Throughout Waterford Place retirement community, there are artfully crafted wood pieces and stained glass.
For the first several weeks on his new job as executive director, Ben Leavell took those pieces for granted, until he spent an hour with one of the senior residents, Carl. In that hour, Leavell walked with Carl through the facility as he pointed out all the pieces he made.
It’s those little interactions with residents that keep Leavell energized to be at the helm of the Sunset Retirement and Community facility in Jenison. He said many of the residents are first-generation Dutch immigrants or grew up through the Great Depression.
“You see this older gentleman and he looks like a nice guy, but when you start to spend time with him, there’s so much he’s done,” Leavell said. “These are their golden years. This is the best years of many people’s lives, they’re retired with most finances they’ll have and enjoying life despite maybe a few medical conditions.
“It’s really cool, you get to spend time with these people who want people to talk to and share lives with. There’s so much knowledge in some of these people.”
He acknowledged it’s sometimes tough to deal with death, but it’s accepted, which is why Sunset is affiliated with Emmanuel Hospice. He’s grateful he gets to spend so much time with people enjoying their twilight.
It’s important to Leavell the residents are provided every opportunity to do as much as they can, all while staying safe.
Leavell never aspired to work in senior care when he was young and only began to give it a thought when he applied to be food service director at The Lakeview of Cadillac, the lone retirement community in Cadillac.
“If you would have asked me 20 years ago, when I was a kid, if I would be working with old people, I would have said definitely not,” Leavell said. “But it’s worked out and worked out really well.”
Up until his hiring at The Lakeview of Cadillac in 2008, Leavell was in restaurants, starting as a dishwasher at the age of 16 and working his way up through line cook to chef to general manager. He held management positions at Cadillac Grill and the fine dining restaurant at Crystal Mountain. He was more geared toward food but was open to trying a new avenue, a mindset he suggests more people keep open.
He had considered going to culinary school at one time but knew he didn’t want to work long term in the kitchen, preferring the management side of the business.
Once at The Lakeview of Cadillac, he quickly took on other roles, overseeing maintenance and housekeeping, before becoming the assistant administrator of the facility.
“It was a weird transition,” he said. “I thought it might not be my thing, but it might be. It sounded kind of interesting, and I dove in.”
In 2014, he became a licensed nursing home administrator through a program at Michigan State University. Once he started at The Lakeview of Cadillac, Leavell was set and knew he was in the industry to stay, with no desire to move to other health care industries.
“It’s a bit later,” Leavell said of his post-secondary schooling. “It’s how life took me, and it worked out really well. Life experiences are sometimes a lot better than what you can learn in an institution. I was able to make a lot of good mistakes that led up to doing that.”
He relocated to Grand Rapids in December 2014 to take the role as executive director and administrator at Sunset’s Brookcrest community. He’s grateful Sunset had the faith in him for the position despite not having much experience.
“I knew I needed to move, I knew Cadillac wasn’t going to be long term,” Leavell said, explaining his options were to move to Grand Rapids or Traverse City for more fruitful career opportunities.
Along with knowing he needed to get out of Cadillac, he knew he wanted to work for a nonprofit.
“They’re all funded by Medicare and Medicaid, some by private insurance, but looking at that, there’s not enough meat on the bone for shareholders to make a profit and provide a good quality of care,” he said. “That’s why the nonprofits really thrive here. Everything we do rolls back into the facilities and communities we operate.”
Having never imagined working with senior citizens, his entrance into the community in Cadillac showed him a challenge he never expected. He enjoyed working with the regulations.
“Between the skilled nursing and rehab side of things, that and air traffic controllers, it’s one of the most regulated industries,” Leavell said, pulling out a big book of regulations and their interpretations. “It’s way more than hospitals. I really enjoy doing that, learning the regulations and rules and providing good quality care and experience for people within those regulations.”
At Brookcrest, he maintained a 4-star rating and was ready for his next challenge when the Waterford Place position opened up two months ago. The annual inspections take four or five state nurses up to four 10-hour days, scrutinizing everything from the patient charts to the nurse practices to food service.
He didn’t foresee leaving Brookcrest when he did but felt comfortable in all he was able to accomplish and left his successor with a smooth-operating machine.
For Leavell, an early challenge in his new job is the diversity of services offered at Waterford Place. Along with the independent living community with 100 residents, there’s also a 39-bed rehabilitation facility and 30-bed assisted living facility.
“It’s really three buildings and operations in one,” he said. “It’s really been trying to combine some of leadership and sharing skillsets and mindsets between the operations.”
It hasn’t even been two full years since Sunset opened the $18-million rehab and assisted living wings, so the processes still are being refined. The community has a director of process improvement, constantly seeking better ways to operate.
Leavell said he hopes to implement a regular staff town hall meeting where issues can be aired.
“I try to be transparent, both good and bad,” Leavell said. “It’s great to celebrate the good, but good to make bad things public and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re working on. Can we get to this goal?”
He believes there to be at least 10 years of challenges in front of him at Waterford Place, a job he can continually strive to improve.
With the nearly 200 residents and 175 staff members, Leavell’s plate often is full. It’s time like these he likes to get out and chat with the residents.
He likes building and leading a staff, loving when he finds a person with potential and helping set them on a path. He sees the paths always intertwined, knowing happy staff members results in happy residents.
“I enjoy spending time with all of the people here,” he said. “If I get bogged down in paperwork, I’ll just go around and talk to residents. It’s that whole thing of always something to do, something to get better at.
“I want to make sure our employees are happy and spending time with residents to see what makes them happy, to see what they believe can be done better.”