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Buckner Retirement Staff Step Up to Serve

Hurricane Ike raged up the Texas Gulf Coast, but Buckner Retirement Services staff kept their cool when forced to evacuate one community and brace for destruction at another.

Story by Jenny Pope and Russ Dilday

(DALLAS, Texas) — It’s 1 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 11 and Alicia Russell, executive director at Buckner Retirement Village in Dallas, is scrambling to locate beds, clean sheets and pillows while orchestrating the clean up and repairs to several vacant patio homes.

Volunteers shove toiletries and Wal-Mart gift cards into tote bags in one room, while Buckner Retirement Services President Pearl Merritt and Chief Operating Officer Charlie Wilson scavenge the city for new pillows and comforters, air mattresses, snacks and drinks.

They had just learned only a few hours earlier that more than 282 residents and staff would be evacuating from Calder Woods, a Buckner retirement community in Beaumont, due to a mandatory evacuation for Hurricane Ike.

“It was a hectic day,” Russell said, noting that most of the staff and volunteers stayed until 2 a.m. to welcome guests and help them get settled. “But you just do what you need to do. It doesn’t really matter if it’s our residents or someone else’s. We were doing what we do best, and that’s taking care of others.”

Calder Woods residents evacuated to two other Buckner Retirement Services communities in Texas, including Parkway Place in Houston and Buckner Villas in Austin. It was their second hurricane evacuation in two weeks.

Wilson said Buckner is uniquely suited to help any of its retirement communities when faced with a crisis because of its dedicated staff and the many different retirement locations around the state.

“All of our communities share common values,” he said. “Our staff is resident focused. In each location, it is their goal to build relationships with the residents and to take care of them as individuals.

“So when we’re forced to evacuate and send residents from one campus to another, our residents can be assured that they are going to receive the same kind of loving care and support as they would in their own community. That’s our promise, and we take it seriously.”

Going the extra mile

Staff at all four affected campuses worked late hours and long days to accommodate residents’ needs during the week-and-a-half stay, Wilson said, sometimes working 12 to 16-hour days. Many even gave up their vacation days to help out.

“It’s times like these that make me so proud to say I work at Buckner,” said Ginger White, director of assisted living at Buckner Villas in Austin. “Everyone did what they needed to do to make it happen. It’s really a phenomenal thing. A lot of people don’t experience that in the workplace.”

White was part of the “first response team” who traveled on crowded roads from Austin to Houston the Sunday following the storm. She, along with Buckner Villas chaplain Kenneth Harpster, maintenance worker Kenny Bonnett and driver Paul Clarke, delivered 2,000 gallons of water to Parkway Place in West Houston when water was a scarcity.

“It was a disorienting time for everyone,” Harpster said. “But it was good to be there to help them look at the positive and to remind us all how good we really have it.”

White recalled one resident who was distraught about not being able to locate her brother, who had decided not to evacuate Beaumont.

“I let her use my cell phone to locate her brother,” White said. “She didn’t know what happened to him… I was happy to help. It was a special moment to be able to help her be at ease.”

Harpster and White also volunteered to shuttle independent living residents to the mall and pharmacy before returning to Austin.

The dietary staff in Austin and Dallas also went into overdrive to accommodate the new arrivals. Austin staff provided daily meals to other staff members and their families living in a local motel, and the Dallas staff worked quickly to provide for specific dietary needs.

“Our dietary staff has worked long hours and taken special strides to pick up on various preferences and needs of the Calder Woods residents,” Russell said. “Some like their beef chopped, others prefer chocolate. They have really all gone the extra mile.”

Jonathan Mays, the maintenance administrator at the Village, helped set up beds, unload and load trucks, and prepare the patio homes for new residents. He even drove the U-Haul truck from Dallas back to Beaumont after the season’s first evacuation from Gustav.

“It’s hard to be out of your element, especially at their age,” he said. “I know they’re dealing with hard times. I just try to make sure everyone is comfortable. And I love working with the residents. That’s why I do what I do.”

Feeling at home

Keeping the residents comfortable was one of staff’s top priorities. Diane Christian, the activities director for independent living residents at Calder Woods, helped coordinate a trip to the Dallas Arboretum for assisted living residents one afternoon. She also took them to Friday Fest at Dallas’ Park Cities Baptist Church, by invitation of her sister Suzii Perry, for lunch and a special address on the life of Theodore Roosevelt.

Christian and her husband Bill drove 18 independent living residents in the Calder Woods bus from Beaumont to Houston on Sept. 11 before turning north to come to Dallas.

“They’ve just been so sweet and so patient this whole time,” Christian said of the residents, as she passed out cups of lemonade at the Arboretum.

“This has been some vacation, huh?” she asked the ladies. “Well, you don’t need to worry about anything. We’ll do the worrying for you.”

Among the evacuated residents were 15 Alzheimer’s and dementia residents who were sent to Buckner Villas in Austin due to available space and closest proximity.

“What could have been a very challenging and uncomfortable situation was made easier by the staff at Buckner Villas,” said Corey Gaddis, assisted living manager at Calder Woods. “They made us feel right at home.”

The Alzheimer's residents, who are already confused and disoriented, adapted well, she said. Residents’ days were filled with arts and crafts, singing and even dancing.

Edna Hogan lives in assisted living at Calder Woods, but she evacuated with her husband Ed, who lives in memory support, to Buckner Villas. She said the bus trip to Austin was “just like a normal day. No one was distressed. It was incredible the way everyone worked together. They truly made us feel at home.”

Jessica Hudson, the administrative assistant at Buckner Villas, said the Calder residents have become part of their family. “They seem like they’re one of us now,” she said. “We’ve learned about the little things that make them happy. We’ll really miss them when they go back.”

Preparation was Key at Parkway Place

Ruth Johnston, a resident of Calder Woods, was one of several Calder Woods residents evacuated to Parkway Place, the Buckner retirement community in Houston, prior to the storm. Like many of her fellow evacuees when questioned about Hurricane Ike, she answered, “I slept through it.”

That measure of safety is what Parkway Executive Director Chuck Childress wanted to achieve. “We appreciated being part of an overall plan that provided for a safe haven for our residents in Beaumont. Although we were missing some shingles and had some power and landscaping issues, Parkway Place and our residents weathered Ike pretty well.”

Part of the smooth ride was due to preparation made ahead of time by Parkway staff, Childress said. Although many Houston area neighborhoods were without electricity for days, Parkway had full power restored less than 24 hours after the storm hit.

Ed Stone, Parkway's maintenance director, said the quick return to service was due in part to scheduling with utility companies and service providers to come in as soon as Ike passed. “We called everyone beforehand," he said. “The electric company, roofers, landscapers. It looked smoothed, but we really rushed around to make it happen.”

During the overnight hours of the storm, said Stone, he and three other staff members -- Milan Starcevic, Chaplain Arnie Petersen and Childress formed a "bucket brigade" for residents, running buckets of water to flush toilets after water service was interrupted. “We all stayed up for 36 hours straight meeting needs of the residents. Ike stressed everyone.”

Irene Ausby, director of nursing for Parkway's skilled care unit, said that kind of teamwork could be found throughout the staffs of Calder and Parkway. “We had eight skilled care residents from Calder and had to move quickly to make rooms ready,” she said. “When the ambulances rolled in, reality hit, but it went off without a hitch. Buckner has a very sophisticated emergency response plan. We started a command post and moved seven of the eight residents into our therapy room. We had no ill outcomes-- no one was sick.”

Like Ruth Johnston, Calder resident Thelma Cole will remember Ike and her time at Parkway fondly. “It didn't frighten me. I felt safe. I'm looking forward to going back home, but I'm going to miss them.”

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