by Marji Wisniewski

From the moment I drove into Silver Maples, I could sense that cozy neighborhood feeling. The red brick and white trim adorning the buildings provide an instant feeling of unity. The beautiful, landscaped grounds show how much love and care is put into the community. Driving around the villas you can also see examples of self-expression with the porch decorations each resident carefully chooses. But it was after talking with Silver Maples’ Executive Director and CEO, Julie Deppner, that I realized the warmth inside this planned senior living community where they celebrate friendship and a passion for life.

A Foundation in Education

From the time I was ten, I knew I wanted to be a high school teacher and principal. I had a passion for education and wanted to be a leader in that field. I was born into a working class family in Clarkston, Michigan, and was the first among my siblings to go away to college. Although I was living the life I had dreamed of as a child, at 46 years old I made a pivot in my career that would change everything.

In my first job out of college, I taught math and Spanish at Sherman Middle School in Holly, Michigan. When my husband Dennis’s job caused us to move to Adrian, I felt blessed to get a position teaching at Chelsea High School. Once I started teaching in Chelsea, I knew it was a community that I wanted to raise my kids in. It had that familiar small-town feel both my husband and I grew up with, so we moved to Chelsea.

After only a few years of teaching, I started working on my next goal of becoming a principal. At Eastern Michigan University, I earned a Masters in Educational Leadership and then my Ed Specialist degree. This helped me get the job of Chelsea High School assistant principal, followed by principal six years later.

It was so thrilling to have the job that I always dreamed of. I really loved that job. I will say it was hard, but extremely rewarding. This was a fun time in our lives as I was the principal at the high school where my two boys attended. Each boy reacted differently to me being principal. My older son doesn’t like to be singled out, or brought attention to, so when we’d pass in the halls, I’d just get a nod. Conversely, my younger son was so excited to have me as his principal that he’d yell, “Hey, Mom!” from down the hall. He’d also try to use my role to his advantage: “You know who my mom is?”  He embraced it.

In 2012, the new superintendent of Chelsea schools asked me to join him as the assistant superintendent. However, after only three years, he took a job as the superintendent in Grand Haven. I had left my passion job of being a high school principal in order to be his assistant superintendent, but now he was gone.

That really offered me some time for personal reflection. I wasn’t really looking for a career change, but at a Chelsea Rotary Club meeting I found myself saying, “I’m entering my 31st year of education (26 years teaching plus I   5 years) and I could retire this year!” People kind of gave me looks because I was only 46 years old. Then I got the call that would change the trajectory of my life.

 Second Act

A fellow Rotarian called and said, “I heard you were thinking of retiring from education. What do you think about applying for CEO of Silver Maples?” I didn’t know a lot about senior living, but I did know about Silver Maples, as I was an active member of the Chelsea community and Silver Maples is very engaged here. I was told the board wanted to focus on finding someone who was highly involved in the community. After taking an online course to learn as much as I could about all things senior living, I threw my name in the hat for the job. And in April 2016, I feel lucky to say, I was selected as Silver Maples’ next CEO.

It was pretty scary stepping out of my comfort zone. I didn’t know anyone in the field, and it was hard starting over. But as I pushed through the growing pains of that first year, I realized many parallels to my work as a school administrator. Both jobs involve overseeing food service and transportation, along with custodial and maintenance services; the staffing was remarkably similar. One of the first concerns that I had to address from a resident was that one of our waitstaff was smoking in the parking lot. I thought, “Oh, smoking in the parking lot – I’ve got this one!”

We love hiring high school and college students at Silver Maples, and having the opportunity to be their first real work experience. The residents love the energy these young adults bring each and every day. And that’s something I can relate to as well.

However, two things are vastly different between high school and senior living. First, there is no bell that sends everyone home at three o’clock; the residents live here. I had to adapt to the fact that this is their home 24/7. This is not a place where they come to learn and leave every afternoon. That was a big transition for me—recognizing that I now work in people’s homes. Second, I learned the importance of respecting our residents’ breadth and depth of life experiences. Working in school with kids, most of the time you know more than they do. Here, I am able to learn so much from our residents. It has been very humbling.

When I was young and wanted to be in charge, my mom would say I was being bossy. I didn’t yet know how to be a leader. Now, I would say that leadership is a mindset and a skill you can hone over time to turn “bossiness” into leadership. When I started this second act in life and changed career paths, it allowed me the opportunity to reflect on my leadership style as an adult. Through that reflection I determined that my style is highly collaborative. Gathering a lot of information from others allows me to be a good decision-maker. I also put a lot of focus and effort into hiring great people, then getting out of their way while supporting them and allowing them to grow. That was really reinforced here at Silver Maples when I came on board. We have developed an amazing team of experts here.

Thriving During Uncertainty

I’m proud to say that because of the dedication and hard work of our team, Silver Maples has thrived during the pandemic. It still makes me feel a little sad thinking back to March 13, 2020, when the order came down from the government that we had to lock down the assisted living side of our neighborhood (it is licensed by the State). Closing our doors to the outside world was challenging. Closing the doors from inside and separating neighbors and friends living in independent living from those in assisted living was devastating in a lot of ways. We still lived under one roof, but now had to isolate residents from their families, as well as from the library, the concert space, and two dining rooms. Isolating from their friends in the neighborhood was really hard on our residents.

There was also a lot of fear about dying if they contracted COVID. As our community supports people over the age of 62, they were the group most impacted by negative outcomes of the disease. So, protecting them did, at times, feel like a matter of life or death. We did everything we could for them. I’m tearing up just thinking back to those early days. I remember I had to write a letter for my staff who had to still drive into work during the lockdown, in case they got stopped by law enforcement. One staff member admits she still keeps that letter in her glovebox to remind her of that uncertain time.

Weathering the pandemic was the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my career, but from this challenge, we all grew together. We had to interpret regulations from the State, and they were changing quickly in the beginning. In turn, we wrote daily memos to keep everyone in the know. The pressure to keep everyone informed enhanced my ability to communicate.

Technology needs among the residents also grew immensely. We hired a technology expert and that has been one of our best decisions. The residents have become more fluent in technology, connecting with friends and family in new ways. We had community coffee hours over Zoom and now they want to keep those meetings virtual to enjoy from the comfort of their own homes, in pajamas while drinking their morning coffee.

We implemented a phone app as well. The residents are rolling with it, as they are now more likely to try new things. This newfound comfort level with technology cultivated a community of online shoppers. At first that was something that we weren’t prepared to handle. We had so many packages coming in. Now, we are looking to completely remodel our mailroom to accommodate all of the home deliveries!

Just like your favorite restaurant, we have perfected curbside pickup for the meals of those who live in our villa residences. And although some things are different from before the pandemic, our residents are thriving with more opportunities to connect safely with others, compared to those who live alone.

Over the last two and half years, the pandemic enhanced the trust shared between the staff and the residents. These relationships are stronger than ever because we have had to work together to keep everyone healthy and safe. So, by the time we had our first COVID cases in March 2022 (it was amazing to go that long without a case), we were ready! And for our residents to hear and see all of their friends recover from the virus was really powerful.

Community Engagement

Our residents are more engaged now with the community than ever before. Our resident committees play a big part of our work here, guiding many of our neighborhood decisions. For example, we recently bought new furniture with the help of committee members. They came in and sat in the new chairs and provided us with feedback. They had a real say, as they were the ones to use it.

We also have a group of volunteer board members that help give us direction. As a nonprofit, we reinvest any revenue back into our community. Because of this model, we’ve been able to make a lot of improvements. In 2018, we expanded our kitchen in a $1.2 million project. It was a big project to manage but really helped us serve meals better. In 2020, we built 16 more highly sought-after independent living villas during the middle of a pandemic. No small feat!

Looking back over my life, the more involved or busier that I stayed, the more successful I became. Today, I am the Chelsea Chamber of Commerce secretary (and past president), a member of the Chelsea Rotary, and a board member of the Chelsea Senior Center. Giving back to my community has always been really important to me; I believe it makes me a better leader. Any time you have a bigger picture of the community it allows you to have a better understanding of the role your organization plays in the overall scheme. When I’m volunteering my time, it not only feels good personally, but it also supports Silver Maples by staying involved and visible in Chelsea.

An Enriched Life

Silver Maples of Chelsea is a vibrant community creating and supporting a positive aging experience. We work hard to bring in enriching experiences for our residents. We are always looking for artists, musicians, etc., to perform or engage with our neighborhood as well as opportunities to take our residents to experiences outside the community of Silver Maples. If you think you have something educational or inspiring to offer our seniors, our robust programming team would love to hear from you.

My life has been enriched and inspired from being a part of our residents’ aging experience. To be able to play even a tiny role in their rich lives is a gift. And one I would not have received had I not taken this uncharted path. If you are considering taking a road less traveled, pivoting in your career, or starting a second act in your life, I say go for it! You might not check all the boxes on the job description, but if you lead with passion and believe in yourself, you can’t go wrong.

Bio:

With a passion for marketing that started as a young girl, Marji Wisniewski created her own marketing and communications organization in 2017. As owner of Blue Zebra Marketing Solutions, she helps local and regional businesses and nonprofits tell their story through branding, graphic design, content creation, and PR. She focuses on customized solutions for each client that are more unique than a zebra’s stripes. Marji is enjoying her new role as Managing Editor of The Brick Magazine. 

Marji has a love for gardening, all things Lake Michigan, Pilates, her family, and dogs