St. Mary's leader sees silver lining in virus response

Alexis Steel was named president of St. Mary's Center for Women and Children this month. Photo courtesy St. Mary's

A new leader has taken up the helm at St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children on Dorchester’s Jones Hill. Alexis Steel, a former chief operating officer at the facility, was elected president by the board of trustees in early September. 

St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children is a shelter established in 1993 that helps families achieve emotional stability and economic independence through education, workforce development and permanent housing. 

In an interview with the Reporter on Monday, Steel — who has been the acting president since lasty January— talked about her new role, as well as the effects the pandemic.

“I think the toughest part about covid and everything that’s going on with social justice is that our families have had one of the toughest years in history,” she said. They’re being hit by both sides.  The majority of our families here are minorities— about 87 percent— and they are the most impacted by both covid and social injustice. Right now, the shining light that I can see throughout the pandemic is that our families are getting the attention they deserve.” 

The families and staff at St. Mary’s “were hit hard” by the pandemic, she said, but quickly adapted to implement health and safety precautions. 

“About a third of our workforce was out due to covid,” said Steel.  “We were not an agency that necessarily had work from home policies in place and when our residents needed to leave we really had to work resident-by-resident and family-by-family and see if they had a safe place to stay where they were able to get support from us virtually.” 

During the pandemic, Steel said that about 60 to 70 percent of residents were able to find a safe placement with families. 

“We were able to provide case management and wraparound services, work with them that way, and then slowly begin to bring them back. We brought them back two to three families every other week and had people wait the full 14 days after getting tested,” she said. 

p1 st mary's outside REP 40-20.jpgThe entrance to St. Mary's Center on Jones Hill.

Housing specialists at St. Mary’s were able to move 25 families into permanent housing in the spring and summer, “which was pretty fantastic,” said Steel.  About 250 people, including residents and staff, are now in the building on a regular basis. Steel said that cleaning crews at St. Mary’s sanitize the building every three hours.

Throughout the pandemic, she said that continuing to provide food access for families has been a top priority. The center has received roughly 1,200 food donations through Mayor Martin Walsh’s office, as well as donations from the Women’s Lunch Place. 

“We were feeding about 7,000 meals a week at one point due to the fact that it wasn’t safe for families to be out accessing food. Our food costs here tripled because we wanted to provide three meals a day. It was extremely tough with the lack of supplies we had but we were fortunate to receive many donated meals,” she said. 

St. Mary’s provides residential programs, which includes partnerships with several organizations, as well as education and employment programs. 

St. Mary’s provides residential services to about 500-600 people annually, between their Dorchester campus and a satellite location in East Boston. This year, St. Mary’s became eligible for emergency grants from the city that will support eight more families on site in a new residential program.

“One of the things highlighted by the pandemic was that there were so many families that were not eligible for state benefits and they were homeless, either they were undocumented or they were a penny over the allotted income bracket, which is something we often see,” said Steel.  “We are in the process of redoing the new space for them and that will be a new partnership with the city and Department of Housing Community Development.” 

Last year, staff at St. Mary’s piloted a virtual system for off-site learning, which Steel said has been a huge advantage. 

“I swear that our director must see the future,” said Steel, explaining that Lakeisha Franklin— the director of St. Mary’s Workforce Development & Learning Resource Center— recommended that the center buy a virtual system to allow for off-site learning and flexibility.

“So, we piloted it to see how it would go and then the pandemic happened. Our education employment program… was able to go completely virtual instantaneously. They had no issues or lag in terms of virtual learning whatsoever which was really fantastic,” said Steel.  

p st marys jump REP 40-20.jpg

Two programs at the center have been shuttered permanently due to covid, she said. One was a program for children in DCF custody awaiting placement with families. 

“In the first two weeks of the pandemic, the state pulled all children because it wasn’t safe and they were trying to get children out of congregate care,” Steel said. “At that point we made the difficult decision to close the program as it was significantly underfunded – we had about a million dollar deficit for two years in a row for the program and it was just not sustainable.”

This all happened as the organization began a strategic plan for their next ten years.

“We conducted a strategic plan for the next ten years during a pandemic— which I never thought I would have to do— and in that way, we were able to think about our core services. I think everything kind of fell in at the same point of us needing to make the decisions in a faster way due to covid then we were initially expecting and we’re on a different trajectory of looking at what we can do better, where do we do well, and who can we partner with to do better,” she said. 

“Through that process, although we had to make the difficult decision with that fast of a timeline due to covid, we are trying to make a strategic push to do what we can to change long term trajectory – and it’s permanent housing, it’s shelter programs, parenting programs, it’s life skills, education employment – those are really the programs we’re trying to push in terms of the continuum of care when families enter to when they leave.”

On Oct. 27, St. Mary’s will host their annual Diamonds of Dorchester gala — their largest fundraising event of the year— Virtually.

“We’re very lucky to have as many families that stay in touch with us as we do, and we are bringing in five different mission speakers from different families,” said Steel. “The goal is to rebuild and create awareness. We’re not charging for tickets this year, we just want people to show and hear about what we do and the amazing stories we have.”