Stories of Leadership – The Face of Leadership during a Pandemic

By: Niall O’Regan, Intern, LeadershipSBM

IPerhaps even more than the Great Recession, the coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying economic stasis has challenged our economic and social infrastructure and shone a light on the necessity for great leadership in such times. This is a moment for decisive and swift action but also a recognition of the needs and the suffering of our fellow human beings. While this year has been unbelievably trying there are countless stories of extraordinary men and women accomplishing greatness. Indeed, if there is anything that underlines the collective history of our nation, it is that after nearly 250 years into the largest political experiment of all time we have always managed to rise to the occasion.

steve camilleriEvidence of this spirit is alive in the trying but triumphant 2020 journey of South Bend’s Center for the Homeless. Run by Steve Camilleri, a Class 32 graduate of Leadership’s Signature program as well 50 dedicated full and part-time staff members, the Center for the Homeless has been an essential institution in the local community for decades. As Steve says, “The Center has been around for a long time, and it’s our job to keep it going until the day that it is no longer needed.” Of course, Steve acknowledges that such a day is far from imminent. Despite this unfortunate reality, the Center has been the site for countless transformations, the initial resource through which so many people have taken control of their life story.

Like many of our institutions the Center’s mission was fundamentally disrupted by the arrival of the pandemic. Steve recalls that over the course of a single week in the beginning March the term “coronavirus” evolved from a new term into a clear and present danger. Discussions with officials from the Health Department and Beacon Health system began to dominate the schedules of the Center’s administration. Changes were swift, immediate, and effective. A day before the federal government established a national state of emergency, Steve and his staff had placed a moratorium on volunteers and new guests and initiated steps to implement social distancing (in common and living spaces alike) well before it entered into our collective lexicon. Schedules were staggered. Testing, when it became available, was a total priority.

Despite their best efforts, the summer months were difficult. According to Chief Residential Officer (and Signature Program alumnus) Myrnetta Daniel, summer is the season where guests’ desire for mobility it at its highest, a desire now at odds with the Center’s mission to keep the coronavirus out. The implementation of nightly check-ins were not universally popular but fundamentally necessary. Myrnetta notes a positive  unintended consequence; the Center’s guests, due to increased opportunities for 1 on 1 coaching and “their own personal investment” have been able to achieve some incredible results in their journey towards self-sufficiency.

In the early fall, the Center dealt with an outbreak in the woman’s ward, which while quickly quarantined served as a reminder to everyone for the necessity of vigilance. According to Myrnetta, the 8 women who quarantined in the ward together formed a tight bond over their shared experience. After resuming guest intakes, the Center has not had further cases. Even the challenge of fundraising amidst a pandemic has been overcome by the Center’s admirable ingenuity. Their virtual Maskarade event in October help to recoup the hundreds of thousands of dollars they would have achieved in their Winter programming. Of course, the journey is far from over, and even after the pandemic, the long term ramifications of this crisis will be hard to fully grasp. What is clear is that our community needs more leaders like Steve and Myrnetta to set a plan of action and to serve as an inspiring example as we search for a path forward, together.