A Career Highlight: George Mark Children’s House

A Career Highlight: George Mark Children’s House

Last month, my (younger!) brother Mark wrote a piece for the VPCS blog reflecting on his first 40 years in the construction industry. It’s hard to believe that we’ve both been in this business for as long as we have. I suppose one of the reasons the time has flown is that we’ve spent it doing what we love.

Over the years, I’ve worked on many projects that I hold near and dear to my heart. What could be more satisfying than helping deliver schools, hospitals and community centers? But there’s one project that stands out for me personally as one of the most meaningful: the George Mark Children’s House.

I’ve been thinking a lot about George Mark since I saw an article in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine that mentioned it and other children’s hospice and respite centers like it. The article’s descriptions of the various amenities built into these properties that smooth the way for sick kids and their families took me back to when we were helping get George Mark off the ground in the early 2000s.

I’ll never forget the call that started it all. A long-time colleague and friend Mark and I knew through the Bay Area hospital construction community reached out to say he had an opportunity he thought we’d be perfect for, adding a detail we rarely hear in this business. He explained that while most construction projects have no money and a lot of help, this one was just the opposite because the money was there but nobody was on board to steer the ship. He told me he thought Van Pelt Construction Services would be ideal.

That project was the George Mark Children’s House. And our friend was right. It was the perfect job for us.

There’s plenty you can learn about George Mark by going to its website, or watching its amazing founder, Kathy Hull, deliver her powerful TED Talk on the subject. So I won’t go into too much detail on the specs of the place here, other than to describe it as the first freestanding children’s respite and end-of-life care facility in the United States. Kathy had been a pediatric psychologist at Oakland Children’s Hospital who saw a need for this type of property and took it on as her personal mission to open the first of its kind in the country.

We were brought on as the project managers representing the owner. Kathy had already secured the services of a designer and a builder, but neither had any experience in healthcare. Specifically, they had never worked with the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (OSHPD), which is California’s regulatory body that, among other things, grants the necessary permits for all healthcare structures. Since George Mark would technically be classified as a skilled nursing facility, it needed to get very specific approvals from OSHPD before a single shovel could hit the dirt.

So VPCS came on the scene. First, we saw the project through all the necessary pre-construction steps. Then we helped oversee it as it came to life. I remember a few of the more difficult aspects of trying to get the state to understand what we were trying to accomplish. Yes, this was a medical facility but it needed to look and feel more like a residential structure, complete with fireplaces, playrooms, classrooms, bedrooms, a waterfall and even a small chapel. Whenever OSHPD or the fire marshall said no to something we proposed, we just had to work with them until we all figured out how to get to a mutually satisfactory approval.

As Kathy Hull loves to say about George Mark’s mission, “The point is to abolish limitations; to have your default answer be ‘Yes’ and your default question be ‘Why not?’”

These days, my own kids work right here at VPCS, running their own impressive projects (quite skillfully, I must add). But back when it was my job to manage the George Mark project, my son and daughter were still young. I couldn’t help thinking about the families who would be coming through George Mark’s doors; how unimaginable it would be to have a terminally ill child. I was determined, just like everyone on that job, to do everything I could to deliver a beautiful, peaceful, nurturing place for every family who would show up at George Mark.

I take a lot of pride in every project I work on. But there’s something about this one that has affected me professionally and personally a little more than others, even after all these years. It’s such an honor to have been given the chance to help it take shape.

Click here to support George Mark Children’s House.

By Mike Van Pelt