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Beyond the circus

By: Ashley Books


The new Shriners Hospital opens to the public on May 17.

The new Shriners Hospital opens to the public on May 17.

With a new hospital about to open, three Shriners reflect on why they’re proud to wear a fez

It’s hard not to notice the men in red hats.

Whether on a billboard for the circus or on the logo for the hospital, the Shriners’ red fez has become synonymous with one of the most recognized organizations in St. Louis. However, to the men who wear it, the fez is more than just a symbol. To them, it represents their commitment to give back to the community.

The Shriners is a Masonic fraternal organization that focuses its time on various philanthropies. Locally, its St. Louis temple, the Moolah Shrine, has approximately 25 clubs and committees – all with a focus on fundraising and sponsoring events for the Shriners Hospital for Children.

“It’s connection of men, a fellowship of men that are having a good time, and the end result is what we do. We have a good time, but what we do is we support our Shriners hospital,” said Gale Bennington, a local Shriner.

For Bennington, the Shrine always has been part of his family’s heritage. His father also was a Shriner and very involved with the children’s hospital.

“The thing that really grabbed me was [my father] always said ‘when you go through life, do something for someone that’s less fortunate than yourself and the payback, the feeling you’ll have, will just be remarkable,’” Bennington said.

Local Shriner Jeff Stygar has always been an active member of the community. He is involved in several civic organizations, including the Elks Lodge, the Optimists Club and the Chamber of Commerce. He joined the Shriners in 1989, after meeting a friend who was part of the organization.

“I had always known about the Shriners. But I really did not know what it was all about,” Stygar said. “One of my best friends’ grandfather brought him into the Shriners. When he told me what the Shriners were all about I thought that’s something I wanted to be a part of.

“When you become a Shriner there a lot of smaller groups that you can join to get involved. Everyone knows about the clowns and the guys in the little yellow cars, but there is so much more,” Stygar continued

“I joined the air patrol. We are responsible for flying the children in from all over the country to the hospital here, which specializes in orthopedics, or to the Indianapolis hospital that specializes in burns.” Although not a pilot, Stygar said he helps by picking up the children when they arrive and taking them to and from the hospital to Haven House or the Ronald McDonald House to stay until they need to go to the hospital.He also participates in projects to earn money for the hospitals and transportation costs.

“Each group in the Shriners adds something to the mix,” he said. “Each group has their own little fundraiser. Some do bingo, we do a refreshment booth at the Festival of the Little Hills and the clowns get donations from the groups when they go out to entertain or help with some sort of an event. And every group helps through participation in the parades and circus to bring attention to the Shriners and what we do for children.”

Thanks to those efforts, Shriners Hospital treats thousands of children every year – regardless of the family’s insurance coverage.

“I am so proud to be able to say that we don’t, even though we do accept insurance, we don’t let insurance dictate whether we will or whether we won’t take care of certain conditions of children,” Bennington said. “We just do it like we always have, regardless of their ability to pay. Whatever the cost, we just take care of them.”

Local Shriner Keith Schilb said that working to help the hospital is his favorite part of being a Shriner.

“I always thought it was wonderful that we got out there and supported [the hospital] and helped these children, because some of these children, if it wasn’t for the Shriners hospitals, wouldn’t have a chance to have a normal life,” Schilb said. “The Shriners Hospital tries to return them to as full mobility and as normal a life as possible. [It’s] such a wonderful mission.”

Bennington tells a story of one memorable experience with a patient at Christmas. After helping a young girl at the hospital pick out gifts for her family, she went to Santa to tell him what presents she wanted for the holidays.

“I was with her, rolling her up in the line for Santa. I asked her what she was going to ask for [from] Santa,” Bennington said. “‘Well,’ she says, ‘I am going to ask Santa for a bed.’ I looked at her, and it kind of set me back and my wife was the same. I said ‘a bed?’ ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I don’t have a bed to sleep on. I sleep on the couch at home and I just want my own bed.’”

After hearing this, the Shriners ensured that the young girl received her own bed for Christmas.

“It’s those emotions that when you talk to these kids, that they have situations, and they’re not all like that, but they have situations that are far more than you realize when you really get to talking to them,” Bennington said.

Stygar said he is always amazed how positive the children stay, despite their physical challenges.

“They don’t complain about their problems or what they don’t get to do like other children do,” Stygar said. “They are just so grateful and happy for what they have and (they) deal with it.”

Bennington said that often the children who have been treated return later in life to support the hospital.

“The kids, themselves, after they’ve grown into adult life, they want to give back and they are doing that financially, they are doing that as ambassadors, speaking well and coming and speaking out about what the hospital has done for them,” Bennington said.

This spring the Shriners Hospital will move to a new location on Clayton Avenue, alongside St. Louis Children’s and Barnes-Jewish hospitals.

Following a special ceremony featuring the local and national leadership of Shriners Hospitals for Children – as well as a few surprises from the patients – the hospital will be open for tours. Those tours will include a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see some areas of the hospital that are restricted to patients, families and employees only, such as the operating rooms, patient rooms and patient-family quarters. Those who would like to attend are asked to contact Michele Colvin at (314) 872-8330, ext. 1 or by email at mcolvin@shrinenet.org.

In addition to a more centralized location, the new facility includes new state-of-the-art equipment that will help doctors treat more patients.

“As medical technology advances, we want to make sure that Shriners Hospital and everybody involved with it advances with technology to make sure that the children have as much advanced help as they can get,” Schilb said.

The physical plant is smaller for the new hospital than it was for the one in Frontenac, but Bennington said the process will shift to treating more children as outpatients, minimizing the need for more patient rooms.

“It is much smaller than what we had before, but we feel that we’re going to be able to take care of many, many more kids through that (outpatient) process,” Bennington said.

Being so near the heart of the Washington University medical complex, the new facility also will allow doctors to expand their research efforts in the orthopedic field.

According to Max Montgomery, a spokesperson for the hospital, “the new hospital will further enhance clinical care and research collaborations with Washington University School of Medicine, with which Shriners have had a long-standing partnership” and “will provide the nation’s leading providers of pediatric orthopedic care an ideal place to care for their patients, conduct their research and educate the surgeons of the future.”

But Bennington said you can’t forget that it’s all about the kids.

Schilb’s, Stygar’s and Bennington’s experiences with the Shriners have been positive ones that also positively impact their community. These men in the red hats have given back to the community and, in turn, gained a new perspective and appreciation for their own lives.

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