Embracing Challenges

COVID-19 challenged the disability support community, & the world, in ways no one could have imagined. Social isolation, program closures, health & safety concerns, staffing shortages, & policy changes are just a few examples of the pandemic's impact on an industry that already works harder than many to support some of the region's most vulnerable populations.

"People were sad at times, plain & simple," states a Program Manager at a group home for adults with disabilities operated by CRi in Woodbridge, VA. "It was hard for us because these guys are like our family, too. Some of the people we support only have one or two family members who come to visit them, in general. Imagine seeing the same loved one every Sunday for 15-20 years & then, all of a sudden, you are forced to go 60 straight Sundays without being able to see or hug them," he says. "It was hard." 

He went on to explain that the isolation from families was extremely difficult on some people CRi supports because, regardless of how staff tried to explain what was happening, many were unable to truly understand why their loved ones stopped visiting. Many didn't understand the implications of a global pandemic. They felt like their families left them & that just wasn't the case. 

"It was hard on all of us for a long time," he says, "and we saw a slight uptick of negative behaviors in our program as a result. I'm happy it's looking like it's almost over. They deserve for it to be over." 

The Direct Support Professional (DSP) workforce in America faced several challenges prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a national turnover rate of 50% & vacancy rates upwards of 15% for full-time DSPs. CRi didn't see near that turnover rate during the pandemic & is thankful for the dedicated staff who remained true to the mission & our people during one of the scariest times in our history. Regardless of our relative retention successes during that time, however, the impact of COVID-19 on support staffing is undeniable. 

A survey of the direct support workforce conducted by the National Association of Direct Support Professionals (NADSP) & the University of Minnesota found a range of difficulties facing DSPs during COVID-19 reports that 34% of DSPs reported working more hours since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Additionally, some shelter-at-home orders closed schools, which put many Direct Support Professionals in situations where they may be asked to work longer hours with less access to childcare. With school closures, some DSPs provided care for their children in addition to working, which caused stress in their lives. 

Others had to balance working in a profession that requires close personal contact with others, while fearing bringing the virus home to older family members or those with underlying medical conditions. These staff are UNDENIABLY health care heroes & CRi couldn't be prouder to have them on our team. We couldn't have gotten through this without them. 

Another challenge we faced was providing support to people while day programs were closed. At the beginning of the pandemic, CRi did all it could to find ways to safely support people from a distance by providing virtual sessions, limited in-home support, & services through support staff in residential settings. 

"The pandemic might have shut down the world, but the needs of the people who we support each day never stopped. We had to find ways to safely support them. It was our duty," states Wendy Kilmer, who Manages CRi's South 7th, The Springs, & North Lincoln programs. 

"Anxieties were high & we worked hard as a team to find techniques to help everyone destress. It was hard for them to miss out on their day support programs. That's normally where they get much of their community socialization. It was hard on us, too. They become family & we want everyone to be successful & happy," she says. 

In March of 2020, just before the day program paused, Newbrook Loudoun supported 34 individuals with disabilities & mental health needs. As restrictions began to ease this spring, CRi received repeated requests from families for help & decided to offer necessary support services to six people who could meet mask & social distance guidelines. 
{That number has increased since the time of this interview}.

"We knew we had to do something. We had to open, if even for a handful of people. The families needed our help & people needed our support," said Quinta Emefele, who manages the Newbrook Loudoun Day Program, located in Loudoun County, VA. "Due to so many factors, now we are offering services at a larger cost to the organization, but it's necessary. It's the right thing to do."  

She goes on to say that CRi & Newbrook have gone above & beyond to make sure that those individuals who really need the supports during this time have them, especially those who have the skills to social distance & wear their mask. "It makes it easier to bring people back together to provide the support & skill building that they need," she says. 

And that's the story of CRi during this pandemic. As challenges have presented themselves over the past 15 months, leadership & frontline staff have banded together to continue to rise above hurdles & continue to support the most vulnerable of populations. 

"Right now we are even picking up people at their homes for free & finding creative ways of transportation that might never have been thought of before," Emfele says. "That's how important it is for us to get back to supporting people as best as we can. It doesn't matter how we do it -- & It's challenging, to say the least, but we embrace it. It's incredible to be a part of." 

{Story written by Allison John, Philanthropy & Communications Manager}

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