Reflections on One Year of the COVID-19 Pandemic at Family House San Francisco

by Alexandra Morgan, Family House CEO

Published on March 15, 2021

Headshot of Family House CEO Alexandra Morgan

Alexandra Morgan, Family House CEO

As we look back on a year marked by uncertainty and a test of our ability to adapt to a new reality, it seems as if we’ve gone through a lifetime of challenges, not just a mere 12 months. From March 16, 2020, the date San Francisco officially began shelter in place and when operations at Family House drastically changed, I have been consistently impressed by the dedication of our staff, the Board of Directors and our donors. If we had not quickly pulled together as a team, we would not have made it through those first scary months of making hard but essential decisions.

The first decision was to cancel the annual Cabernet for Connoisseurs, which was scheduled just a week after the initial shutdown. This was the first time in 25 years we didn’t have a Cabernet for Connoisseurs party. I’d been to the Make-A-Wish gala the weekend before and thought, “if they can do it, we can do it.” Was I wrong! Once we canceled the Cabernet event, we reached out to our wonderful donors who were exceptionally generous in providing much-needed funds to get us through the shutdown. I was feeling a little more confident about facing an uncertain future. At first we thought that the shutdown would last a few weeks, or worst case, a few months. Wrong again!

Nancy Grand leading the Town Hall online

Screenshot of Nancy Grand leading the Family House Town Hall online, May 2020

The next windfall came from the estate of Bettye Poetz Ferguson, thanks to our friend, George Argyris. That $2 million gift that arrived the first week of the shutdown was as rare as hen’s teeth for most nonprofits, but perfectly timed for Family House.  I kept thinking that our co-founder, Dr. Ablin, who passed away a few years ago, had something to do with it, because it felt like more than luck – it felt as if someone was watching over us. 

We knew that if we couldn’t do any events, but keep the rest of our donors, we’d make it through the year without having to make budget cuts. A small team of us taped a Family House Town Hall, MC’d by our angel, Nancy Grand. It seems like eons ago, but it was only last May.

During the first weeks and months of the shutdown I was driving myself crazy by attending online workshops and webinars about leadership during a crisis, how best to manage staff remotely, how to keep morale up, how to fundraise during a pandemic, how to recruit key staff remotely, and on and on and on. I was panicked because I knew the staff and board would look to me for calm leadership, so I dove headlong into finding and deciphering any best practices that made sense for us. Fortunately, the Family House staff is creative and quickly adapted to operating the building and the lives of our families in the best, cleanest and safest way possible. This has been an evolving process that has resulted in a well-running operation today in every department.

The next thing I did was to produce a series of emails to our board and major donors, so they knew that we were on a good path, ever diligent in procuring the most recent information from UCSF and the SF Public Health Department. I watched Governors Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom every day to learn what they knew. I reached out to colleagues at other residential nonprofits to find out how they were adapting, and among all of this information-gathering, as thin as it was, I discovered that members of my own family had died in the 1918 pandemic. There was an eerie tension between the quiet, bare streets of a community that had closed down amidst the anxiety of not knowing what to do or how to do it. The best part of life during that time was commuting.  There was literally no traffic.

One of the first things that our COO, John Barrett, did was to remove all of the lobby furniture and a great deal of the kitchen furniture to avoid congregating. It has been heartbreaking to see this beautiful building, designed to bring families together for meals, playtimes, music sessions, arts and crafts be transformed into a sparse, spare environment. No more children running up and down the hallway, no more sitting at the front desk with families, and most difficult is no more family meals. We quickly suspended the volunteer program, losing 5,000 folks who came in annually to help out with meals, cleaning, projects like putting wheelchairs together, running arts and crafts programs, etc. The biggest loss from cutting the volunteer program was family dinners. Volunteers provided dinners up to 4 times per week in addition to the breakfast program held in the lobby every morning. These were the ways that families got to know one another, share stories and get to know others who they may have seen in the hospital. In a word, the normalcy we strive so hard to provide was gone. We were in the midst of a new normal that we knew nothing about.

Family meals look a little different at Family House during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the food sure is delicious!

A triple decker cart full of individually wrapped meals Delivery December 2020 for Families staying at Family House San Francisco

Delicious meals from partner restaurants for families are now delivered to their rooms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, Karen Banks ably identified a couple of restaurants that could provide individually packaged meals that could be delivered directly to the families’ bedrooms. From that model, our dear friend, Mourad Lahlou, proprietor of Aziza and Mourad, took on the role of making individual meals for our families at $10 apiece. I’ll never forget the day that a family told me that they were sorry to be leaving because dinners were delicious – who knew that a Michelin star rated chef was cooking for them?

The next blessing came from Chef Jose Andres’ nonprofit organization, World Central Kitchen, that provided delicious lunches for our families (I speak from experience). No wonder people didn’t want to leave Family House with another world-famous, James Beard Award winning chef providing meals! Part of the “COVID 15” weight gain for some of us.

While there have been staff changes, our team took on the care of our families with the same care and compassion as always, and here are a few of our all-star stories:

John Barrett, COO has been running the house during COVID-19 with a singleness of purpose: to make sure that everyone is safe and that there are no COVID-19 outbreaks at Family House. To that end, John doubled the housekeeping staff so that the common areas (kitchens, dining rooms, living rooms, hallways and stairways are cleaned continuously day and night. Through his relationships, and with the help of thoughtful donors, Family House has been fully stocked with masks, hand sanitizer and paper products throughout the pandemic and without ever experiencing a shortfall. Laurence and Alexis Pelosi provided the first tranche of COVID masks, at that time a novelty. Just imagine life before a wardrobe of masks.

A picture of Sam practicing his guitar with Paul Goold on a mobile phone via video chat

Family House guest Sam practices guitar with Paul Goold, Director of Family Services, via mobile phone video chat

Paul Goold figured out how to conduct music sessions with kids, how to pivot to a Kids Kicking Cancer facilitator and run group support sessions online, continuing activities that make life less boring and painful during treatment and even after families go home.

Elan Slavin, our Social Worker continues to keep in touch with families who are having particularly difficult times. 

Ung Ly keeps the building running like a Swiss watch, motivating a housekeeping staff that refused shorter work weeks because they wanted to make sure that their standards for cleanliness were never lacking. How fortunate we are.

Everyone at the front desk continues to do a superlative job in caring for families, even if it’s behind plexiglass, face shields and masks. Pivoting away from hugs has been painful for us all, and the transition at the front desk has been among the most striking of all; the Hospitality team had to focus on social distancing and extra security measures to make sure masks are always on when families venture out of their bedrooms. No fun.

Happy news is that Jon and Janel Hodo welcomed a new baby, Hannah, who we only know through photos, but who brought the hope and happiness of new life to the Family House staff.

We’re excited to welcome our Director of Family Resources, Jon Hodo, back from paternity leave following the birth of his first born, Hannah! 😍

Posted by Family House SanFrancisco on Sunday, September 20, 2020

Jill Davis joined our team as the new Chief Development Officer, and has done an excellent job since coming on board in May 2020, even though she has only been to her office once! Director of Development, Anoushka Donnelley has kept fundraising activities going remotely.

Our CFO, Jessica Creager, applied for the federal PPP loan program successfully, and managed to supervise an annual audit remotely. With Office Manager, Jeanine Homich, they’ve kept the administrative office humming as efficiently as ever.

Kim Scurr and Liam Mayclem host Family House San Francisco’s Rock The House virtual gala on November 14, 2020

It wasn’t just the staff that responded quickly: the Family House Board of Directors have been wonderful by making their own gifts, asking others to support us and more. Linda Goldfarb continues to lead Family Services by creating gift bags, remote activities, and providing toys for Fozzy’s Toy Room. Susie Heller worked closely with Mourad to provide family dinners, and then to create a delicious meal program for our online Rock The House gala. Kim Scurr won the day by producing one of the most successful online galas ever. And, Kevin Keenley, Board Chair has led us through it all. Our medical committee has kept us up to date on all things COVID-19, and with the leadership of Dr. Diana Montgomery and Carl Reichardt, the 2020 fundraising program was wildly successful.

I’ve always suspected and now know that Family House can and will do whatever we must to fulfill our mission with the same care, comfort, community, and courage that we always have. I just hope we can all take a well-deserved rest when this is over!

Family House San Francisco is an independent non-profit organization led by a professional staff and board of directors dedicated to providing residential services free-of-charge to qualifying families. Since we receive no financial support from UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, or any other public entity, we rely solely on the generous contributions of individuals, corporations, and foundations. 

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