Commentary: A Miracle at the Roy Maas Youth Center

“I’ve watched our staff grow as they confront COVID-19 and care for our residents,” writes Bill Wilkinson, CEO at Roy Maas’ Youth Alternatives, about his staff, pictured sorting donated blankets. Photo: Jerry Lara /San Antonio Express-News 

When we think of people fighting COVID-19 and the people on the front lines, we usually think of police officers, firefighters, EMS, health care providers and hospital employees. They are at the top of most people’s lists of “essential” workers.

There’s another group of people who face the ravages of the coronavirus every day, but they rarely get credit or recognition for their work — people like our employees at Roy Maas Youth Alternatives and other shelters across our country, where the staffs work diligently to protect children and adults. Those workers are essential, too.

At Roy Maas, also known as RMYA, we care for hundreds of Texas children in crisis. Many come to us from the streets, where some have been exposed to the virus and other threats. Many of those kids have been abused. Our staff welcomes them, settles them down and cares for them as if they were our own children. We do this work because it’s the right thing to do.

I’ve watched our staff grow as they confront COVID-19 and care for our residents. The pandemic is a test none of us ever expected to confront. Our workers come back day after day determined to do what is in the best interests of our residents: Keep them safe and help them recover from trauma.Flexibility has always been a critical attribute of our staff. Let me share an example that made me so proud of our team.

For 30 years, a local chef who had gone through our program at RMYA prepared and served Thanksgiving meals for residents and staff. It was his way of giving back. He was scheduled to do it again this past Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, his family was exposed to COVID-19 the night before Thanksgiving, and he had to quarantine.

It was understandable, of course, but still a major disappointment for our residents who’d been promised a traditional Thanksgiving dinner — something most had never experienced. It would have been easy for staff to tell our kids, “Maybe next year.”

But that’s not what happened.

Our staff was determined to make an old-fashioned Thanksgiving meal happen. And they did. Plus, they turned the day into a wonderful teaching opportunity for residents by inviting kids to help prepare the meal.

Together, our staff and kids learned how to prepare and cook a turkey. They mastered whipping mashed potatoes and cooking string beans. Staff and residents put their heads together and figured out how to make dressing. And together, they learned how to make fresh rolls, pecan pies and other desserts. Several kids later told staff they’d like to continue helping in the kitchen. They embraced what they had done and perhaps saw cooking as a career interest. Residents who did not cook instead decorated the dining room to capture the spirit of Thanksgiving. Others helped set the tables for the meal.

The day turned out to be a master class in meal preparation and more — and according to what I heard, everything tasted great.

What I learned that day is how resilient our staff and residents are — how a bump in the road was no problem for them. What’s so difficult about making an old-fashioned Thanksgiving celebration compared with battling a pandemic?

Bill Wilkinson is CEO of Roy Maas’ Youth Alternatives.

San Antonio Express-News

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