Category: Community

Meet some of Michigan’s ‘guardian angels’ in COVID-19 pandemic

MediLodge Staff holding signs, "MediLodge Strong"

Madison Walat’s training didn’t involve FaceTime. Yet, there she was at the end of a 12-hour shift in the COVID unit at MediLodge of Alpena, holding an iPad so family members of a resident dying with the coronavirus could say their last goodbyes.

“It really tore me up,” said Walat, a licensed practical nurse. “That was so hard to sit there and hold the iPad while each family member told stories and cried.

“Automatically, not even thinking, I was holding the resident’s hand the whole time. He could hear the family’s voice and I was just holding his hand so he wouldn’t feel alone.”

From donning full-body personal protective equipment such as N95 masks, gowns and face shields to helping residents and family members communicate at a time when health care facilities are closed to visitors, a lot has changed in the world of nursing as Michigan continues to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then again, some things stay the same. Nurses are always “essential” workers. And through this trying time of change and uncertainty they remain committed to being what they have always been – caring patient advocates.

“There’s been so many analogies for the health care professionals such as ‘heroes’ or ‘superheroes,’ and I use the analogy of being ‘angels’ because they’re having to be guardians,” said Trissie Farr, chief clinical officer for MediLodge, a network of 50 skilled nursing facilities across Michigan. “They’re having to be caregivers. They’re having to be messengers. They’re having to disinfect iPads and facilitate the opportunity for a family member to be able to use FaceTime or Skype.

“When family can’t be there, it could be that the nurse is the last person that patient or resident ever sees before they leave this world. It’s hard on our staff having to deal with that responsibility, too.”

RELATED: See what a day in the life of a long-term care nurse is like during the COVID-19 pandemic

It’s not just hospital workers on the front lines of the pandemic. It’s also long-term care nurses – LPNs, registered nurses and certified nursing assistants who provide care for recovering COVID patients and also take precautions to prevent the virus from spreading to other residents.

Jamillah Lynn, for one, is thankful. Having battled COVID-19 for more than two weeks including an induced coma and 10 days of intubation to help her breathe, Lynn responded enthusiastically when doctors finally asked her if she was ready to leave the hospital: “Yes!” she almost screamed. After all, Lynn figured she was headed home. Instead, she was transported to a skilled nursing facility for rehabilitation.

In the COVID unit at MediLodge of Frankenmuth, Lynn regained her strength thanks to the caring, compassionate staff. Her nurses were sweet as can be. Her therapists challenged her and treated her with kindness. She was served a delicious variety of food that was safe and easy to swallow. She was given activity books to pass the time.

It was the next best thing to being home.

“The TLC I received upon arrival managed to take the pain away,” Lynn said. “I don’t remember their names, but I most definitely remember their faces and kindness.”

In recognition of National Nurses Month, we’re putting names to just a few of those heroic faces that are helping Michigan through the COVID-19 pandemic:

Walat has only been licensed as a nurse since January, so the pandemic has been a baptism by fire for her. On one hand, she doesn’t know when things will ever go back to normal like they used to be. On the other hand, she’s learning firsthand how nurses have always been guardian angels, no matter the circumstances.

“Every single day I get to make a difference is somebody’s life,” Walat said. “A couple weeks ago I worked many overtime hours. I just didn’t want to leave because I wanted to know what was changing with my patients on my wing. I’m loving seeing them out and getting to walk again.”

Thank you to Madison and all the other MediLodge long-term care nurses for what you do!

MediLodge staff

National Nurses Month: Thank you to all the long-term care nurses on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘Together, the staff at MediLodge of Frankenmuth catered to my every need by creating a home away from home,’ said Jamillah Lynn, who recovered from the coronavirus in the skilled nursing facility’s COVID unit. ‘I was grateful to have been placed in good hands.’

Day in the life of a COVID nurse: Where the ‘dread begins to fade’

MediLodge long-term care nurses

Like many parents during the COVID-19 pandemic, Leanna Watson starts her day by making sure her children are prepared to complete their schoolwork from home. Only she can’t talk to them face to face.MediLodge logo

Watson is a long-term care nurse, an “essential” job that carries no small risk these days in the part of Michigan hit hardest by the coronavirus. To protect her children, Watson sent them to live with their grandmother about an hour away.

“I work in a building where there’s been COVID and I myself have had COVID, so to keep my kids safe they haven’t been home,” said Watson, 39, director of nursing at MediLodge of Southfield, near Detroit. “Even on the holiday we weren’t together. We had to have virtual Easter with a virtual teatime.”

MediLodge infobox

We’re all dealing with changes to our daily routines during the pandemic, adjusting our personal lives to the reality of stay-at-home orders and social distancing. In many cases we’re juggling home-schooling with work. We’re figuring out how to celebrate Mothers’ Day, family birthdays and graduations without endangering each other. We’re bombarded daily with reports of mounting COVID-19 cases and deaths, and we lie awake at night worrying about what the next day might bring.

Long-term care nurses are grappling with all of that, too, in some cases alone and separated from their families. And if that isn’t enough, when they go to work they put themselves on the front lines of the pandemic, often for long hours every day for weeks at a time so our loved ones get the care they need.

Their sacrifice is worth noting during National Skilled Nursing Care Week. It’s also worth celebrating the all-hands-on-deck spirit of skilled nursing staff and the support of their families, the smiles of residents and the gratitude of their families.

“The impact of COVID-19 on our staff is mentally exhausting and it’s physically exhausting,” said Trissie Farr, chief clinical officer for MediLodge, a network of 50 skilled nursing facilities across Michigan. “It’s been a very difficult professional situation, and a very difficult personal situation as well.”

“But together we have resilience in the face of these challenging times.”

Before getting to work

Each morning Sara Tracey feels the same sense of dread that many of us have as she checks her phone and sees the bad news about the pandemic and its effect on people across Michigan and beyond. Listening to the radio on her drive into work, it’s more of the same negativity.

MediLodge resident Barbara D'Anna

‘I’m constantly doing my usual rounds, only now I’m looking at different things,’ said JonAnn Danielson, director of nursing at MediLodge of Shoreline in Sterling Heights, seen here with resident Barbara D’Anna. ‘I’m looking to make sure that any resident in the hall has their mask on properly, that residents and staff are staying six feet apart from each other, and many other COVID-related rules.’

When Tracey gets to work she goes through a new, painstaking routine that involves having her temperature taken and undergoing a COVID-19 screening – Any new onset sore throat? Any new onset cough or shortness of breath? She washes her hands and dons personal protective equipment including

N95 face masks, face shields, gloves and gowns that she’ll wear throughout the day, making her hot and often uncomfortable.

Then, Tracey walks into MediLodge of Alpena.

“As soon as I open the doors, the dread begins to fade,” she said. “I look at the patients and speak with them to see how they are doing that day. Not only do they carry a smile on their face, a little laughter and conversation begins.

“I speak with the staff down the unit, thank each and every one of them for the hard work and dedication they bring to work on a daily basis. Calls are placed to patients’ families. Updates are given. Now all the negativity is gone. The support by our families while talking with them on the phone is all me and my team needs.”

At work

In addition to going about their usual duties of passing meds, changing dressings and caring for the physical needs of residents, long-term care nurses are busy preventing the spread of COVID-19 while still maintaining a homelike environment.

Prior to COVID-19, a normal day at MediLodge had halls full of smiling residents, staff and visitors. The communal dining rooms were active, and it was easy to find friendly games of bingo. Now the halls are occupied by residents and employees with masks covering their smiles. Visitors are not allowed. Face-to-face interactions among residents and between residents and nurses are limited.

Because visitors are not allowed in this new normal, residents are unable to hug or kiss their family members and can only talk to them on the phone or through a window. So, nurses regularly facilitate video chats and window visits.

Brian Grappin a nurse at MediLodge

‘My patients always amaze me the way they keep their sense of humor,’ said Brian Grappin, a nurse in the COVID unit at MediLodge of GTC in Traverse City. ‘They are determined to do their best and I’m glad I can help them.’

Gowned-up in PPE and wearing masks and face shields, nurses now smile with their eyes.

“During these tough times of change and adjustment, one thing has remained strong – the support we provide one another, our residents and their loved ones,” said Jessica Ludlow, an RN at MediLodge of Alpena. “Comforting residents, engaging in meaningful conversations and communicating with their loved ones is more imperative now than it’s ever been.”

In some skilled nursing facilities there are designated COVID units where nurses work exclusively with residents who have the coronavirus. Nurses are checking residents’ vital signs much more frequently, taking full sets as often as every four hours to gauge oxygen levels, blood pressure and more. Plus, they’re busy keeping up with the latest government guidelines, which in some cases can be conflicting.

Each day is an emotional roller coaster, as some residents recover from the virus and others die with it. It can feel like losing a family member when a resident dies, and it’s exhilarating when a resident returns to health.

“Working the COVID unit has been physically and emotionally exhausting,” said Stacey Hodges, an RN

Jenna Wieschowski an RN at MediLodge

Each resident needs extra attention these days because of the isolation, says Jenna Wieschowski, RN. ‘I do my best to keep morale up and spirits high for the residents due to the lack of family and even resident-to-resident contact now because of the social distancing rules.’

at MediLodge of Kalamazoo. “The residents are sick. Many times I have been forced to use my past experience in critical care to help them breathe effectively, get their temperature down or bring a blood pressure back up where it belongs.”

“The fear they show during these times is heart breaking, but the smiles they give when they start to heal and feel better is what keeps me going. I think it’s what keeps all of us going.”

Going home after work

After often working well beyond their scheduled shift, the precautions involved in leaving work are just as meticulous as those taken when arriving. Hands cracked and dry from so much washing during the day, many nurses change out of their scrubs before leaving work. Then in a makeshift changing area in their garage or even a camper in the driveway, they take those clothes off before entering their home and march straight into the shower to wash the day’s germs away.

For long-term care nurses who are parents, bypassing children on the way to the shower is a common experience.

“My daughter struggles because she isn’t able to give me a hug like she used to do once I got home,” said Ashley Graves, an LPN in the COVID unit at MediLodge of Cass City.

After getting cleaned up, then it’s time to go over their children’s schoolwork, try to get some quality time with the family and make dinner. Fortunately, many nurses have supportive spouses to help run the household.

Nurses' sock with funny saying

In some ways, many long-term care nurses feel like they are constantly living in survival mode as they go from dealing with family anxieties and concerns to the life-and-death challenges of the workday and back again. ‘We never get a chance to punch out,’ said Rebekah Crothers, an infection control nurse at MediLodge of St. Clair.

“Before I know it, it’s time for baths, bed and prayers that our household remains healthy and safe,” said Jenna Wieschowski, an RN at MediLodge of Green View, in Alpena. “And then repeat it all again the next day. Just normal routine for COVID life.”

In some cases, long-term care nurses haven’t gone home in weeks. They’ve been separated from their loved ones as they isolate themselves during the pandemic.

“I get off the phone with my daughter sometimes and I just want to be there with her, but I don’t want her to get sick,” said Judy Goldberg, an LPN at MediLodge of Cass City. “It’s tough. You hang up the phone and you kinda lose it.”

“But I wouldn’t change what I’m doing. This is what we signed up for as nurses, to help people who can’t help themselves.”

Hope for tomorrow

At the end of March, Leanna Watson was diagnosed with COVID after contracting the virus most likely through her work as a nurse. She lost her taste and smell, suffered bad muscle aches, abdominal pain, diarrhea and shortness of breath with activity.

Watson was off work for two weeks while successfully recovering from the virus at home. When she felt better and returned to her nursing job at MediLodge of Southfield, her family was scared. Her kids didn’t want her to go back to work. But “I signed up to be a nurse,” she said. “I don’t bail when times are hard.”

But even though nurses put on a brave face, that doesn’t mean they’re tough all the time. Watson’s heart melted recently when a long-time resident whom she knew well contracted COVID-19. Prior to his diagnosis, not a day went by that the two of them didn’t talk. Then his symptoms worsened, and he passed away.

“That really hit home for me,” Watson said. “Sometimes I go home and cry.”

Leanna Watson with MediLodge of Southfield resident Monica Foster

Leanna Watson with MediLodge of Southfield resident Monica Foster

But for every sad day, there are good days when nobody is sick or when residents recover. And that

brings hope for tomorrow.

“Those are my happiest days, when it’s feeling like a normal day again,” she said.

MediLodge making Michigan stronger with 103 COVID-19 recoveries and counting

MediLodge celebrates Frederick Orth's recovery from COVID-19

Just like any of us who go shopping, William Crisan wasn’t planning to pick up a case of COVID-19 when he walked into a dollar store in Warren, Mich. last month. And just like any of us receiving health care, Julie Baer wasn’t expecting to contract the coronavirus when she went to the hospital with a heart attack.

Yet, both recently were added to the mounting number of COVID-19 cases across Michigan, like so many thousands of our fellow co-workers, neighbors, friends and family members.

Fortunately, both Crisan and Baer are also now are part of a lesser-known statistic: Michigan’s number of COVID-19 recoveries.

“I remember asking a couple of my nurses just don’t let me die,” said Baer, 52, who was discharged this week from MediLodge of Frankenmuth, where she spent the past couple weeks recovering in the skilled nursing facility’s COVID unit.

MediLodge logo

More than 100 people have recovered from COVID-19 at MediLodge skilled nursing facilities across Michigan. ‘As we see the virus enter communities we adapt,’ said Nicole Kaufman, a MediLodge vice president. ‘Our leadership has put into our veins the fact that we care for people who are sick, and that includes COVID. It’s what we do.’

As we mourn each day’s new tally of confirmed cases and coronavirus deaths, it’s also time to celebrate Michigan’s COVID-19 recovery success stories. There now are nearly four times as many COVID-19 recoveries in the state as there are COVID-19 deaths, with about 16,000 of our fellow Michiganders alive and well more than 30 days after being diagnosed with the virus.

Many other patients in Michigan are currently on track for recovery in skilled nursing facilities across the state. They too will soon join the growing number of recoveries thanks to the care and dedication of nurses at MediLodge of Frankenmuth and many, many other places.

Each recovery means another co-worker, neighbor or friend has returned to their home healthy. Each success story means another family reunited. Together, they mean stronger communities across Michigan now and into the future, and each one is worthy of celebration.

“My most memorable moment was when I walked out the door at discharge,” said Kurt Heide, a COVID-19 patient who recovered for 10 days at MediLodge of GTC in Traverse City. “My grandson was there to get me, and all of the staff were outside and were clapping for me as I left. That was really nice.”

Once COVID-19 patients are no longer in critical danger from the virus, they often transfer to skilled nursing facilities such as MediLodge for continuing care. There, patients receive individualized nursing care around the clock as well as therapy services as they safely quarantine. After two negative COVID tests, the patients then are discharged and added to Michigan’s list of coronavirus recoveries.

So far, there have been 103 COVID-19 recoveries at MediLodge facilities alone.

“I was understanding when I was told he needed to go to a facility for therapy. I knew he was too weak to come home and I would not be able to care for him at home yet,” said Sheila Stokes, whose husband, John, contracted the virus while shopping and recovered for 15 days at MediLodge of St. Clair. “The virus took a lot out of him.

“It is memorable to me that the staff were able to take time each day to help John FaceTime me on an iPad. It was difficult not being able to see him for that length of time. But it was much easier knowing at least I would get to see him that way.”

Stokes said she “wouldn’t wish this on anyone,” but added that “there is a light at the end of it all.” She encourages patients to “get the care you need” so you can recover and go back home.

Betty Walker can relate. She rehabbed from COVID-19 at MediLodge of Grand Blanc, near Flint.

“Something as simple as getting out of bed had suddenly become a chore and made me dizzy, weak and short of breath,” Walker said. “Some days I really did not want to get up, but the ‘drill sergeants’ at MediLodge made me get up and get better anyway.

“Exercising and building up my strength was critical to my recovery, along with the Motown music we danced to in the hallway. Today, I feel great and ready to return home thanks to the amazing staff of MediLodge of Grand Blanc.”

Here are a few more celebratory scenes of COVID-19 recovery, each one marking a success in Michigan’s ongoing battle with the virus:

Invariably, recovered COVID-19 patients are happy to get home to their family and friends because the coronavirus is such an isolating diagnosis. In at least one case, however, the patient can’t wait to get back into a skilled nursing facility.

Julie Baer suffered a heart attack last month and went to a hospital in Saginaw for surgery to put a stent in one of her arteries. Then, after returning home, Baer got a call telling her some uncomfortable news: one of her hospital caregivers had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Baer, too, then tested positive for the coronavirus and was added to Michigan’s list of confirmed COVID-19 cases. She also began experiencing coronavirus symptoms including a cough, upset stomach and loss of taste. Most concerning, Baer was having trouble breathing.

Fortunately, Baer’s breathing stabilized at another hospital. She then went into quarantine in the COVID unit at MediLodge of Frankenmuth where her vital signs were monitored constantly. She stayed for two weeks, then was discharged Monday, May 4, and added to Michigan’s list of COVID-19 recoveries.

A Certified Nursing Assistant at MediLodge of Cass City, Baer said it was an interesting experience to be in the bed as a patient rather than at the bedside as a nurse. Now that she has recovered from COVID-19, Baer hopes to be back at work in a week to help other coronavirus patients recover at MediLodge where there’s support from a community of long term care professionals so essential and willing to care for the community they serve.

Having already triumphed through her own COVID-19 recovery, Baer is eager to rejoin her MediLodge nursing colleagues in caring about people while they care for them and in being part of more success stories for Michigan.

“There’s fear, you’re not sure what to expect and then you feel like you’re just cut off from the rest of the world,”  said Baer, 52. “I want to get back and work with corona-positive people because I’ve been there. I know what they’re going through.”

Free ticket program shows arts group’s commitment to first-time experiences

Opera GR presents Turandot

When the curtains open on Opera Grand Rapids’ May 1 and May 2 performances of Turandot – the company’s largest production in more than a decade – nearly 20 percent of the audience will be seeing the art form for the first time – and for free.

Opera Grand Rapids has committed $40,000 to its Community Tickets Program, which will distribute 900 tickets, 450 for each of the two shows at DeVos Performance Hall, to community organizations for distribution to people who are interested in the opera but have been priced out of access.

Opera GR, Turandot production“This is an investment that creates an avenue for people and eliminates the barriers to seeing Opera in Grand Rapids,” said Emilee Syrewicze, the opera’s executive director. “These are prime seats that we are keeping open for people to experience this classic artform.”

“We want to approach diversity, equity and inclusion with intention. We hope the result is easier access to the performing arts. We’re excited, and we think this is an important step for our community.”

The new outreach partners Opera Grand Rapids with local arts and service organizations including:

  • Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities
  • Grand Rapids Public Library
  • Salvation Army of Kent County
  • Woodlands/Suburban Library Cooperative
  • Grand Rapids Urban League
  • Community Food Club
  • Dwelling Place
  • Gilda’s Club

Patrons of the community partners can request tickets through the groups Opera GR, Turandotand must not be prior ticket purchasers. Syrewicze said more community associations can partner with Opera Grand Rapids by calling 451-2741.

“We are providing an opportunity to see Turandot, and at the same time, we’re helping elevate the profile of other community cultural groups,” Syrewicze said.

Turandot, from composer Giacomo Puccini, will be a stunning experience, and it is described as a visual, dramatic and musical feast for the senses. The production will feature the full Grand Rapids Symphony and a large chorus in addition to the talents of top opera performers. It features opera’s most iconic aria “Nessun dorma,” which was most famously performed by Luciano Pavarotti.

The opera’s investment is made possible by its supporters, who have generously donated because they understand the importance of being inclusive.

Opera Grand Rapids is in its 52nd year and is the longest continuously operating opera company in Michigan. It is also recognized as one of the premier mid-size operas in North America.

“The arts can change lives,” said Syrewicze, “and we want to be a part of that.”

Turandot, from composer Giacomo Puccini, at Opera Grand Rapids May 1 and 2

World’s second-largest castle ‘has everything you could want in an apartment’

The Grand Castle

Anyone driving by The Grand Castle gets a sense of the building’s momentous size. Construction materials for the 522-unit apartment community off I-196 west of Grand Rapids included 200 million pounds of concrete, 900 tons of steel and 320,000 kilograms of granite.

The Grand Castle is indeed grand. In fact, at 1.2 million square-feet, it’s the second largest castle in the world!

But you have to tour The Grand Castle to get a full appreciation of how grand it really is.

The Grand Castle in Wyoming, MI

The Grand Castle is a pet-friendly apartment community featuring an outdoor dog park with two separate fenced-in areas and several play elements. Taryn Willett visits the dog park with her shepherd mix ‘every day, multiple times. There’s always a dog to play with,’ she said.

How each apartment has brand-new stainless-steel appliances, granite countertops, full washer and dryer and its own water heater, plus high nine-and-a-half-foot ceilings.

How there’s a variety of floor plans that fit a variety of living situations and budgets, and more than 90 percent them get at least one covered parking space.

How the extraordinary architecture is complemented by unparalleled amenities:

  • Outdoor swimming pool and clubhouse
  • Castle-themed playground for kids
  • Two-story library with a “Beauty and the Beast”-style twin staircase
  • On-site gym with cardio and weight training equipment
  • Game room with ping pong, shuffleboard and arcade games
  • Spacious outdoor terraces and sun decks
  • 23-acre lake for fishing and kayaking, with a waterside walking trail
  • Covered loading docks for easy move in
  • Expansive courtyard with outdoor seating and water fountain
  • Fenced-in dog park
  • Fitness classes, watch parties and other organized social events
  • Conference rooms for personal parties
The Grand Castle, Library

A two-story library at The Grand Castle features a twin staircase, a la ‘Beauty and the Beast.’

“It has everything you could want in an apartment,” said Taryn Willett, 27, who lives on the sixth floor with her fiancée, dog and cat. “We like it for a lot of reasons.

“It’s newer, cleaner. It has a fresh feel. And it’s actually a really good price for the area considering it’s very close to downtown. We’re actually paying less money (than we were at our previous apartment) for a new building, and it’s closer to the highway. That’s a really huge plus because you can get anywhere in 10 minutes.”

Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany is the inspiration for both Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland and The Grand Castle outside Grand Rapids. The 19th-century palace includes a copper lion standing guard atop its turreted roof, just like The Grand Castle.

There are a lot of apartments in West Michigan, but there’s only one castle. The Grand Castle was inspired by a similar marvel in southern Germany.

The Neuschwanstein Castle itself was a monumental feat of construction for its time, requiring more than 500 tons of marble, over 1,700 tons of sandstone and some 400,000 bricks. It also featured then-innovative amenities including central heating, running water and toilets with automatic flushing.

The Neuschwanstein Castle attracts upwards of 1 million visitors per year. Yet, only 522 tenants get to call The Grand Castle home.

“I teach dance at night and once my little dancers found out I lived at The Grand Castle they were like ‘Are you a princess?’” said Brooke Hanges, who lives in a 2-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor with her puppy.

“My nephew is 3 and he thought that was the coolest thing to have Aunt Brooke live in The Grand Castle. He even put together a Lego structure of the Castle for me.”

Apartment in the Grand Castle in Wyoming, MI

‘It’s all updated and new,’ said Brooke Hanges, who moved into The Grand Castle last year. ‘Everything is open, and the high ceiling is huge. I don’t feel like I’m in an apartment. I feel like I’m in a home.’

A year after opening, The Grand Castle is more than 70-percent occupied. Studio apartments rent for as little as $730 per month, while three-story penthouse suites have more than 4,000 square-feet. One-, two- and three-bedroom floor plans also are available ranging in size from 712 square-feet to 1,500 square-feet, with rents from $930 to $1,770 per month. The apartment community also includes several accessible units with barrier-free features.

Preferred employer discounts of 5 percent or more are available to employees of many of the Grand Rapids-area’s largest employers.

The Grand Castle is proving to be a great fit for people of all ages. In addition to 20-somethings just starting out and mid-career professionals, many residents age 55 and up are finding a home at The Grand Castle, too.

“It’s no maintenance,” said John Green, 72, who moved into a two-bedroom apartment with his wife after downsizing from a 4,900-square-foot home on 18 acres. “We love it here. It has so many things that make it worthwhile as far as things to do.”

As for The Grand Castle’s distinctive architecture, Green loves it.

“Whenever we have somebody come to visit, we never get the excuse that they couldn’t find it.”

How being ‘one-stop shop’ helps design-build contractor finish jobs on budget, on time

While the term “helix” often gets used when talking about DNA, the building blocks of life, Josh Weiner first heard it in the context of construction when his firm was developing Kalamazoo Commons.

The Rave parking garage at Kalamazoo Commons downtown

The Rave parking garage at Kalamazoo Commons downtown

To make room for a mixture of uses including apartments, offices, retail and a movie theater, an existing downtown parking ramp had to be remodeled on a smaller footprint. In order to keep the same number of spaces, the design/build team proposed an innovative helix – a circular, upward moving drive that motorists use to access levels of the ramp.

The team came up with the idea because, in this case, the builder and designer were both. Continental Companies

“It was through (owner) Jerry (Stifler) and his design team that we came up with the helix,” said Weiner, CEO of the Meyer C. Weiner Co. “I have found over the years that his attributes and education have made his model of being a design-build contractor particularly beneficial to developers like me, who always seem to be wanting projects done quickly and seamlessly from beginning to end.

“With both the design and the building capability, not to mention the engineering background, that certainly streamlines the process.”

In many ways, Continental has been the building block of Kalamazoo over the past half-century. You don’t have to drive for long to pass a building designed and constructed by Stifler’s team. From strip malls on Westnedge Avenue to the Holiday Inn West off U.S. 131 to the iconic Wings Stadium, Continental has had a hand in over 3,000 projects during the past 50-plus years.

Stifler started Continental in 1965, three years after beginning his career with another Kalamazoo-area construction firm. When his employer told him he had qualified for the company’s retirement plan, he quit. Stifler wasn’t in business to retire. He was in business to build buildings.

His first solo job: a church building on Whites Road near Kalamazoo Country Club.

“I had about $1,500 to my name,” Stifler recalled. “I didn’t get a bond. I couldn’t get a bond. I bid it anyway.

“They didn’t ask for a bond.”

The Globe Building in Kalamazoo

The Globe Building in Kalamazoo is one of more than 3,000 projects that The Continental Companies has done in the past 50-plus years.

Through more than 3,000 construction projects across 14 different states, Stifler has never brought on a partner. He alone leads his company of 17 people including architects, project managers, field superintendents, carpenters and support staff.

Under Stifler’s leadership, Continental became one of the Kalamazoo area’s first design-build contractors – handling both architect and general contractor roles. More than 50 years after Continental was founded, design-build construction firms remain rare. Even more rare are companies such as Continental that provide design-build services with excellent cost control, construction quality and timeliness. In large part, Continental is able to get things done on a tight schedule at lower cost because project design is in house.

Continental’s design-build model includes free preliminary designs and a guaranteed budget with guaranteed completion dates. It results in cost savings of up to 28 percent compared to conventional design-bid-build construction. Plus, although a design-build model makes sense for many projects, Continental has a successful track record of associating with different architects when the situation warrants.

The company’s extensive design-build portfolio includes Pheasant Run, one of the area’s first condominium projects, restoration of the historic Globe Building downtown, revitalization of the Rave theatre block that’s home to Kalamazoo Commons and reimagination of the former Pinz Kalamazoo bowling alley that’s now known as Revel & Roll.

former Pinz bowling alley into Revel & Roll entertainment center

The Continental Companies worked with Treystar to turn the former Pinz bowling alley into Revel & Roll entertainment center. ‘If you hire an architect you’ll get a great big fee,’ owner Jerry Stifler said. ‘Our architectural fee is probably half of what everybody else’s is. That’s a real advantage, especially for developers.’

In 1974, Continental designed and built Wings Stadium, which went on to host concerts by The Beach Boys, Gordon Lightfoot, Rod Stewart, Elvis Presley and scores of other music greats through the years.

“That’s where I got my reputation,” Stifler said. “We finished it so fast and on schedule and under budget that I was written up as the world’s greatest contractor.”

Continental has built retail centers, office buildings, manufacturing facilities, entertainment centers and residential projects all over Kalamazoo – from ground-up development projects as small as a few thousand square-feet to complicated remodels and renovations that cost upwards of $20 million.

All the while, Continental has gotten the job done on time and on budget.

“Delivery dates, completion dates all are very critical, and Continental has been great at performing and meeting those deadlines,” said Weiner, whose firm has worked with Continental on over 20 projects over the past 30 years.

“We’ve found the pricing to be very competitive, the seamlessness of development optimal and the fact that Continental has a great reputation in the field all have led us to do a lot of work with Jerry.”

Gregory A. Taylor, principal of Phoenix Properties in Kalamazoo, has worked with Continental on several projects over the years including office and commercial buildouts as well as renovations. The design-build contractor’s experience and unique capabilities – like how the company self-performs some general construction trades with its own crew – makes Continental “more nimble” than many other contractors, he said.

Continental currently is working with Taylor and the Jim Gilmore Jr. Foundation on a $5.5 million renovation of the old downtown building at 162 E. Michigan Ave. that way back in the 1800s was an opera house. It has taken lots of design time figuring out how to convert the upper floors of the building into apartments, and Continental’s design-build model has been key.

If you want a design-build concept, they’re a one stop shop,” Taylor said. “Continental playing both the role of general contractor and architect, which is a little unique, helped relative to the multiple iterations they had to do.

“We’re on schedule, on budget and looking to finish things by the end of February.”

The current project at 162 E. Michigan Ave. is updating first-floor office and retail space, putting a snowmelt system in the sidewalk and adding 26 apartments to the upper floors. There’s no helix in the plans. But Continental is the project’s lifeblood all the same.

Said Stifler: “We designed it. We built it.”

‘Most sensory-friendly city in Michigan’ continues opening activities to families

Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, MI

Cathy Blatnik felt isolated, like a prisoner in her home, after her youngest son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and epilepsy before he turned three.

A bright or flashing light, a loud noise, any unexpected turn of events of the day could trigger an outburst, and then a life-threatening seizure.

Going to the movies as a family? That was not an option.

Heading to a ballpark for a game? Couldn’t do that, too many external stimuli existed.

How about a visit to a museum? Again, the unknown lurked around every corner.

“It was very lonely. We did absolutely nothing,” said Blatnik, of Okemos. “We couldn’t even take him to the grocery store because it was so exhausting.”

Wharton Center for Performing Arts in Lansing, MI

The Wharton Center for Performing Arts helped lead the Lansing-area’s dedication to sensory-friendly events when it brought a production of “The Lion King” to the stage in 2018. In April, “Junie B. Jones” will also have a performance that caters to those on the autism spectrum.

Today, the options for the Blatnik family and others living with sensory issues have opened up. The Lansing region has embraced and become a statewide leader as a sensory-friendly center for people with autism and other disabilities.

In less than two years, Lansing has transformed into what Blatnik calls the “most sensory-friendly city in Michigan.” Leaders at the Wharton Center for Performing Arts, the Greater Lansing Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Mid Michigan Autism Association have trained more than 1000 people across regional attractions, restaurants and hotels on how to create supportive and welcoming environments.

April’s designation as Autism Awareness Month serves as a point of pride for those who have taken the lead on meeting the needs of neuro-diverse guests. “The collaboration between private and public entities has created a jammed calendar of sensory-friendly events for the month and the rest of the year,” said Julie Pingston, executive vice president of the visitors bureau.

Here is a sampling of experiences from 2019, available to families with a member on the autism spectrum, or with developmental disabilities, sensory processing disorder, and other conditions:

  • Sensory Friendly Show of Dumbo at both NCG Cinema or Celebration Cinema
  • Autism Friendly event at Jumpin’ Jax hosted by Comprehensive Early Autism Services
    Lions at Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, MI

    Potter Park Zoo recently became certified as the only AZA certified sensory-inclusive zoo in Michigan, and the center holds monthly events that are focused on serving neuro-diverse guests.

  • Sensory-Friendly evening hours at Impression 5 Science Center
  • Sensory-Friendly show at Abrams Planetarium
  • FALCONERS program at Potter Park Zoo
  • Junie B. Jones at Wharton Center for Performing Arts

The Lansing region has a full calendar of neuro-sensitive events for April 2020 and beyond, found by clicking here, and the area was recently recognized with the Governor’s Award for Innovative Tourism Collaboration at the 2019 Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism.

“No one put this on a to-do list, but it has become a cornerstone of our community to make all of our attractions sensory-friendly,” said Pingston. “We want to elevate our community so that there’s more awareness, more understanding and more ability to serve and welcome families.

Impression 5 Museum in Lansing, MI

The Impression 5 Science Center is a fun hands-on experience for family members of all ages.

“Our message is that Lansing is open to you and we will continue to work to make this the best experience visitors to our community can have.”

Blatnik said her advocacy began with her family – Dominic is now 14 – and continues because she doesn’t want others to go through what she did when her son was young. Studies show 1 in every 59 children are diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

“The satisfaction comes from seeing a family smile, from seeing the relief on their faces that they can live and that people care about them,” she said. “Recently, a family was looking for help after their 2-year-old was diagnosed with autism. They were looking for resources, and I was able to hand them a whole book of things to do and where to go.

“That didn’t exist when we were starting out. We didn’t want to keep Dominic in a bubble, but at the same time, we had to know what we’re walking into and what the risk was. It was and still is really a matter of his health and his life.”

Laura Zeller, the director of communications for Impression 5 Science Center, said the facility has worked with experts from Michigan State University and the autism association to conduct two audits to understand how to be a more welcoming venue.

Impression 5 Museum activities, Lansing, MI

The Impression 5 Science Center is a fun hands-on experience for family members of all ages.

Changes have included developing a special sensory-friendly night once per month and implementing tools to help prepare families for a visit during regular hours. There are social stories, which vividly describe and guide guests around the museum before their visit, as well as new signage indicating potential sensitivities at exhibits. The center has also created sensory backpacks equipped with fidget spinners, headphones and other methods of assisting neuro-diverse families through the hands-on experience.

“We want people to feel that we are open and accessible,” Zeller said. “What we’ve seen from families is just a huge sense of gratitude and appreciation. They just want to be able to participate and have an entertainment and learning option that is welcoming.“Families can be themselves and be comfortable here and across Lansing now, and we think that’s a great feeling to provide as a community.”

Pingston agrees: “There’s nothing better than doing something that helps others,” she said.

Learn more about the Lansing area’s sensory-friendly commitment here.

Arena transformation is a game-changer for Muskegon Lumberjacks, community

Mercy Health Arena-Muskegon Lumberjacks

When the capacity crowd at Mercy Health Arena (formerly L.C. Walker Arena) celebrates a Muskegon Lumberjacks goal by yelling “You got Jacked,” it’s a fun taunt at the opposing goalie.

But it’s equally appropriate as a measure of excitement felt by the thousands of fans providing a home-ice advantage for Michigan’s only United States Hockey League team.

With a $2.7 million renovation and elite hockey talent – the Lumberjacks have had 18 NHL draft picks and 51 players earn college scholarships in just the last 5 years – the hockey and the social experience has changed from preconceived perceptions, said Mike McCall, the Lumberjacks president.

“Our number one goal is to make sure we created something for everyone,” McCall said. “When you come into this building, there’s a wow factor, there’s a vibe and there’s a sense of fun. We’re grateful to have the opportunity to present that night in and night out.

“(The renovation) is helping to revive the downtown. The Muskegon area is growing. The vibe in the whole community is improving. There’s a new sense of pride and we want to be one of those helping lead that.”

The project was unveiled in late 2018, and this will be the first full season for fans to experience the team’s 30 home dates that stretch into April. The upgrades include a new and improved concourse area, suite boxes, club and lodge seating, and the creation of a party platform that includes a beer garden, bar and open-air and interactive kids’ zone.

The new concourse design keeps fans inside the arena rather than leaving the seating area and into a closed off hallway. The work brings concessions to the inside and is transformative.

“The great thing about this openness that we created in the arena is that it’s really created a social environment. People can walk around, and they can see the game, they can see their friends, they can see their kids. It’s really one big party.

“You can grab a beer or a hot dog and still watch the game. You are right on top of the action. There’s no better place to watch a hockey game.”

Attendance was up 20 percent last year despite a reduction in the number of seats, McCall said, and that shows people are responding to the changes.

The USHL took notice too, honoring the Lumberjacks with the 2019 “Organization of the Year” award.

“Our goal is to win it again this year and the next year,” McCall said. “We want to continue to be the best team in this league.”

Muskegon LumberjacksThe Lumberjacks, who feature players ages 17 to 20 on the development track to major college or professional hockey, are a community experience and attribute, McCall said. With the majority of the team’s games on Friday or Saturday nights, the setting is ideal for families, business or group outings or just getting friends together.

“Coming to a Lumberjacks game is a release,” he said. “You’re going to yell, you’re going to scream, and you’re going to cheer. You’re going to see people you know, have some food and beverages and just have a great time.”

That is exactly the atmosphere that Andrea Sponaas has witnessed.

“If there’s one thing that’s been consistent, it’s been the jaw-drop (from people) as soon as they walk in,” said Sponaas, the vice president of corporate partnerships for the team. “You can tell the people who have not been here since the renovations. It’s awestruck. It’s ‘Oh, my gosh, this is fantastic.’”

Lumberjacks games are safe, clean, affordable and convenient, Sponaas said, and the team’s leaders wants to keep the momentum going.

“We’re making sure we’re bringing in new fans and exposing them to how great this league is and exposing them to the atmosphere that we’ve built,” said Sponaas, who was with the team 10 years ago when it launched in Muskegon.

“The Muskegon Lumberjacks of today are an entirely different experience. If folks haven’t been to the game recently, experienced the arena changes, I think they’re really missing out.”

On the hockey side, Lumberjacks Head Coach Mike Hamilton said fans can expect 100 percent effort and an exciting, active style of play. The USHL is the highest level of junior hockey in the country, he said. Prospects come from around the world to play in the league. The players have moved away from their homes – in some cases their countries – to pursue their dreams.

“Everyone who plays youth hockey, this is their goal,” he said. “Every night they’re being evaluated, not just by us, but if you look around, there are NHL and college scouts. The dream starts here.”

“They make a huge commitment just to be here and develop into the best hockey players they can be, but they recognize that they’re here to be part of the community. Muskegon is invested in them and their actions on and off the ice reflect on Muskegon. We win together.”

Visit the Lumberjacks website to find the team’s schedule and learn more about Muskegon’s team.