Care for environment drives hospital official

By | March 2, 2011

But with that new look comes a recommitment of St. Mary’s and the sisters’ motto: “Environmental Stewardship: Demonstrating Reverence for the Earth.”

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Corrine Vercauteren, director of Environmental Services at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical Center, guides the Catholic facility’s efforts to protect the environment. St. Mary’s is one of 30 hospitals in North America to earn the Practice Greenhealth Environmental Leadership Circle Award. (Rick Evans | For The Compass)


Corrine Vercauteren is director of Environmental Services at St. Mary’s. She’s been at the hospital since age 19, starting with a degree in food service from Fox Valley Technical College.

That was 31 years ago and, she said her work — carrying out the Sisters’ mission of sustainability, that “the earth’s resources are not limitless” — has changed her in profound ways.

“This is a strong, strong group of women,” Vercauteren said of the Hospital Sisters. At the hospital, stewardship and sustainability “is part of who everyone is.”

For example, there’s the hospital’s atrium and healing gardens. From the windows of the environmentally-sustainable Cancer Center, patients can look out at the Garden of Hope with its abundance of perennials and annuals, birds and butterflies, to view it as a symbol of healing.

The expansive glass atrium allows natural light to enter, and the lobby glass artwork, done by Massimo Cruciani of Assisi, Italy, relates to the healing work of St. Francis and St. Clare. Use of Wisconsin resources — wood, limestone and slate — completes the space, bringing the earth inside.

Leaving the atrium for the top of the Cancer Center, one finds the largest “green living roof” in Wisconsin and north of Chicago. It serves not only as a symbol of stewardship of the environment, but as a piece of the St. Mary’s sustainability plan.

According to Vercauteren, 96 percent of most green living roofs are “for viewing only.” But the 22,000 square foot roof at St. Mary’s is all usable space. Not only is it a popular place for reflection or lunch, it also cools the hospital roof during warm weather and reduces noise. At night, it is lit. It also collects 99 percent of all rainwater which is then used for gardens on campus.

As director of Environmental Services, Vercauteren oversees housekeeping and makes sure the environment is safe for patients, visitors and employees.

While that means keeping the hospital cleaned and sanitized, there is much more. The hospital has been a part of the Green Bay for 111 years. (It began as a home for unwed mothers). While one of the smaller hospitals, St. Mary’s is lauded as a big player in healthcare for its innovative stewardship practices. Vercauteren will be trained as one of only 25 Catholic Climate Ambassadors on behalf of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change (www.catholicsandclimatechange.org)

The training will give her the tools to offer presentations, nationwide, that are consistent with Catholic teachings on protecting creation. Ambassadors also promote the “Catholic Climate Covenant: The St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor.”

Vercauteren is well-known throughout the diocese, state and nation for telling the story of environmental stewardship at St. Mary’s. She is also on the board for “Wisconsin Hospitals for a Healthy Environment.”

“The coolest part of my job is I get to tell that story,” she said.

A profound public speaking moment for her happened last September when she traveled to Pennsylvania to teach employees in the billion-dollar Geisinger Healthcare system.

“A small hospital in Green Bay, Wis., can teach the largest of the large,” she said.

St. Mary’s first major environmental endeavor was a storm water management project that was a cooperative project between the hospital, the state Department of Natural Resources and UW-Green Bay. Today, the system continues to recycle polluted storm water runoff into a filtering system that restores the runoff to 99 percent purity after filtering. Since then, the customized system has been studied, revised and used worldwide, including in Third World countries.

St. Mary’s was also an early member of Practice Greenhealth, a national networking organization which promotes sustainable, eco-friendly practices.

For the third consecutive year, St. Mary’s was one of only 30 hospitals in North America to earn the Practice Greenhealth Environmental Leadership Circle Award. The honor came because of the hospital’s energy efficiency and mercury-free practices, its recycling rates, its stormwater filtering, and its living green roof. “St. Mary’s story captures people,” said Vercauteren.

Everyone can learn something from St. Mary’s sustainability endeavors, but Vercauteren said she and St. Mary’s are always learning something from others, especially at speaking engagements.

Each individual person, family, business and parish can make a difference, said Vercauteren, citing St. Francis’ advice about “hoeing my garden,” even if it’s the last thing you ever do, applies to everyone of every age.

Her talks often focus on a dozen things people can do in their home, parish and business to practice greater stewardship of resources. Many of these mimic what has been done at the hospital, such as rounding up unnecessary chemical products for proper disposal.

St. Mary’s is planning a “pharmaceutical take-back” event with local law enforcement tentatively planned for April. St. Mary’s has already hosted events in the past to take back mercury thermometers.

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