Wesley House Association had to think fast after the COVID-19 pandemic led to a total shutdown almost a year ago. Today staff are still the only individuals inside the Wesley House at 4507 Lee Ave. in North St. Louis city, yet because of its strong partnerships and dedication to the residents of the 63115 zip code, it continues to offer after-school programs, senior services, and food assistance just as it has for decades.
John Saunders spent several summers participating in Wesley House programs as a child in the 1960s. In 2019, he returned to Wesley House—this time as its new Executive Director. The pandemic hit just over a year after accepting the position. He says, “We’ve had to adapt how we do things, but not what we do.”
From shutdown to reboot
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on African American communities in the St. Louis region. Positive cases were clustered in North St. Louis city in April 2020, and zip codes with a majority African American population accounted for 34% of the positive cases in the region.1 The 63115 zip code—whose residents are nearly all Black or African American—quickly outpaced much of the St. Louis area in COVID-19 positive cases. John says, “From day one, we were in disaster mode.” When one of the Wesley House’s nine Meals on Wheels drivers had to be placed on a ventilator for two weeks, all operations were shut down for a month.
In May 2020, meal delivery restarted and food distribution events at Wesley House replaced the monthly food pantry. Operation Food Search supplies the food and will soon begin providing virtual sessions on healthy eating and cooking for youth.
Wesley House converted from in person to virtual afterschool and summer enrichment programs. Youth Arts and Technology Center partners with Wesley House to provide STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) education, including coding, robotics, and website development. They have also secured funding to create a technology lab to support STEAM learning once doors can be open to the public.
Funding from agencies like the United Way allows Wesley House to provide laptops, tablets, and internet access hotspot devices. John feels at-risk youth are under-exposed youth. “When kids are exposed to opportunities, to people, to resources, to life-changing things,” he says, “they begin to start seeing the light that there is hope, there are opportunities.”
In addition to youth programming, Wesley House continued providing services to seniors throughout the pandemic. Program staff checked on seniors each week by phone; they discovered many felt isolated, lacked fresh food, and their mental and physical well-being was deteriorating. In response, Wesley House supplied laptops and internet access for 18 seniors and partnered with Computer Village to provide older adult-specific computer workshops and assistance. Twelve more seniors will start training this spring.
Wesley House is eager to restart its intergenerational programming development. The path to its inception began when KSDK’s Project 5 Community Funding Initiative selected John’s proposal to replace “ancient” playground equipment and update a mural on an outer wall. Toddlers at the daycare across the street were transfixed on the project, so John invited them to become junior youth program participants to the delight of visiting seniors.
Around the same time, two of his staff had attended a session on intergenerational programming at a professional conference on older adult wellbeing. Invigorated with new ideas, they decided to throw a Halloween party. “We’re talking about 3- to 6-year-olds and 60-, 70-, and 80-year-olds,” John says. Costumes were donated by the St. Louis Police Athletic League. The intergenerational program received special funding for arts and crafts, storytelling, and social events, but the program has been postponed for a year.
Wesley House has also formed a partnership with Alz Buddies, a program that pairs college students with seniors in residential facilities to develop relationships and identify the beginning phases of Alzheimer’s and dementia. The organizations are in discussions to collaborate with the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Alzheimer Disease Research Center at Washington University School of Medicine.
Local donors leave big impact
After local TV station KSDK featured Wesley House on the news in August, a congregation in St. Charles offered to buy 100 family dinners for the organization’s Christmas food distribution event. John invited the church’s members to hand out the dinners and six of them volunteered. The volunteers particularly liked being interviewed when KSDK covered the event because they had never had that kind of exposure before. “As a result,” John says, “we have developed a long-term volunteer connection with this organization.”
Soon after the news clip aired, John received a call from the wife of a man who attended the Wesley House as a child. John says the woman showed up at the Wesley House days later, chatted for a bit, and handed him a check that will go a long way to help support their technology needs. John sees these blessings as a testament that Wesley House is doing the right thing.
John does what it takes to accomplish the Wesley House mission. He values building partnerships and adapting to the changing needs of its residents. He has found his donors understand this and have been more than willing to shift with him. He says Wesley House is a major player flying under the radar right now. When the pandemic calms, he expects people to say, “Wow, where did they come from!”
- Reidhead, M., Johnson-Javois, B., Brown, A., Brinkmann, J., Joynt Maddox, K.E., McBride, T., Porth, L., Long, P., McDowell, V., Stoermer, A., Schmidt, S., Echols, F., Purnell, J., Ross, W. The Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on Black and African American Communities in the St. Louis Region. Available at https://bit.ly/COVID19_STL