DePaul’s culture of caring was truly exemplified during an unimaginable historic storm which occurred in Buffalo over the 2022 holidays.
Heroic staff members demonstrated the definition of teamwork, doing everything they could to bring care, services and comfort to our residents.
Paralyzing whiteout conditions, feet of mounting snow, dangerous winds and frigid temperatures prevented some staff members from reporting to their shift and trapped others on-site. Everyone pitched in to help − snow blowing and shoveling, mopping floors, cooking, cleaning, giving of themselves with no complaints, and supporting each other. DePaul’s residents and their families were so appreciative.
“I cannot ever truly express my sincere gratitude to our heroic DePaul team who ensured the seamless delivery of the highest quality care during Buffalo’s historic winter storm that devastated the region,” said DePaul President Mark Fuller.
“Their dedication to the people we serve and to their fellow staff members went above and beyond and demonstrated why DePaul is recognized for our culture of caring!”
The sites most impacted included the Apple Blossom Apartments, Ebenezer Square Apartments, Kensington Square, McKinley Square, Packet Boat Landing Apartments, Riverside Apartments, Rutherford Place, Seneca Square and the DePaul Senior Living Communities Glenwell, Heritage Manor of Lockport and Wheatfield Commons.
Continue reading for some of the humbling stories of unity, resilience and heroism.
Seneca Square (Buffalo)
Seneca Square was without any power or heat from the morning of Friday, December 23 until late Christmas night. A few hours after losing power, intense cold and snow caused the building’s emergency generator to fail. Staff coordinated with the Bureau of Emergency Preparedness and Response to try and retain a new generator, but travel hazards prevented delivery. Though the site was prioritized, the lack of power continued. The replacement generator came at literally the same time the power came back on.
Throughout, Seneca Square’s resourceful team pulled together to ensure the well-being of 75 residents and staff. The warmest spots in the building were identified and some of the residents huddled up there or bunked with each other. Medications were distributed by flashlight and candlelight. Warm meals were prepared in the dark using the gas stove.
“Residents were constantly saying thank you and checking in with me knowing and appreciating how long I had been there,” said Mary Kay.
“Amazing collaboration and fortitude were displayed by residents and the DePaul team during this historic storm.”
In many instances staff members were unable to come in for their shift, thus those already on site remained for two to three days over the holiday. Program Director Mary Kay Rusinski was at Seneca Square from the morning of Friday, December 23 until the evening of Monday, December 26.
Rutherford Place (Depew)
Staff at DePaul’s Rutherford Place stocked up on food and informed residents of the extreme weather forecast prior to the storm. With staff unable to report to their shifts, Residential Supervisor Barb Malecki was stranded at the site on her own with eight residents for five days. For all but two of those days, she was the only staff member on site.
“I didn’t do anything special that I normally wouldn’t have done,” said Barb.
“I still had to continue to do my job and ensure the safety of the residents.”
Barbara prepared dinners for residents, distributed medication and used a shovel to keep the entrance clear when the snow blower wouldn’t start. Christmas was spent watching the movie Scrooge and other holiday specials with residents and keeping in touch with family and fellow staff members.
“The residents were understanding and had patience,” she said. “They felt badly that I was here by myself.”
On Christmas day, Residential Counselor Letia Alexander-Hunter was able to make it in and she pulled together a delicious dinner for all. Barb also remained on site as she was unable to leave due to the driving ban.
“Tia was very concerned about me being here by myself for so many days,” said Barb. “I have very caring and supportive staff.”
Ebenezer Square Apartments (West Seneca)
Storm preparations began in full at the Ebenezer Square Apartments on Thursday, December 22. The community’s nearly 100 residents were contacted to be sure they had enough groceries, hygiene products and medications to get through the next few days. Property Manager Andy Ponce gathered rock salt and shovels and the snow blower.
The following afternoon, Program Director Maria Nikel received a call from staff on-site expressing concern about the worsening weather conditions.
“After many calls and conversations, it was obvious that it was time to ‘hunker down,’ stay safe and warm, and take care of each other,” said Maria.
The staff who stayed on-site – Medication Coordinator Arielle Johnson and Residential Service Counselor Jermaine Howard – became heroes.
“These two individuals remained calm and made sure the residents had what they needed,” said Maria. “Medications were supervised and checked. Residents received a call from Jermaine just to say ‘hello’ and to be sure they were warm and fed, and mostly to be a calming presence.”
On Christmas Eve, Maria ventured out with her husband in their truck to reach Ebenezer Square. When the truck got stuck in a snowbank, they were forced to walk to the building.
“There were no footprints to follow, and the snow was up to my chest,” said Maria. “I was finally successful making it to the door, but it was very hard to do. I became numb where I could not feel my lower body.”
While she did not get to spend Christmas with her family, Maria said “our residents become like our family, and I was happy to share the night with them.”
Residential Service Coordinators Linda Berek and Chris Woelffel made it in by following Maria’s footsteps in the snow on December 26. Throughout the storm, staff stayed in contact with each other as well as staff who were stranded at other sites.
“The true heroism belongs to our residents at Ebenezer who came through like shining stars,” said Maria.
“The acts of kindness they showed toward staff and amongst each other was so genuine and heartfelt, it truly was the reason for the season.”
Kensington Square (Buffalo)
At Kensington Square, staff were encouraged to pack a bag in the event they were unable to leave the site. Staff took inventory of food, water, batteries, flashlights, shovels, ice melt and other snow removal equipment. Residents were informed of the impending storm and were encouraged not to leave the building after 10:00 p.m. on Thursday, December 22.
Friday started out at 40 degrees, recalls Program Director Carolyn Cauthen, “balmy for a Buffalo winter.” Around 9:30 a.m. the weather took a drastic turn. By noon, it was clear that staff on the afternoon and evening shifts would not be able to make it in.
Remaining at the site along with Carolyn were Residential Services Counselor Laura Johnson, Community Living Staff Shakina McGee, Medications Coordinator Treasure Thomas and Maintenance Specialist Larry Wroblewski. Single Room Occupancy (SRO) Senior Program Director Heidi Augustyn kept in contact with Carolyn throughout the storm, offering support and encouragement.
“I am honored to supervise this amazing group of people who gave of themselves to provide not only continuity of services, but quality of services to the residents that we serve,” said Carolyn.
“The level of care and dedication that they showed for the residents, for each other, and DePaul is not able to be put into words. The true strength of their character and heart were revealed during this storm.”
Treasure lost her aunt to the snowstorm. Even when she was given the opportunity to leave to be with her grieving family, she insisted on staying to support her fellow staff. Community Living Staff Marquita Goree who lives a couple of blocks away walked through over three feet of snow every night to work her overnight shift, in addition to others.
Laura assisted in supervising medications, housekeeping and shoveling. On top of helping with housekeeping, shoveling and maintenance, Larry showed off his culinary skills alongside Carolyn, helping to prepare three meals a day for 79 people, including prime rib, shrimp cocktail, roasted potatoes, Cornish hens, green beans and cheesecake for Christmas dinner.
“Residents were appreciative of every little thing that we did or attempted to do for them,” said Carolyn. “They helped make the holiday enjoyable for us, when we were unable to celebrate the way that we had planned.”
On the afternoon of Thursday, December 22, staff and the 83 residents at Glenwell were apprised of the inclement weather that was being forecast.
“We let the residents know that nothing would change in their day, besides that their loved ones may want to stay home and be safe,” said Glenwell Administrator Tina Hagen. “We didn’t want them to worry.”
The generators were checked and there was plenty of food on-hand. Resident Care Director Monique Washington-Mathews was in charge on Friday. There were discussions about calling in the evening shift early, but by noon, the weather was changing dramatically.
As it became clear that the next shift would not be making it in, several spaces were converted into rooms for staff to take turns sleeping. Everyone pitched in to cover duties outside their typical role and to keep things as routine as possible for seniors.
“They had their Sunday prime rib dinner as planned,” said Tina. “Some of the residents said it was the best Christmas they ever had.”
The lights flickered once during a period of heavy winds, but the power remained. On Christmas Eve, some staff were starting to feel sadness over not being able to get home to their children and families for Christmas. One staff member missed their child’s first Christmas. Those employees who did wind up getting to the site by Monday wound up staying through Thursday, until the travel ban was lifted.
“It proves to me over and over again just how committed the staff are here,” said Tina.
“This team has a heart that doesn’t stop. They’d never abandon their role. That’s the mindset of myself and my team. Regardless of the situation, it’s our job to care for these people and we’re going to do it.”
McKinley Square (Buffalo)
What began as a “business as usual” day at McKinley Square on Thursday, December 23 changed quickly as the storm kicked-in full force and it became clear that those staff who were on site were stranded and others would not be able to make it in.
“We had heat, electricity, and plenty of food, mattresses, pillows and the essentials,” said Program Director Gina Plair.
Maintenance Director Mike Riemer was plowing every few hours and monitoring equipment in the building. In addition to keeping the 80 residents engaged, responding to questions and allaying concerns, Residential Service Coordinators Karen Lowther, Belinda Aldridge and Mahmod Hussain assisted in the medication room and with housekeeping and shoveling.
On top of her regular duties, Medication Coordinator Tequoyah Newkirk helped cook for residents and staff. Receptionist Marcia Stroye answered the phones, monitored the front door and answered residents’ questions, reminding them not to venture out.
Cook Damaine Carter, Dietary Aide Cedric Morris and Assistant Dietary Director DeMario Robinson worked together seamlessly in the kitchen, keeping residents and staff well-nourished.
Once they were able to make it in, Assistant Director Adreonna Jackson, Medication Coordinators Jillian Johnson and Jeff Anderson, Residential Services Coordinator Joe Carr and Dietary Aide Miranda Galscoe offered relief.
From the calls and support from Heidi Augustyn, Mary Kay Rusinski and DePaul’s Executive Director/Vice President of DePaul Community Services, Living Opportunities Chris Syracuse and colleagues who were not able to make it in, to the teamwork demonstrated on site, Gina said she is so grateful for and impressed by the staff at McKinley Square and DePaul.
“I am so proud to be part of this team, especially during the storm,” said Gina.
“Many of us did not get to spend the entire Christmas holiday with our families, but we were all okay and safe.”