2020 has been an incredible year. Last year at this time, CooperRiis was excited to announce our new College Program. The idea was (and still is) to serve CooperRiis residents whose college experience had been interrupted by their mental health challenges. The news of some mysterious and deadly virus began making the rounds in January. By the end of February, there were reports of it showing up in the US. CooperRiis began to take action to protect itself from the fast-moving threat.
The beginning of it all…
I was at a wedding in the DC area the first Saturday of March and happened to be seated at a table with a guy who was an infectious disease physician; he sounded the alarm to all of us. He made it clear that this thing was real and deadly and that we all needed to take serious action to protect ourselves. Gratefully, this person has remained our unofficial pandemic advisor from that day forward. That night, CooperRiis ended all business-related travel and began to ‘circle the wagons,’ so to speak. We formed a “Corona Virus Task Force” team and began meeting twice per week. Our goal has been to develop systems designed to educate, prevent, and manage anything related to the virus at CooperRiis.
Covid-19 took over the nation in March, with cases surging and fatalities rising all around us. In April, CooperRiis took the unprecedented step of pausing admissions; and not allowing any travel between our three programs (The Farm, Asheville, and ACP). We re-opened in May with a 14-day protocol in place for new residents. Quickly it became a 7-day quarantine and then no quarantine; once we had access to the Rapid Test.
Fast forward to the present; we share that five staff and 0 residents have tested positive. Thankfully, everyone who had it got better pretty quickly. While any positive test is too many, given the scope of the pandemic, I am proud and appreciative of our staff and residents for the incredible job they have done fighting this disease and keeping all of our communities safe. We decided to prioritize the health of the community over the economy. Our thinking was that there would be no economy if the community is not well. Looking back, it was the right thing to do.
A pivot in programming in response to the pandemic…
June 2020 was a very big and important month for us. Our 85Z program was a mirror image of the Farm program. It opened in 2010 designed to serve residents who wanted a more urban experience than the Farm. It featured our Community Work & Service (CWS) experience in volunteering and or taking classes at local colleges and universities. COVID forced us all indoors with the stay-at-home orders, and a decision to shift the program was needed.
The ten years that 85Z was in existence were magical, creating opportunities for recovery that were amazing. The team served hundreds of people during that time. We spent the summer reimagining how we could continue to provide a recovery experience for people that was person-centered and embodied the 7 Domains of Recovery that have historically guided the CooperRiis way. We landed on a similar model to its predecessor but intentionally focused on a more clinically intense experience.
COVID has had a dramatic effect on America’s mental health, and we saw (and continue to see) that impact through the calls and stories we have been collecting from people seeking treatment. A small group of staff worked all summer, and the new CooperRiis at Asheville program opened on September 1st, 2020. This program accepts out-of-network insurance benefits, which is unique for CooperRiis. The Fall has seen unprecedented growth in all of CooperRiis’ programs. The new Asheville program has been a big hit with our referring community, and the Farm has seen tremendous growth.
A massive loss for our founders and our community
The Thanksgiving season was a tough time. Our founders, Don and Lisbeth, lost their 24-year-old grandson Alyk Russell Kenlan. He was Alyk to his family and ARK to his friends. Alyk had recently completed his MSJ at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago. He earned his undergraduate degree from Carleton College in Minnesota.
Alyk was fluent in Mandarin, and he planned to go to Taiwan or China to work upon graduation. He’d had previously completed internships in both countries. To work in China or Taiwan, he’d first need to complete a master’s degree, hence his study at Medill, but it could no longer happen because of the pandemic. That, coupled with his anxiety and depression, became too overwhelming for him, and tragically he chose to end his life on November 23rd, 2020. His family and friends’ love and support could not save him, as he saw his plans for the future fade away.
Alyk was only four years old when Don and Lisbeth started building CooperRiis and spent many days with his grandparents on the construction site and subsequently at CooperRiis. His passing has had a tremendous impact on this community.
Tributes are pouring in from all over the world for this young man. He’d traveled to seven continents by the time he started college and left his marks everywhere. He was loved, so loved. And the kindest person you’d ever meet. An Alyk Russell Kenlan Memorial Fund has been established in his memory at CooperRiis.
The story of the year continues to be the impact of COVID-19 on our community. We have done pretty well, but Western North Carolina is seeing a massive spike as I write this newsletter. The vaccine is beginning to roll out, and I hope it will be our turn to get it in the first couple of weeks of 2021. I write an update to families, and I often say that I look forward to the time when my focus is not the virus. I am beginning to see an end in sight.
Despite the challenges of 2020, we are ok, and the future is bright for CooperRiis. The pandemic has forced us to be tough, resilient, and determined as a community to get through these challenging times. I see us all as having metaphorically linked arms as we fight through this thing and get to the other side.
Stay safe. Stay well. See you in a better 2021.
Eric A. Levine, Ed.D.
President & CEO
CooperRiis Healing Community