Retiring Helm director steered nonprofit through pandemic

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published February 8, 2023

 After five years, Peggy Hayes — the executive director of The Helm at the Boll Life Center — will be retiring next week.

After five years, Peggy Hayes — the executive director of The Helm at the Boll Life Center — will be retiring next week.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Peggy Hayes — the woman who shepherded The Helm at the Boll Life Center through the COVID-19 pandemic — is retiring.

Hayes, The Helm’s executive director, will leave her post Feb. 17.

“I’ve loved the five years I’ve spent here,” said Hayes, 66, from her office on the second floor of the Helm building, located in Grosse Pointe Farms. “It doesn’t seem like five years. The time has flown by.”

While she lives in Farmington now, Hayes is a native eastsider, having been born at Bon Secours Hospital (now Corewell Health Beaumont Grosse Pointe Hospital) and having lived in Harper Woods and Grosse Pointe Woods until her family moved to Rochester when she reached high school.

After earning a degree in communications with a minor in journalism from Michigan State University, Hayes worked in marketing and public relations for several different businesses and organizations — the American Red Cross, McLaren Hospital in Flint, Crittenton Hospital in Rochester and the Taubman Co. and Starwood Retail Partners.

“I decided I wanted to get back to my nonprofit roots, so I took this job, which has been fabulous,” Hayes said. “It’s been a fantastic five years. I’m very blessed to have found this position.”

Hayes arrived shortly after The Helm had prepared a strategic plan and changed from its original moniker, Services for Older Citizens, or SOC, as it was more commonly called.

“She certainly brought leadership to the board, leadership to the staff, leadership to the programs,” Helm Board President Prudence Cole said. “She’s very organized and she follows up. I know that if I asked her to get something done, she’d get it done. That’s invaluable.”

Hayes refuses to take credit for the programs, services and other initiatives that happened under her watch.

“It’s a team gig here,” Hayes said. “I couldn’t have done what I’ve done without the staff and the board and the volunteers.”

The biggest challenge The Helm faced over the last five years was the pandemic. Hayes said they closed the building for programs March 13, 2020 — “We had a vulnerable population,” serving seniors — but the staff returned to work March 15.

“We had to come together as a team and figure out how do we do this,” Hayes recalled.

Helm staff and volunteers needed to pivot so that they could still deliver meals to homebound residents, along with medical equipment from the medical loan closet. And since seniors still needed to be able to get to medical appointments, Pointe Area Assisted Transportation Services — which is housed at The Helm — also needed to continue operating but with new safety protocols like social distancing and regular sanitization.

“We couldn’t stop,” Hayes said. “We were considered an essential service. I’m really proud of the fact that we continued serving people in a creative way.”

They supplied many seniors in the Grosse Pointes and Harper Woods with personal protective equipment, such as masks, at a time when those were in short supply.

“People were appreciative that we stayed (operational),” Hayes said. “But we had to, because we cared about the people we serve.”

Instead of hot meals delivered to seniors by volunteers — who before the pandemic would often stay and chat with the senior recipient — volunteers started dropping off frozen meals that the recipient would need to heat. Hayes said some seniors preferred the frozen meals, so that’s now an option of The Helm’s Meals on Wheels program.

Regular Helm classes were recorded and shared online, so people could continue exercise and other routines.

“But people didn’t love that,” Hayes acknowledged. “What we offer here that’s so special and important is a place to be and belong and be with your friends.”

Once in-person programming was allowed to resume, Helm officials remained mindful of the fact that seniors seemed to catch COVID-19 and have worse outcomes than the rest of the population. That led to hosting outdoor programs when the weather permitted.

“We really didn’t think as much about using the outdoor spaces back then,” Hayes said of the pre-COVID-19 era.

Even with the worst days of the pandemic in the past, The Helm continues to use its outdoor spaces; a bocce ball court and chess tables were set up in the front of the building a couple of years ago, for example.

In some ways, Hayes said, they “came through stronger than ever” during a trying time.

Cole pointed out how crucial Hayes’ leadership was during the pandemic.

“She helped us weather COVID,” Cole said. “That was a difficult journey. … We still provided a lot of services outside of events for our seniors that needed it.”

Lead receptionist Linda Tocco came to The Helm in June 2022 after working in the corporate health care industry. She knew from her job interview with Hayes — who was “so friendly and so forthcoming and so inclusive” — that she would enjoy working there.

“She’s very personable with all of the (Helm) members as well as with us,” Tocco said. “She has lunch with us every day, which you don’t always see with directors. … She’s also very funny, and she has some great stories. She’ll ask you for your opinion, and she listens to your answer — which is important.”

Hayes is the third director that Director of Volunteer Services Heidi Uhlig-Johnstone has worked under since she started at The Helm circa 2013. She said Hayes is a great listener who’s open to new ideas. Uhlig-Johnstone said Hayes’ strengths include her empathy and “really having a big heart for the mission” of The Helm.

The pandemic delayed progress on The Helm’s basement, but Hayes said that, thanks to a grant, they were able to add a restroom, craft room and multipurpose room, with an exercise room coming soon.

“We’re better than ever,” Hayes said. “We’re offering so many programs now.”

Even now, as she nears the end of her career, Hayes remains a tireless cheerleader for The Helm.

“People need to come and visit and see what we have to offer, because we have something for everybody,” Hayes said.

Unlike some retirees, Hayes said she has no intention of getting another job, even part-time — although she does want to do some volunteer work closer to her home.

The oldest in a family of six, Hayes hopes to have more time to help her mom, who will turn 96 this summer and who lives just 10 minutes away. All her siblings live within a 30-minute drive from each other, and she said three of her siblings are retiring at around the same time as Hayes, so Hayes said she plans to “spend time with family and start a new chapter.”

“I’ve loved what I’ve done for the past five years,” Hayes said. “It wasn’t a job — it was more of a calling. I’m so grateful to have had this opportunity. It’s a great place in a great community.”

Helm Board member Marianne Langlois will serve as the interim executive director while a search is underway for Hayes’ replacement.

“The Helm runs very well now, and that’s in part due to her diligence,” Cole said of Hayes. “It’s in a very good place for the next person to come in and take it to the next level.”