Grace and grit

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.

Occupational therapist Sheila Selznick (left) assists longtime client Mary Francis Mathiews at Circle Center Adult Day Services
Occupational therapist Sheila Selznick (right) assists longtime client Mary Francis Mathiews at Circle Center Adult Day Services in Richmond, Va. Mathiews had a stroke in 1999 and was in therapy with Selznick for 17 years.

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.

Sheila Selznick helps Mary Francis Mathiews stay ambulatory with short daily walks through the halls of Circle Center Adult Day Services.
Sheila Selznick helps Mary Francis Mathiews stay ambulatory with short daily walks through the halls of Circle Center Adult Day Services.

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.

To learn more about the work of CHP alumni, visit the department of Occupational Therapy homepage here. 

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