Wellness House connections now virtual
Providing support for those facing a cancer diagnosis is now more important than ever
Last updated 4/8/2020 at 4:11pm | View PDF
That's how long Executive Director Lisa Kolavennu and the staff at Wellness House gave themselves to convert all the programs they offered in person into ones that could be delivered online.
"We challenged ourselves in a pretty bold way and gave ourselves 1 1/2 days to figure out how to turn every program we offer into an online virtual experience for participants," Kolavennu said.
The decision was made the afternoon of March 12, the day before Gov. JB Pritzker issued his shelter-in-place order. By the following Monday morning, virtual programs were ready to go.
Staff members were eager to find a way to serve participants but harbored some reservations. Leading an art class or support group in person is different than facilitating one over Zoom.
"Given this deep commitment to wanting to continue to support the participants and know this demand was going to be heightened in the coming weeks, staff were able to put aside their own inhibitions in doing this and rise to the challenge," Kolavennu said.
The online programs have been well-received. In the first three weeks, more than 450 people made 2,000 visits to online programs.
"The participation has been impressive and actually confirmed what we suspected - that people are really needing this now more than ever. Coping with cancer has been more challenging than it was before the coronavirus," she said.
Josh Newton, wellness programs manager for Wellness House, said he was concerned about how participants would react to online programs and whether they would have the space in their home to participate in the exercise classes he and his team would offer. Most of his worries have been alleviated.
"So far it's gone really well," he said. "Joining our classes every day gives them something to look forward to. It gives them something to do."
Zoom gives participants who might not be feeling their best the option to turn off their camera and microphone, Newton noted.
"Most people are choosing to be seen," he said. "Most people get on and they're showing their face and they're happy to see the same people they are in class with on a pretty regular basis."
The transition coincided with a staff shift to a work-from-home model. The organization also has had to make alternative plans for its Walk for Wellness fundraiser in May.
"We made the decision that it needed to become a virtual event and we needed to postpone it," Kolavennu said. (For more details, read the "Society spotlight" column on Page 19.)
Although Kolavennu has been with Wellness House for more than a dozen years, she is in her first year as executive director. She credits the strength of the board, the staff and volunteers in helping her through this challenging time.
"Never once has it felt like a man on an island," she said.
Newton praised his team members as well.
"All of them have chipped in. 'Where can I help?' - they've all had that can-do attitude," he said. "They've kind of taken the bull by the horns, and they've done an awesome job of not skipping a beat with our regular class schedule and making sure participants are feeling welcome."
The online programs have had the unexpected benefit of giving participants' family members a firsthand look at what Wellness House offers.
"Now that it's right in their living room, they are a little more engaged and more invested and understand a little bit more about what we do," Newton said.
Operating virtually - with none of the constraints of physical space - has opened other doors as well, Kolavennu said.
"We can actually be more flexible and more creative in what we're able to offer," she said. "That has been kind of a fun discovery through this. It's been a real burst of creativity to think about how to tailor what's we'd normally do in person to make it work in a virtual world.
"We've been thinking of those as silver linings and looking for those small silver linings," she added. "We're all looking forward to the time when we'll be on the other side of this."