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Elise Brickner-Schulz first contacted Cedar Sinai Park (CSP) in 2011 because she wanted to be a bingo caller. After then CEO David Fuks interviewed her, he steered her in another direction, towards committee work. Elise ended up joining QMCCC, an important board committee that monitors quality of care and compliance issues at CSP. Within a year, board chair Paul Frisch asked her to join the board.

I never had aspirations to become board chair,” Elise remembers. But she slowly, inexorably worked her way up. She chaired the development committee for several years. Later, she moved onto the executive committee. Still no leadership aspirations.

Four years ago, as board chair, I approached Elise, with an offer to succeed me as board chair. Elise turned me down flat. She still had no aspirations? This was an opportunity to become only the sixth woman president in Cedar Sinai Park’s 100-year history!

I never had aspirations to become board chair.

Elise told me, “I am on five other boards and am chairing two of them (one of them being Cascade AIDS Project (CAP)).”

Still, I was a sore loser. “Rats,” I muttered to myself. “They got to her first!”

However, Elise’s response resonated with me as I had stepped off the CSP board in 2009 when I was elected chair of the board of Cascade AIDS Project. I knew I couldn’t do justice to two positions, let alone five board positions. (I am grateful that, at the end of my term as president at CAP, CSP invited me right back.)

When Ivan Gold asked Elise to succeed him two years ago, however, Elise was finally ready. “I felt I didn’t have many more years on the CSP board, yet I had years of serving on multiple boards behind me, plus social work experience and a business background in a law firm. Maybe I could be helpful here.”

First priority was keeping staff and residents safe.

It has been quite a year: COVID made Elise’s job uniquely difficult. Her first challenge was building a cohesive board.

Elise queried, “How, as a new chair, would I be able to connect with my board members? How could I do one-on-one coffees, get to know them, learn about them and the skills they could bring to the board and CSP, all via Zoom?”

How, too, she worried, would the board members connect with each other? Zoom worked well enough and attendance was good, but, she says, “The pre-meeting interactions, chatting face to face, and sharing a meal together were missing. A few months ago, we started to open the Zoom half an hour early so people could visit with each other if they wanted… pretend as though we were back in time! Sometimes we’ll have a half a dozen members on for maybe 20 minutes, telling stories, joking, building the camaraderie back.”

“The challenges to the board of a senior care facility are particularly weighty during a pandemic,” Elise says. “First priority was keeping staff and residents safe. It took inordinate amounts of energy, time, and money. We are fortunate that CEO Kimberly Fuson was there. Early on she saw what was happening and started stockpiling PPE, juggling the budget, and finding money from other agencies to help us offset the costs. In addition, the regulations for health care and nursing homes are strict; the amounts and kinds of testing we had to do cost money! There must be people to actually do the testing and the cleaning. Staff are absent for COVID-related issues themselves, or for their families. The overtime and the temporary employees who must come in are expensive.” All of those things are part of regulations that, Elise says, can be vague and are constantly changing.

Added to that was CSP’s commitment to, as Elise put it, “keeping our mission, tone, and heart.” Elise is clearly proud – but not surprised – that our CSP community stepped up. “People took care of each other and were sensitive… aware of people’s physical and mental well-being and health status. We did not forget to love, honor and respect each other.”

Yes, we were in a pandemic, but we would make it work. We could still carry on our traditions, still have a seder, continue to live our Jewish values, and do what is so important to us.

The last critical concern was resident morale. “People were scared at the beginning, then felt more comfortable with what we were doing. When the regulations said that people couldn’t have relatives come visit, there was the loss of physical human contact. Isolation became difficult, more for some people than for others. There were no Adult Day activities or dining room meals. We tried to do lots of things to keep people engaged. We even had a virtual parade.”

Now though, “we are turning the corner.” Elise cites last Passover as a particular success story. “It was amazing! Volunteers were recruited to come in and lead seders in the households as well as at RSM. Our volunteers came – wearing masks and face shields. They were also screened for COVID – but there they were! I volunteered to do the first night of Passover in one of the households. I brought flowers because my mom taught me you don’t go anywhere without bringing a gift. On my way from my Covid test to the household, I started crying because I was overwhelmed. This was my first time out in public, and I got to be with residents. Yes, we were in a pandemic, but we would make it work. We could still carry on our traditions, still have a seder, continue to live our Jewish values, and do what is so important to us.”

Elise is gratified by the community support throughout COVID. CSP received COVID money from the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland and a PPP loan from the government. “Without those two things we would be in much worse shape than we are right now.” Another example is CSP’s successful virtual benefit. “We have our reputation for doing our very best for our residents. Thankfully, our wonderful donors know and love us. I also think that people felt generous during COVID. I know it has made me look at myself, see where I am and what I have been through, and realize how lucky and how privileged I am. I know that looking at the sacrifices that the staff and residents were making made me much more generous. That’s just what you do.”

What’s ahead? Elise firmly believes that CSP must again have a memory care unit. “People are being diagnosed earlier. People are living longer so there are more people with dementia. CSP does not yet offer a continuum of care, “she says. “This could have potential impact, especially for those who are already residents but may eventually need greater assistance. Imagine if you’re living at CSP and start to need memory care. If you could stay where you are… maybe in a different room, but the same surroundings, it would be easier for you and your family.”

Maybe I will be able to be a bingo caller after all!

She also is pleased that CSP has committed to rebuilding a volunteer program. Despite COVID restrictions, there are ways people can become involved. For example, Portland’s own Jewish college gap year program TIVNU has just volunteered to be on site periodically through the year, installing hand-built, ADA accessible, raised garden planters for our households. This volunteer labor is incredibly meaningful, and when restrictions ease, our residents and these young adults will become connected in some meaningful ways.

Elise is thrilled that Jennifer Felberg has returned to CSP as our new Community Program Director. Elise is also excited that our long-time trustee, Michelle Gradow is volunteering in the capacity of our Volunteer Coordinator. Together, these dynamic women will make this important volunteer initiative a reality. Both women have years of experience across both campuses and are keen to build a program that benefits residents, staff, families and the volunteers themselves.

And what’s ahead for Elise? “I will not be here to be immediate past president because we are moving back to Michigan to be with family,” she revealed. “Having lost both my parents in the past four years has made me want to be closer to family.” In addition to family galore, Elise and her husband Gary have a pretty specific wish list. “We want one or two acres, a few fluffy goats, a dog and a cat. Gary grew up on an orchard and he wants to plant some fruit trees. While it’s going to be very difficult – Gary is a life-long Oregonian, and I’ve been here for 40 + years – it’s a new chapter we are looking forward to.”

What that also means, Elise says, is that this upcoming final year at CSP, she’ll have a lot more time to spend with us. “Maybe I will be able to be a bingo caller after all!”

Written by Liz Lippoff

Liz Lippoff still dabbles in freelance writing and communication consulting but is now most active as a community volunteer. Her experience includes serving as chair of the boards of Cascade AIDS Project, Project Access NOW, and Cedar Sinai Park (2016-17).

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