PROFILE: All the love I have

By ELIZABETH STURGEON / For the Reporter

At Maplewood Lane Assisted Living, birthdays feel like the parties you’d go to growing up. They’re honored with all the surprise and fun that comes with a new year, and no one is left out as residents and staff gather over cake and cheer. Behind the scenes of each celebration, you’ll find Shay McNeal, who joins each Maplewood Lane event with a beaming smile.

Louanne Stratton had the chance to attend one of their birthday parties for her mother, Lou, a couple years ago. She remembers everyone together as Shay came behind Lou, setting a birthday cake right in front of her. The simplest and most classic way to celebrate became a surprise that meant the world.

For more than 15 years, first as a caregiver and now as an administrator, Shay has worked day and night to make sure residents feel at home. “I’m here pretty much every day, making sure everyone is happy and has what they need,” Shay says. “Even if they tried to put me out, I would come to the window and beg to come in. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Shay has filled the years with overwhelming dedication to her second home at Maplewood Lane. Though she often praises her team over herself, Shay is the force that leads them with compassion and has turned the Maplewood Lane community in Helena – all 12 employees and 11 residents – into a family.

Louanne saw Shay’s kind spirit and dedication immediately when they first met a few years ago. When her mother was ready to move to a new assisted living facility, Shay brought peace into the process. “Shay made it such a good transition,” Louanne says. “From day one, she was so prompt and helpful. Then, once Mom got there, she went out of her way to make sure Mom had everything that she needed.”

Every day, Shay makes sure that all of the residents are taken care of and that they’re happy. She organizes other events, like games, services, singing or even just a visit from the ice cream truck, along with her other day-to-day tasks as a manager and caregiver.

Back in the summer of 2006, Shay first joined Maplewood Lane as a caregiver, a position she hadn’t held before, at least officially. A few years before that, she was caring for her aunt who was diagnosed with cancer, her first role of that nature.

Flowing naturally from that experience, in her early years of caregiving at Maplewood Lane, Shay worked one-on-one with residents, a passion and calling that she continues, even as an administrator. “Caring for my aunt helped me realize that I like to help others,” Shay says. “I want to be a blessing to someone else. One day, this is going to be me, and I want somebody to care for me.”

After 10 years of service as a caregiver, she received her administrative license in 2016 and stepped into a bigger role at the facility, now managing residents, employees and the space as a whole. But her role as a caregiver—someone who constantly pours out love for other people—only increased as she stepped into the new position.

Calling Maplewood Lane Shay’s second home is no exaggeration. Shay finds herself with the residents almost every day, whether she’s passing out medicine, giving showers or managing the facility. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. I wouldn’t want anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t do,” she says. “I’m the type of person that when you see it, you got it.”

Her grateful, giving spirit comes naturally, but she still always tries to learn from other people. As she thinks back on her years at Maplewood Lane, she treasures her time with her first administrator, Charlotte Tomlin.

During that time period, Shay watched Charlotte go above and beyond with her residents. “You don’t see people who care for elderly people very much. I was inspired by the way she used to do everything. She would teach me along the way.”

Last year, Charlotte returned to Maplewood Lane as one of Shay’s residents before she passed away. Even when she was a resident, Shay says, Charlotte was always teaching her and giving her new ideas.

Even Charlotte, though, had never dealt with a pandemic like the one that onset of in the spring of 2020, forcing Maplewood Lane to operate under many restrictions and suspend a lot of normal events and visits. “It is affecting the residents, and it’s hard on all of us,” she says. “But because we’re so small, we’re a family and we keep each other motivated.”

For Louanne, she saw the Maplewood Lane staff do whatever they could for residents during this time. She was able to have “window visits” with her mom, and, more recently, they’ve been able to have outdoor visits. “There was never a worry that something was going to happen to Mom, or that she wasn’t going to be taken care of,” Louanne says.

She’s also noticed how well Shay and her staff are taking care of the residents both physically and mentally during this time. “She’s such a great mentor for the entire staff. They all go out of their way to make sure the residents have what they need,” Louanne says.

With her compassion and dedication also comes a respect that Shay and the team show their residents, Louanne says. “Shay encourages Mom to do things that she can do—like moving from one room to another—and she’s never really had that before. She’s always telling Mom how proud she is of her.”

Shay has become an out-of-the-limelight constant in her community—even in her life outside of work. She’s lived in Montevallo for her entire life and has always loved the quiet community. When she’s not at Maplewood Lane, she’s at her daughter’s volleyball or basketball games at Montevallo High School.

But most of all, she’s a giver in her communities. She feels most at home when she’s helping other people, spending time with them and, as she says, getting to be a blessing in their lives.

“I want the best care for our residents,” Shay says. “You’re already having to give up everything to move and depend on others. I know that’s hard to deal with in itself. That’s why I make sure I give all the love I have.”