WILLMAR — Rice Memorial Hospital staff members, after a long year, took a little break Wednesday to enjoy a car parade and pep band honoring them.

Near the hospital’s front entrance on a beautiful, sunny afternoon, people in scrubs danced to music from the Willmar Senior High School pep band and took cell phone pictures and videos.

People waved signs that said, “Docs Rock!”, “We Got This” and ‘U R Awesome.” Emergency vehicles with sirens blaring led the parade, followed by many cars and vans representing local businesses.

Other drivers got in on the act. Dozens of residents and staff gathered along the sidewalk in front of Bethesda Health and Housing, and people driving by on Willmar Avenue Southeast honked their horns and opened their windows to wave.

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The parade started near the Kandiyohi County Area Family YMCA and visited five health care facilities. After Bethesda Grand, the parade went to four Carris Health facilities — Main Clinic, Care Center, Rice Memorial Hospital and Lakeland Clinic.

Bethesda resident Dale Kvanli, 85, of Willmar, said he liked the idea of honoring health care workers. “This is great,” he said, “and it gets people out here.”

During the pandemic, he stayed close to his room in the care center, he said, but he’s now back to walking a couple hours a day. Staff members were the only other people residents saw for several months.

Becki Kallevig, 60, and Kris Johnson, 58, both registered nurses who work in admissions, waited for the parade in front of Bethesda Grand and chatted through their masks.

The parade was appreciated, they said.

“Looking back, it was a difficult year,” Johnson said.

“There was a lot of heartache with people missing people and people passing away,” Kallevig said.

With no visitors allowed for months last year, the Bethesda staff, particularly the activities staff, became residents’ family, Johnson said.

The nurses agreed the year of the pandemic is something no one will forget.

When a Centracare ambulance went by in the parade, they applauded, noting that it had been a hard year for ambulance workers, too.

At Rice Hospital, two sterile processing technicians — Karen Schauer, 64, and Jill Smith, 46 — were among those listening to the pep band and swaying to the music.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Smith said of the parade. “It’s a nice appreciation.”

“It’s been a long year,” Schauer said.

People in their department are in charge of sterilizing equipment used in the hospital, an always important job that took on added significance during the pandemic.

Their department’s motto is “we fight dirty,” the women said.

Every day there were changes to their jobs, they said, but things have started to calm down lately.

The parade was planned after Carris Health CEO Mike Schramm and chief nursing officer Kathy Dillon responded to a question at a Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce committee meeting in April.

Bob Mathiasen, chief operating officer at Heritage Bank and co-chair of the chamber's public policy committee, asked about morale among employees. “They answered that it is tough some days, but the team is committed and pushing through,” Mathiasen said last week.

He set out to organize the vehicle parade as a way to show the community’s appreciation for all its health care workers have done.

West Central Tribune reporter Carolyn Lange contributed to this story.