Mercy Home continues to adapt during COVID-19

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Young people at Mercy Home for Boys and Girls’ Walsh Campus, 116th Street and Longwood Drive, work on time capsules Aug. 27, 2020. Mercy Home has been adapting its services to vulnerable children and teens during COVID-19. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

To read this article in Spanish, click here.

Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, which had to scramble to find safe places for most of its residents in March, has reopened its residential campuses with about half their former capacity, has ramped up its support to former residents in its Community Care program and started a new Compassionate Care program to help the families it serves with basic needs such as food and housing.

Now the organization, which provides a variety of supports to young people aged 9 to 21, is working to help its young people as they head back to classes, whether in-person or online.

“The challenge for Mercy Home when the pandemic began was how do we continue to keep the commitment that we made to the over 1,000 children and families we assist in very different circumstances,” said Father Scott Donahue, Mercy Home’s president and CEO. “The ways we cared for them changed, but the commitment didn’t change. … We made sure all the young people got to a place that was safe for them to live. Then we worked to provide the support they need. It’s food, it’s shelter, it’s education, it’s therapeutic support.”

While the home was able to find safe places for most residents to live, whether with a parent or other relative, a few —boys and girls — stayed at the West Loop Boys Campus, with staff members coming to live in the facility for one- or two-week shifts, following strict COVID-19 protocols.

Over the summer, the organization consulted with medical experts and epidemiologists about how to keep residents safe, and has reopened the Walsh Girls Campus.

However, with only one child or teenager per bedroom, its capacity is half of the 140 that it used to be, said Tom Gilardi, vice president of youth programs at Mercy Home.

In some ways, the changes allowed staff to build stronger relationships with the young people who stayed, Gilardi said. At the same time, the home found that some residents did well living in the community with the therapeutic and other support Mercy Home continued to provide.

“Some of the kids who went home, they were using their skills and it actually was working beautifully,” Gilardi said. “They said, ‘I think we’re great. I think we’re gonna make it. Other kids, it was clear that they needed to come back to our residential program. We have 69 individual bedrooms, and we are slowly bringing those kids back.”

As of Aug. 26, about 50 young people were living at Mercy Home.

Residents are welcomed back two at a time to each campus. They stay isolated for two weeks, with a COVID-19 test on day 10. So far, no one on any of the Mercy Home campuses has tested positive for COVID-19.

The home has also reopened its admissions program, Gilardi said. Young people and their families who were in the admissions pipeline last spring have also received Compassionate Care support.

At the same time, Mercy Home had to figure out how to run its Community Care — which used to be known as AfterCare — program, as well its Friends First mentoring program, all of which have gone virtual.

By August, the agency was getting ready to provide educational support to all of the children it supports, both those living on campus and those living in the community.

Only a handful of the campus residents are leaving each day for school, said Liz Kuhn Tomka, vice president of education and career resources for Mercy Home, including a couple of students in private schools and a college student studying radiography who has clinical rotations this semester.

“Right now, those are the only youth that are going out,” Tomka said. “We are making sure they are driven to and from instead of having the older students take public transit. It’s actually very few kids, but we want to make sure we are okay with the practices of the schools they attend.”

Coordinating remote learning schedules for the others is also a challenge.

“We typically work with upwards of 50 different schools at one time,” Tomka said. “We’re managing the schedules and the resources available for 50 different kids. … What is the schedule for each kid? What is an adequate study space? When are their meals, when are their breaks? What are the supports they need from our staff? We have a significant portion of our population who needs special education accommodations. How are we going to make sure those are provided? We have other students who may be a little more independent.”

Many of Mercy Home’s older residents are attending colleges in Chicago and around the country from Mercy Home, Tomka said. Mercy Home is also saving rooms for college students who moved into dorms but may have to return at a moment’s notice if their schools close residence halls, as happened in March.

“There were a number of people who really found themselves in crisis situations with food insecurity and housing insecurity,” Gilardi said.

Just because young adults have aged out of Mercy Home doesn’t mean they can no longer get help, Gilardi said.

“Mercy Home is sort of an extended family,” he said. “That’s why people come back and participate as mentors or offer their support as well as asking for support. It gives us the flexibility to meet every kid where they’re at and create a lasting bond.”

Some of Mercy Home’s children had family members lose jobs, as did some of the home’s former residents. Some families were affected directly by COVID-19. Families needed help with technology — not just needing devices like laptops or Chromebooks, but also needing access to high-speed Internet service to make everything from school to online therapy appointments possible.

“Then we had to find out, do they also need food in the house?” Gilardi said. “The essence of our work boils down to relationship. In normal times, things can be really difficult for our population, but they are experiencing more crisis because of everything going on. People are losing jobs. There is rental assistance that’s needed. Emotional support. The big buckets are the same: housing stability, food support, medical and therapeutic support, educational support.”

People who want to help with their time can still volunteer as tutors, Tomka said. They’ll just be doing it online now. Those who want to donate can help most by giving money, which Mercy Home can direct to its most urgent needs.

For more information, visit


  • mercy home for boys and girls
  • covid-19

Related Articles