One of the OT’s early grads shouldered the startup of adult day care in Richmond.
In 1999, Mary Francis Mathiews was 73 years old. She had spent her life as a professional cook, had raised three girls and was by all accounts happily into her retired years, when — in an instant — everything changed: She had a stroke.
Decisions about Mathiews’ care fell to her daughter Mary Brown. “I had a child in college, and I lived by myself, working as a school counselor,” says Brown, who relocated her mother from Oklahoma City to Richmond. “I couldn’t afford to stop working in order to be with her, but I also couldn’t be at work, stressing about whether or not she was [lying] on the floor at home.”
If faced with the same situation 42 years ago, Brown would have been torn between caring for her mother and the necessities of her job or forced to place her mother in a nursing home. That all changed in 1976 with a newly minted Virginia Commonwealth University graduate who was determined to establish another option. At a time when gerontology wasn’t even thought about (the VCU Department of Gerontology didn’t exist at the time) and occupational therapy was mostly confined to hospitals, Sheila Selznick (B.S.’76/OT) blended the two disciplines, shouldering a nonprofit to fruition, and introduced the concept of adult day care to Richmond.
By today’s standards, the task Selznick undertook seems daunting, even with tools like social networking, entrepreneurial incubators and the internet. In 1976, the business had two rooms in a local church, some folding chairs and a typewriter. Meanwhile, there were no real models to practice on, as adult day care was virtually unheard of, with just a hundred or so fledgling operations nationwide. To make matters worse, the idea had already failed once in Richmond. But a new director was convinced that he’d found the missing ingredient — a young, gritty and determined occupational therapist. Selznick.
Love at First Sight
Selznick has always been drawn to caregiving. Growing up in New Jersey as a teenager, she volunteered at local hospitals, eventually applying to become a candy striper. When that option failed to pan out because she was too young, it was suggested that she instead consider volunteering in occupational therapy. She did.
“It was artsy and also purposeful,” Selznick says. “I loved it.” Thinking about college, she visited Richmond Professional Institute (VCU’s predecessor). “I remember that day well because it made a big impression on me,” Selznick says. “We parked on Franklin Street, got out, and immediately droves of people approached us asking if they could help us. They wanted to show us where things were and even walked us to them.”
She enrolled and never left Richmond.
We can really fulfill whatever a person needs. And that’s the way we’ve been since day one. — Sheila Selznick
Approaching graduation, Selznick was more than sold on occupational therapy but had no real career plans. Then, in the final stretch of her education, amid the last stint of a nine-month clinical field trial, her future came into focus.
Selznick was working on the psychiatric floor of a local hospital — just one of the spots she says folks often ended up in Richmond after their other options were exhausted. A gentleman there bent her ear.
“He just kept saying, ‘I don’t belong here. I just lost my wife,’” she says. “He said, ‘My children just don’t know what to do with me. I can’t live alone or drive anymore. I’m sad, I’m depressed and there’s simply no place for me to go.’ He just kept saying to me, ‘I don’t need the medicine,’” she says. “‘I don’t need the electroshock therapy. I just need some place to be.’ And I could only agree with him.”
She was torn. But in that moment, she says she found her true calling.
In February 1976, Selznick set out to find a job, starting with her old stomping grounds at Richmond Memorial. There were no openings, but a therapist told her, “I think I know someone who might be looking for someone. And I think you might be the right person for the job.”
The opportunity was as vague as it sounded. Three months earlier, a local social worker had attempted to open an adult day care service, but the operation failed. Convinced of the need, a local parish secured a grant for a second run at the idea, this time under a new format. They hired Jim King as the new director, who had a business background. He had two weeks to get the new operation up and running, then two months to prove its viability. To make the new center a success, King knew he needed an occupational therapist — someone who knew how to create good, quality programming and how to roll up their sleeves to fill in on all sides of the operation.
It would take someone who was capable of planning and directing, as well as providing hands-on care. After King met Selznick, there was no doubt in his mind that she was the right person. And so, on April 15, 1976, Selznick was hired as program director, and Circle Center (first known as Stuart Circle Center) was born.
OT On a Mission
If the center panned out, in Selznick’s mind at least, every person she helped would be the man she met at Richmond Memorial. But first they had to find those individuals and convince them to enroll. So, as she worked to set up programming, she also went from house to house along Richmond’s Monument Avenue, knocking on doors, telling folks about the center. Meanwhile, she worked through local churches to drum up and ready volunteer workers.
One by one, she found the participants she needed, and then personally transported them to and from the center. Over time, the center’s reputation took hold via word-of-mouth referrals and, in 1980, a new director was hired, Lory Phillippo, an occupational therapist and a VCU professor with a keen interest in gerontology.
“Sheila was providing the best services possible and creating ties within the community so that we would have the reputation we needed,” Phillipo says. That confidence, she says, also spread to local foundations and businesses, as well as individual donors who supported the center.
While they both admit that there wasn’t time to realize it, it became clear that the girl from New Jersey had done it: Circle Center was up and running, proving the need for adult day care in Richmond.
By 1984, the center had grown to 20 participants and included a satellite location. Selznick became participant care coordinator in 1994, a role she still has today. Over the years, the center has moved locations, including to a new building in 2009, which was also expanded in 2015. In 2016, the center served more than 200 participants.
In her spare time, Selznick has found ways to reach those who didn’t have access over the years, as a “friendly visitor” with Jewish Family Services.
“It was almost like her ‘me time,’” says Selznick’s daughter, Sorah Plotnick. “Instead of going to a spa or doing something else, she would go and visit folks who didn’t have access. She would do things like write letters for them, run errands, or just sit and talk with them.”
At Circle Center, you won’t find participants sitting around watching television, which Selznick says is a cliché vision of adult day care that most people hold. Instead, she tailors every participant’s activities to their exact needs and interests. “Whether they want to feel like they’re coming to work, coming to school or a social club, we can really fulfill whatever a person needs,” she says. “And that’s the way we’ve been since day one.”
Meanwhile, even after four decades, “every day with Sheila is like a new day,” says Rose Harold, who served as the center’s registered nurse from 2005 to 2013. “She’s just so enthusiastic, like every day is the start of something.” That enthusiasm continues to draw volunteers from local communities and businesses — some of whom have been involved for more than 30 years — and her ties to VCU make Circle Center a training ground for students.
“Families are involved, communities are involved. It’s the healthiest possible arrangement,” says Ann Spinks, who served as the center’s social worker from 1984 to 2013. “That translates to new employees, volunteers and students. Sheila has carried that for 42 years.”
As for Mathiews, for the past 17 years she awoke at 5 a.m. and headed out the door by 7:15 a.m. on her way to the center. She cooked, she socialized, and every day — despite some limitations — she walked, with Selznick by her side.
Editor's Note: Mary Francis Mathiews died on July 21 in the comfort of her home and surrounded by loved ones.
Skilled, selfless and sought after: VCU College of Health Professions mints students ready to work and give back.
Every day, VCU’s College of Health Professions helps meet the demand created by workforce attrition and the aging population. Our strategy is multifaceted: We’re teaching middle- and high-school students about health careers through the VCU Pipeline, a series of health career exposure and exploration programs. We’re grooming our students for rewarding careers through rigorous classwork, competitive internships and clinical training with our community partners. And, we’re actively recruiting working adults into our distance-learning programs, preparing them to live and work in localities where their skills are needed most.
Once our graduates are in the workforce, they thrive. Many are filling leadership roles. What’s more, you’ll often find our grads going above and beyond their job descriptions through volunteer commitments at home and abroad.
Earlier this year we surveyed our alumni to learn about where you work and how you give back. We were excited to hear from so many of you! You let us know your VCU education has set you up for success, that you value your relationship with the college and that you’re helping countless people every day through all kinds of meaningful pursuits.
The following stories reveal a snapshot of our alumni and provide a glimpse into how the college is actively helping meet today’s — and tomorrow’s — labor needs.
In the pipeline
Unique programs put students on the path to health careers.
Chenel Hodges’ strong desire to help people drew her to the field of health care, where she discovered occupational therapy.
“The summer before my senior year of high school,” she recalls, “I got to see an occupational therapist change a little boy’s life. He went from completely immobile and unresponsive to walking with just the assistance of a walker and responding to certain commands. I saw the OTs bonding with their patients and caring for them in such loving ways, and I wanted to do the exact same thing in the future.”
During her senior year, Hodges learned about VCU Acceleration, one of several programs coordinated by the VCU Division for Health Sciences Diversity focused on increasing awareness of health care careers in individuals from underserved populations. “I knew that entering health care was not going to be easy, and I wanted to all the help I could,” Hodges says. So, she applied.
VCUA is a combination pre-matriculation summer session and academic year-long program for students interested in pre-health concentrations in medicine, dentistry, nursing, pharmacy and other health sciences. The program emphasizes academic preparation in math and hard sciences like biology and chemistry. During the summer session, students get career coaching and assessments. During the academic year, students focus on class rigors and getting acclimated to VCU, then shadow professionals in the field and solidify their academic professional plan.
“Acceleration is an amazing opportunity for students,” says Hodges. “I was able to explore all health care fields and get prepared for my freshman year. Most importantly, Acceleration helped me build an amazing support group to help me get through college and enter into my graduate program.”
Hodges is a textbook example of student benefiting from the VCU Health Sciences Pipeline, which features programs and initiatives intended to support students in their journey toward a health profession. With an array of opportunities from middle school through the post-baccalaureate level, the VCU Pipeline strives to improve the academic and experiential profiles of participants from diverse backgrounds. While each program has its own distinct goals and benefits for students, all of the programs aim to educate and excite students about careers in the health sciences, provide resources to strengthen students’ academic skills in math and science, as well as in verbal and written communication, and ensure students make informed decisions while pursuing the health career of their choice.
VCU Acceleration is one of five pipeline programs that introduce students to skilled health professions and provide VCU’s health sciences schools with bright, dedicated and prepared students from diverse backgrounds. The programs contribute to a larger, more diverse health care work force.
“Students who participate in our programs are retained to the university and graduate on-time at higher rates than the university average,” adds Amy Taloma, assistant director for the Division for Health Sciences Diversity. “They are also more likely to attend VCU health professional programs.”
To help meet the need for a diverse and highly trained workforce, recruiters from the College of Health Professions are targeting communities around VCU’s distance-learning sites in southwest Virginia.
The bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs in gerontology, nurse anesthesia and clinical laboratory sciences offered by VCU at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Va., and the Roanoke Higher Education Center in Roanoke, Va., serve full-time professionals living and working in those rural communities.
Amanda Alley is graduate student services administrator for the Department of Nurse Anesthesia, the No. 1 ranked program in the country by U.S. News & World Report. Alley knows that attracting CRNAs to work in underserved areas such as Abingdon and Roanoke starts with recruiting local candidates into the Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) and Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia Practice (DNAP) programs offered at Abingdon and the BS-toDNAP program offered at Roanoke.
“Ninety-five percent of our southwest graduates return to the area to work,” she says, “which leads to a higher population of professionals.”
Strong family ties to the area are a driving force. Coupled with a low cost of living and a great salary, the return on students’ investment is significant.
Students in the nurse anesthesia graduate programs must have a registered nursing degree and at least one year of experience working in a critical care setting. Alley’s recruitment efforts include posting fliers in operating rooms and tabling in hospitals where nurse anesthetists are already employed. It’s a strategy that seems to be working: The number of applicants in the Roanoke program doubled from 10 to 20 since 2017. In Abingdon, the number jumped from 15 to 21 in the same time period.
Just a year from opening its doors, the college’s new building is taking shape.
There are no bad views from the new College of Health Professions building on the MCV Campus. That was the consensus of the VCU faculty, staff and alumni who took guided hard-hat tours of the structure in April.
Sizing up the faculty offices and their expansive panoramas, Department of Gerontology Chair Ayn Welleford, Ph.D., beamed. “I was excited before,” she says. “But now, to get to see all this … It’s so fantastic!”
The eight-story, 154,000-squarefoot building at the corner of Leigh and 10th streets will, for the first time, centralize all 11 of the school’s academic units under one roof. College of Health Professions Dean Cecil Drain, Ph.D., has made it a personal mission to unite the college’s programs, which have occupied as many as 13 buildings in the past 49 years and are currently scattered among five buildings on two campuses.
“I have always had it as my goal to get a building,“ Drain says. “It is a phenomenally deserving school.”
When completed in April 2019, the L-shaped, LEED Silver certified building will have a west-facing, eight-story wing and a south-facing, four-story wing. Each of the building’s floors will feature formal and informal spaces designed to promote interprofessional education and collaboration. The building will also feature cutting-edge learning laboratories for human simulation, diagnostic technology, rehabilitation and counseling education. Flexible classrooms will promote student engagement and foster distance-learning opportunities.
In April 2018, 16 months into the project, the building was fully enclosed. Walls were up; windows were in. A cooling system was being installed. Finishes — paint and flooring — were next. Brilliant sunlight glinted off the steel and glass exterior from every angle.
Walking in small groups through each floor, visitors measured the offices with outstretched arms, peered behind steel girders to envision full classrooms and took selfies in front of breezy openings where expansive windows would be hoisted into place. They marveled at high ceilings and airy stairwells, stopping at times to thank the workers wielding power tools and paint brushes. More than 1,500 individuals will have worked on the building since ground was broken in January 2016, and more than 2,000 will have contributed their construction skills by the time doors open for classes in August 2019.
With 12 months of construction still to come, the visitors could only imagine what the spaces would look like filled with students and furnishings. But the vast city views they found and the brilliant natural light they saw flooding each floor required no imagination: The building will be bright, airy and inviting — a stark contrast to the basements and back hallways that have housed many of the college’s programs over the years.
“This is one of the most exciting buildings on campus,” says Jay Davenport, VCU’s vice president for development and alumni relations. “We are so excited to have it under construction and to get the dedication planning underway.”
He adds, “I already have several plans for the open deck — so we’re going to have lots of events up there!”
Sharing in the collective enthusiasm, Russell Davis, Ph.D., professor and the Rev. Robert B. Lantz Chair of the Department of Patient Counseling, called the building “an architectural gem.”
“The whole building is a place of beauty to inspire those preparing for careers in health care,” he says. “It is a reminder that in the halls of science, there must be room for the human spirit.”
Accompanying Davis on the tour was Katherine Lantz, who is naming the patient counseling suite in honor of her late husband. Robert Lantz spent nearly 15 years as chair of the Professional Advisory Group for VCU’s patient counseling program and had a huge influence on the development of the Master of Science program in patient counseling. Located on the seventh floor, the suite will be known as the Rev. Robert B. Lantz Patient Counseling and Clinical Pastoral Education Suite. Lantz was all smiles as she walked through the department’s future home and called the new building “quite handsome.”
Alexander Tartaglia, D.Min., BCC, senior associate dean of the College of Health Professions and the Katherine Lantz Professor, was most struck by the building’s clear design to be student focused. “Student labs that reflect professional practice settings and collaborative learning environments demonstrate a significant opportunity to engage students and promote active learning,” he says. “It delivers on the capacity to promote interprofessional collaboration.”
The building’s ability to exponentially enhance interdisciplinary, interprofessional research and scholarship was a common theme expressed by visitors after the tour.
“The tour of our new building was exciting!” says Tracey Papas (M.S.H.A. ’11). “The health administration space offers many opportunities for collaborating, which is one of the key strengths of our department. It was thrilling to stand in the future classroom where students and alumni will be learning how to lead the future of our health care system.”
The new building is a visible investment from VCU in the college’s academic programs and in support of the health professions.
“It’s been a long time coming,” says Ann Charlescraft, D.Min., BCC, who oversees alumni relations and development for the Department of Patient Counseling. “Folks have worked diligently to set this in place. It will be spectacular.”