One day, Mary Feuer is crawling under CHP’s mobile health van to adjust the jacks securing the van wheelchair lift. Another day she is working well into the evening, to help a family facing a food or housing crisis. Or she is helping homeless people in Pittsfield. And that’s before COVID-19.
Since COVID-19, the work of Mary and her colleagues at Family Services has been amplified. Local families who already struggled to make ends meet are now negotiating the risk of virus exposure, the risks of recent unemployment benefit cuts and the strains of being isolated.
Each day Mary tries to plug gaps for people who are just slightly above income limits for SNAP food benefits; she’s overseeing an exploding demand for CHP’s various food pantry programs in Great Barrington, Pittsfield and Dalton. She is offering support to families unable to afford rent. She meets with many who simply can’t go to work — because their young children must be schooled at home, online or because they are essential workers who can’t “work from home.”
Mary and her Family Services colleagues are problem-solvers. They are ingrained with the CHP mission that health care — and the family services that can improve health and security — should be accessible to every single person. Period.
Now, Mary’s decades-long commitment to helping others has earned her the CHP Employee of the Year Award. She was surprised with her award on a routine staff Zoom meeting recently.
Family Services Director Michelle Derr, who has worked with Mary for these past three decades at CHP, notes that a 10- or 11- hour day is common for Mary. She’ll pitch in to do anything, including the mobile health van’s COVID-19 super-cleanings required at the end of each day.
“She does all of this with a smile on her face, and some crazy jokes,” says Michelle. “We work with a lot of families who are experiencing trauma and crisis, and Mary is consistently optimistic, compassionate and good-humored.”
What keeps the job interesting?
“Every day is different, it’s never the same, it’s growing and changing,” says Mary. “It’s great at CHP to have the freedom to adapt and grow as families’ needs change over time, to be able to create new projects as we see opportunities. There’s not much bureaucracy here, and we have great support from our CEO, who trusts us to do what’s best.”
CHP is handing out about 2,000 bags of food each month, and already families are calling to line up for fuel assistance funding–much earlier than usual this year. Families who had previously gotten on their feet in the past, with CHP’s help, are now back, having slid backwards, says Mary.
On Sept. 16, at this year’s annual (but virtual) conference of the Mobile Healthcare Association, Mary, Michelle Derr and Katie Race, the Mobile Health Unit coordinator, are presenting a discussion, “Starting and Operating a Mobile Clinic For New and Established Programs.” CHP’s two health vans have been in full-time service, five days a week, since COVID-19 forced changes in how healthcare and family services are provided.
Lia Spiliotes, CEO of Community Health Programs, said Mary “embodies the mission and values of Community Health Programs with compassion, respect and a welcoming spirit to all who seek out Family Services assistance.”
Mary never planned for three decades at CHP–but the work — her colleagues and families she helps — has kept her coming back.
“My original plan was to work at CHP until my children were out of school,” she said. “Now I guess I am working here until the grand-kids grow up.”