Pine Haven hires resident wellness manager, chef

Looking to enhance the daily lives of its 250 residents, Pine Haven Christian Communities in Sheboygan Falls recently created two new positions.

Martina Wessels joined Pine Haven in September as resident wellness manager, and Crystal Thomas became chef in July.

So far, Wessels has introduced a number of new initiatives designed to improve the overall wellness of residents, including personalized training at all three of Pine Haven’s campuses: the main campus, a second Sheboygan Falls campus called Prairie Crossing and an Oostburg campus.


She also developed a “Gym to Go” program in early October at the main campus, which is a skilled nursing, assisted living and memory care community. Rather than making the residents come to the gym, she brings the gym to the residents by transporting exercise equipment on a cart to individual rooms or common areas where people are gathered.

“They’re really enjoying it,” Wessels said. “Every day someone signs up.”

At Prairie Crossing, an assisted active living center, Wessels implemented a “brain fitness” program in mid-October that uses games to improve residents’ short-term and long-term memory. Some of the games might quiz them on U.S. history or ask them to list as many vegetables as they can think of.

Before Wessels’ hiring, Pine Haven offered group exercise classes with limited equipment that mainly focused on range of motion and stretching.


Despite the many exercise opportunities now available, Wessels said nothing is mandatory.

In her role, Thomas uses a new technology called the combi oven to more efficiently prepare meals for Pine Haven’s residents.

“We try to keep it fun and social,” she said. “We’re talking, laughing and having a good time.”

Wessels previously worked at a retirement community similar to Pine Haven, where she provided fitness services to residents in independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing, rehabilitation and dementia care environments.

Thomas also uses a blast chiller (right) that takes the food from cooked to chilled within 30 minutes while retaining its nutrients.

She said it is important for seniors to stay active because of the numerous physical and emotional benefits.

“There’s lots of physical benefits like strength, flexibility and endurance, but it comes down to doing what you need to do on a daily basis,” she said. “Whether it’s taking care of themselves or watching their grandchildren, we want them to keep doing whatever they enjoy in life as long and as easily as possible. And there’s the emotional aspects like cutting down on anxiety and depression. Having a little success every day is good for your self-esteem.”

Thomas, on the other hand, wants to make sure Pine Haven’s residents are getting the best meals possible.

“Food is an important part of their day,” she said. “They should enjoy it, and it should be of good quality.”

Thomas comes to Pine Haven after spending 18 years as a chef in a variety of settings, including restaurants, resorts and country clubs. She also spent 10 years in the United Kingdom working at a resort that used the combi oven and blast chiller equipment that Pine Haven is now using. Pine Haven purchased the state-of-the-art technology over the summer in order to provide residents with fresher, healthier food. It cost $65,000 to purchase four combi ovens and one double blast chiller, according to Karin Oliver-Kreft, Pine Haven’s director of marketing and community outreach.

Oliver-Kreft said Pine Haven will spend another $75,000 on additional combi ovens for the new $19 million nursing home it is currently building. Connected to Prairie Crossing, the first half of it is scheduled to open in June 2015, and the second half in July.

The combi oven features various settings and temperatures and provides frying, grilling and sautéing capabilities. The blast chiller, Thomas said, takes the food from cooked to chilled within 20 to 30 minutes while retaining its nutrients.

Thus, the food is 100 percent cooked when it is shipped from the main campus to other kitchens. Once the food arrives, a cook places it into another combi oven to “retherm” it, or bring it back up to serving temperature.

“Instead of having multiple fully-functioning kitchens and staff all with chefs, this is the best way to get the same product and same quality to a large amount of people,” Thomas said.

The technology is new to the United States, according to Thomas. She knows of some schools and prisons in Wisconsin that have implemented combi ovens, but said Pine Haven is the first nursing home in the state to use it.

Since Thomas joined Pine Haven, 95 percent of the food has been made from scratch, with mostly muffins and coffee cakes still being bought, she said.

“Residents have noticed a huge change in the quality, and for the most part they’re very happy with the changes,” Thomas said. “It’s a lot of different people you have to take into consideration, and in the future we’re going to look into different ways to please even more across the board.”

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