegrown Stories collaborated with various filmmakers to document and witness, investigate and interpret the effects of climate change as it influences the physical, social, and political world. Often utilizing the pocket technology of smart phones, these videos provide an intimate perspective that not only draws the viewer in, but also creates a unique environment in which they might understand and interact with the art.

“Water”—arguably the most important element to human life, and perhaps the most pressing matter in terms of climate change’s effect on the planet—opened the prompts. Many filmmakers were drawn to focus on the increasing frequency and severity of storms due to flooding events that happened in their local environments. Philip Hopper’s “Flood Stage,” portrays the overflowing Cedar River in Iowa, while “Mississippi River, St Louis Waterfront,” a 360-degree interactive still image by Karla Berry and Don Barth, looks upon the Mississippi as it laps at the St. Louis Arch. As the waters submerge walkways, rush under bridges, and jostle path signs, the artists highlight the struggle of humanity as it tries to protect its structures and infrastructure from the raging waters that its own actions have caused. Hopper, Berry, and Barth aim to raise the alarm for change as they create a visceral experience of the sheer power of this man-influenced, but ultimately natural, element.

Terrarium still #1, LeAnn Erickson and Jake Rasmussen

The next prompt was “Earth”—one that led the artists in many different directions, though all pointing toward the planet’s cry for help. Memo Salazar’s video “Earth by Memo,” features a squishy earth ball that continually attempts to rebound as a human hand smashes and bangs it to a cacophonous soundtrack. “Terrarium,” by Erickson and Jake Rasmussen, takes a much more experimental approach, pairing 1930s voiceover from Encyclopedia Britannica with video images that bubble, mesh, and layer to create a kaleidoscopic perspective. Though the latter focuses more on a representation of the value in the beauty of nature, both videos note the fragility of the earth (whether as a malleable ball or a fracturing terrarium) and ask the viewer to question what it means to interact emotionally, experientially, and physically with the planet and how they might change these interactions for the better.

“Sightseeing” by Mary Slaughter

The year concluded with “Air” and “Fire,” two elements that go hand in hand. The former consisted of videos exploring the notion of breath in a world dealing with police brutality, an airborne pandemic, and the pollution that is destroying our atmosphere. “Fire,” instead, looked at the necessity of a resource that defines civilization, while also illuminating how this same civilization has utilized it as a destructive force. Mary Slaughter’s iPhone video, “Sightseeing,” looks at a traditional Kurama Fire Festival in Japan, meant to honor spirits with torches paraded through the streets. Instead of a reverent, religious event, however, it turns into a tourist spectacle which is marked by an immense police presence. “In the Streets” by Kristine Heykants, looks more closely at fire’s role in industrialization and how it affects our cities and towns. The piece explores the issues of the poverty divide, the building and decaying of urban structures, and the pollution of smoke as it billows out of factory chimneys. Both videos portray the miracle of fire and how it has allowed our society to grow and flourish, but also the negative consequences of such progress.

 

“In the Streets” by Kristine Heykants

The goal of Homegrown Stories is that of all artists—to evoke emotion and reaction and to engage in a conversation about what we hold as progress, truth, and beauty. However, this collaborative project also invites the viewer to find answers through science and political action by providing links in each prompt to resources such as The Thirst Project, Green America, and The Southern Poverty Law Center. Erickson and Dyas are asking for more than passive viewing, they are asking for participation in redirecting our planet’s future. When change is the necessity, then art is the catalyst, information is the momentum, and collective action is the answer.

 

Molly Stankoski, Freelance Writer and Researcher

 

Visiting the Center

Our Visitor Center is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm weekdays and Saturday; our Sunday visitors may park at the Hagy’s Mill lot and walk on our trails, as always, but the Visitor Center remains closed on Sundays.

We welcome you to visit our exhibits, art gallery, and gift shop. And you can even purchase our world-class birdseed again! 

Visitors are required to wear masks.  There are posted limits on the number of people in each room, and our reception staff is behind a Plexiglas barrier, all for the protection of both you and our staff.

The Wildlife Clinic is currently accepting patients for rehabilitation, but is unable to accept walk-in patient admissions. For non-urgent wildlife questions or concerns, please email us.

If you have found an injured or orphaned animal in need of assistance, please call our 24-hour wildlife hotline at 215-482-7300 x option 2. We are functioning with limited staff at this time; if we are unable to answer the phone immediately, please leave us a detailed voicemail and we will return your call as soon as possible.  Please do not bring a wild animal to the clinic without first speaking with us by phone. 

Clinic Hours of Operation
10am-4pm, 7 days a week

We are offering limited in-person programming. Check out our robust schedule of virtual programs. 

Stay safe and enjoy all nature has to offer.

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 [email protected]

Schuylkill Center’s latest response to COVID

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.  The Visitor Center will remain closed weekdays

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

The Wildlife Clinic is currently accepting patients for rehabilitation, but is unable to accept walk-in patient admissions. If you have found an injured or orphaned animal in need of assistance, please call our 24-hour wildlife hotline at 215-482-7300 x option 2. Please do not bring a wild animal to the clinic without first speaking with us by phone.

The clinic is functioning with limited staff at this time. If we are unable to answer the phone immediately, leave a detailed voicemail and we will return your call as soon as possible. For non-urgent wildlife questions or concerns, please email [email protected].

Hours of Operation
Monday – Friday — 9am-6pm
Saturday, Sunday — 10am-4pm

All on-site public programming is suspended until further notice.

If you want to get your nature groove on, check out 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.

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