For St. Joseph’s graduate Joe Riley ’82, chief executive officer of the Guild for Exceptional Children, a powerful desire to serve others was developed during his time as a student at SJC Brooklyn.
This calling has never been more put to the test than it has during the COVID-19 pandemic, which early on confronted the community reliant on the Guild’s services.
“COVID-19 disproportionately impacted residential care facilities of all kinds, and sadly the Guild was no different,” said Riley, while noting that the Guild provides assistance to children, adults and seniors with developmental and intellectual disabilities through their preschool, family support, residential and day habitation programs located in Bay Ridge.
“We were hit right away with two tragic losses and several of our staff were quickly infected, even after we had proactively suspended our activities well before the order was given,” Riley added. “Some of the individuals we serve possess varying abilities; there’s no way to socially distance when you have to help individuals with personal care and assistance.”
So Riley and his team made a dramatic decision: they put all of their group homes under a seven-day lockdown. Staff volunteered to stay onsite and provide full services, 24 hours a day. Because of this dramatic intervention, the spread of COVID-19 was slowed down.
“I cannot state strongly enough how heroic our staff are,” Riley said. “They expose themselves, live in impromptu dorms on site and are separated from their families, all to try to keep our individuals safe. It is an incredibly courageous and selfless thing to do.”
Advocating for Guild residents who needed hospitalization was another challenge.
“Several of the individuals we serve can’t speak – they need someone to advocate for them,” Riley said. “After some initial hiccups, we were able to have staff stay by their besides to ensure they get the care they need.”
The Guild also creatively managed the return of these individuals to their facilities, as well as providing care for those infected who did not require hospitalization.
“We created our own isolation and step-down units in classrooms, and had nursing care for them,” Riley said. “It was important for us to have a safe place for these individuals where they could recover without spreading the infection to others.”
How did Riley find himself in a place to impact all of these lives? It started with a hug.
While working as a diocesan high school science teacher, Riley became involved with the Guild.
“So I was meeting up with one of my buddies who worked there, and while I was waiting for him, this young man who happened to be deaf and mute came up to me. After a while, we were able to understand each other through hand gestures and motions,” he said. “When my friend came and it was time to part ways with this young man, he came up to me and gave me a big hug. I was so touched by this; one of my friend’s co-workers asked me if I wanted to become involved, and so I did.”
During his tenure at the Guild, Riley moved up the ranks, eventually being tapped as its leader. As his career advanced, so too did the relationship between the Guild and St. Joseph’s College.
“Our partnership with SJC is so successful because of our mutual commitment to serving others,” he said. “Clubs and sororities organize and host our social events twice a year, which the individuals we serve so look forward to. Child study, speech and therapeutic recreation majors come here for their internships, and some started their careers at the Guild; as a matter of fact, we have several SJC alums in senior positions here.”
Devotion to serving the most vulnerable among us was something imparted to Riley at SJC all those years ago.
“During my time at SJC, a spirit of social responsibility and our duty to others was something that we were constantly reminded of,” he said. “It was a wondrous, supportive environment where we were all encouraged to pursue our dreams and make the world a better place.”
This story is part of OnCampus’ “Answering the Call” series, focusing on St. Joseph’s College students and alumni working outside their homes in essential jobs during the coronavirus pandemic.