Sherman County’s aging nursing home had become a problem. But just as a plan to fix things was ready to be unveiled, the coronavirus hit. Organizers could have put things on pause, but instead they conjured up an informational campaign to persuade their fellow residents to put uncertainty aside and invest in the common good.
Shackled with an aging nursing home so outdated that seniors were leaving the area and moving into care facilities in other counties and states, residents in and around Goodland realized about two years ago that change was needed.
The town’s Good Samaritan Society facility, a 45-bed skilled nursing home, needed critical attention.
“The building is almost as old as me,” jokes Ron Schilling, a board member of the Topside Manor Nursing Home, the name the facility took after it changed hands. “It was built in 1960.”
And although it’s been remodeled twice in its six decades of service, it needed updating, rearranging, replumbing, rewiring – re everything.
“It was built long before the needs and requirements we have today,” says Kevin Rasure, another Topside board member.
“We do not have bathrooms for every resident.
Their shared electrical needs are a far cry from what they need today.”
Not only was the building nearing the end of its useful life, but the Good Samaritan Society, based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was pulling out of Sherman County. The society, operator of more than 230 integrated care and skilled nursing homes throughout the nation, would no longer have a local presence after the 2019 ownership change.
So two years ago, county commissioners formed a five-person board to explore the possibility of building a new facility. What would be needed? What would it look like?
Just when things were starting to happen – public meetings and an architect’s rendering were being readied – the coronavirus nearly ground things to a halt. (According to The Kansas City Star, Topside was the site of a coronavirus cluster last fall affecting at least seven employees and 33 residents.)
Some locals told the board members to stop and wait, wait for the pandemic to be over.
But that wasn’t in any of their natures.
That set the stage for a passionate group of individuals with a diverse array of skills to find creative ways to keep the effort moving, even as a pandemic eventually sickened hundreds of their fellow county residents and disrupted economic security throughout the country.
Planting the Seeds
Gennifer Golden House happened to be attending a Sherman County Commission meeting two years ago on another matter when discussion of the nursing home came up on the agenda.
“My father was in the facility off and on,” House says. “It was personal for me. I sat down with the commissioners and I said, ‘You guys, we’ve got a problem here. We’ve got an issue with this facility. We have an aging facility, and we need to do something.’”
House, who works at a community foundation and manages her family’s fifth-generation farm, spent more than a quarter century in banking.She had served on numerous state and local boards and suddenly found herself on the planning board along with four other people: a farmer, a former county commissioner, a contractor, and a local chamber and economic director. (Editor’s note: House joined the KLC board of directors earlier this year.)
In July 2019, the board partnered with a Garden City architect, and plans were drawn up for a new $10 million building.
Public approval would be needed, so a decision was made in January 2020 to schedule an election for late April.
“Because of the nature and culture of presidential elections, we did not want to run the bond issue in November,” House says. “We began our process of ordering brochures, posters, easels, all kinds of stuff. We had schedules for dog and pony shows for all the events – the Senior Center, the Rotary, the Kiwanis and Lions clubs.”
Then, the coronavirus arrived.
It was time, House says, to get creative. The project needed an informational campaign unlike anything Sherman County had ever seen.
“We called our high school media department, and the teacher came over,” she says. “He videotaped us. And, after that, the class worked on this project.”
Six videos were created – each between one and 10 minutes long.
And then, the videos were put on Facebook in the days before the vote.
The videos were crisp but didn’t rely on anything too flashy or fancy. At the heart of them were plain-spoken, factual appeals to the common good delivered by credible sources – Schilling, Rasure, House and Mike Mersch, another Topside board member.
Goodland, located on the High Plains, is perhaps best known as the Sunflower Capital of Kansas. It is home to a 24-by-32 foot reproduction of Vincent van Gogh’s “Three Sunflowers in a Vase,” placed strategically on an 80-foot easel and weighing more than 40,000 pounds.
Most Kansans are aware of Goodland’s location because it’s adjacent to Interstate 70 and about 17 miles from the Colorado state line. It’s either the first Kansas town of any size that Plains travelers get to see or the last.
Goodland is the Sherman County seat and boasts a population of 4,300 residents out of 5,900 in the county. But it’s more than numbers. Entrepreneurship is in the town’s DNA.
It’s where the first patented helicopter was designed in 1909 by William J. Purvis and Charles A. Wilson.
Home grown natives are pragmatic – get-er-done people. They are used to being self-reliant whenever they can.
But there’s a catch-22: Many rural Kansas communities face declining populations and are shouldering more and more responsibilities in needed services than they can provide.
So, how do you get people who cherish their individualism to sacrifice for a community project? One approach is an appeal to pragmatism and common sense. That, and the price tag was small for the benefit the community would receive. Ron Schilling, one of the board members, likened the process to building a home – decide what you can afford, what steps you can skip.
“When you build a house, one of the things you want to do is put windows in,” Schilling says. “If you wanted, you could build a house without windows – it’s a lot cheaper. But we put windows in it because it helps the quality of life. It’s the same way in building a community.
“You know, we could live in a community without paved streets. We can live in a community without sewers. I mean, we don’t have to have those things to have a city. But we have taxes to help pay for these kinds of things because we want paved streets; we’ve become accustomed to them. We have a sewer system because we really don’t want to use an outhouse in the backyard. We need protection, that’s why we have police. And we need a tax to help the senior citizens of this community. It’s our duty.”
Strengthening the community appeal was the fact that the new nursing home would be locally owned. No corporate entity would administer its day-to-day functions.
Yes, taxes would go up. Rasure, a former county commissioner and lumberyard owner, says that the new facility would cost a homeowner of a $100,000 house an extra $6.70 a month in taxes.
“Most of us spend that much on coffee or pop on a weekly basis,” he says. “I feel like it is an investment that’s needed for the residents of Sherman County.”
The trends in long-term facilities have changed since the 1960s, Rasure says. More electrical outlets are needed in rooms to support oxygen, televisions and more. Residents and their families expect private bathrooms. And long hallways leading to individual rooms are no longer acceptable.
Furthermore, the primary beneficiaries would be loved ones and neighbors. The median age in Sherman County is 39; roughly 20 percent of the population is 65 and older, according to the U.S. Census. Providing an opportunity for residents to age within their home county needed to be a priority.
“We want to keep our people in our own community,” Rasure says. “As we get older, we hate to go someplace where our families and friends can no longer see us. We want them to visit us without a lot of trouble.”
The old facility in Goodland, Rasure says, was not suitable to meet his father’s needs. His father ended up moving to Ohio to a facility near Rasure’s brother.
“It made it very difficult for me to go see him,” Rasure says. “But his friends … were not there so it made it difficult for him to enjoy the last few years of his life. A new facility is a small investment. It’s needed to provide for our people as we get older, for the residents of Sherman County.”
Designing a Message
The technological know-how for the communications project came from Jeff First, who teaches the video production class at Goodland High School.
Most class projects traditionally involved recording sports and musical events at the school.
One of the challenges in creating the care-facility videos was that none of the students were in school.
“We were mid-pandemic, so the students were not on site,” First says. “But we got together via Zoom to plan and discuss the project. I called in and, as a class, we set up the cameras, lights and filmed the interviews over the course of a morning.”
The students, all high school seniors, determined the production elements of the videos.
“On the day we filmed, I went in and set up an iPad with my students virtually participating,” First says. “We discussed how to set the cameras up. Then, they got to talk to the people. We had the equipment to do two camera views and combine those videos together for a better presentation.”
The students came up with the plan to break up the interviews into short videos, which were posted on Facebook over the span of a month.
Most of the videos had between 600 and 1,100 views and contained bite-size information for Goodland residents to consider.
“Each interview was accompanied with images that would have normally been available at a public presentation,” First says. “We talked about having a good social media plan on how to release the videos and keep it fresh in people’s minds.”
In addition, “I did fall very ill in December, so there were several months they did not do much, then in March, when the schools shut down, we had to reimagine how we would carry on with the class,” First says. “This made it difficult for us to have content to video.”
The videos were produced in less than a month. But they apparently helped.
On April 28, 2020, 932 ballots were cast in the special election: 554 in favor, 377 against.
The outcome capped a very unusual election, in which a $10 million bond issue passed with nary a public meeting. Most people didn’t vote in person because of the pandemic, so mail-in ballots drove the vote.
“I do believe that the videos had an impact on the outcome of the voting,” First says. “These videos gave a clear and concise stance on why the committee felt so passionate about the choice they were making.
“They provided a public conversation board for community members to ask questions.”
One of the board members, Suzanne McClure, age 61, died two months after the bond issue was passed.
“She was very vibrant in our community,” House says of McClure. “It was another hit for us.”
Keeping Friends at Home
The committee members are grateful the bond issue has passed.
Many of them credit one another for its passage.
“We got people on the board who are pretty passionate about the project,” Rasure says. “But we all have different stations in the community. We don’t all go to the same church or same restaurants. We go in different directions, which means we know a different group of people. Our diversity in interests was a positive. You don’t always have to be good friends with somebody to respect what they bring to the table. Hopefully, that’s what our community does.
“When we found someone who we heard might not be fully supportive of the project, we tried to reach out and talk with them, find out their concerns and get information to them.”
The new facility is roughly the same size as the old one, to help keep costs low.
Groundbreaking and construction is to begin this spring. It is to open in April 2022.
“We’ve got an elderly population here, so I think we got a lot of their vote,” says Mersch, a retired contractor.
The new long-term care center will be four pods built in a home-like atmosphere. Three pods can each house 15 residents; a fourth pod will contain an administrative area, chapel, safe area, laundry and beauty salon. All the residential pods will open into a common area with a dining room, living room and kitchen.
“It’s all good for the community,” Mersch says. “When we get the construction going, you’re going to have a lot of money coming in from construction workers that are living and eating here. It’s a win-win for Goodland. Nobody wants to increase taxes, but some taxes are good taxes. They are necessary taxes.”
Schilling says it was essential for Goodland’s future that the bond passed. He is passionate about why the new facility is needed.
“The people living here are the people who built Sherman County. We need to serve those who served us. You know the people who are up there (in the facility) are my 4-H leaders, our teachers, the people who pumped our gas and dumped our grain trucks, our bankers and lawyers. They are people from Sherman County.”
But one of the things that sold him most on the new home was the home-style cooking.
As people age, Schilling says, it’s not uncommon for people to lose their appetites and not eat like they used to. What appeals to him, he says, is that the kitchens will be as close to having family cooking for residents as possible.
“If people are eating, they are healthier. In the mornings when they start cooking, you will get the aroma of the eggs and bacon frying. We want to give everybody a high quality of life. I think this facility will really do that.
“One thing about it, people are always going to continue to get older,” Schilling says.
And, as people age, he says, they typically want one thing: “We want to die in our own house in our own bed with control of all of our bodily functions,” he says. “But not all of us are that fortunate.
“So, if we can’t do that in our own house, we want to stay in our own county. This is where all of our friends are.”
A version of this article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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