Mary's Story

It's been a long & challenging year for Mary Groschan.

It was just surreal," says Mary. "It's been very sad, there's no other real way to put it. We had no idea when this started just how long it would last. We were unaware of much it would affect us all, especially our loved ones.

The same can probably be said for her son, Ryan.

"I'd never been away from him for that long," she says. "Not ever. I missed him terribly."

Ryan has been with CRi, receiving support services, for almost ten years. A longtime resident of Loudoun County, Ryan is an outgoing, animated, loving 36 year old who resides in a group home run by CRi in Loudoun County, Virginia. Until March 2020, he was also receiving CRi's Newbrook Day Program support services, as well.

To protect against COVID-19, a statewide emergency order last March prohibited Mary & other families from visiting loved ones group homes & care facilities across the state. They were unable to see, touch, hug, or be in the same room with their families for the better part of a year, something that Mary says would have been unimaginable before the pandemic began.

Before March 2020, Ryan spent every day at the day program, developing & refining vocational, social, & other skills daily. He spent every weekend with his family, out in the community, connecting & spending time together. He regularly attended local events & enjoyed outings & connecting with people.

And then the pandemic hit.

"We were always out & about. Ryan is so social -- he loves to interact with people & be active. I more than missed us, having our time to connect, you know?" Mary says. "COVID definitely had an impact on us... on everyone. It was heartbreaking not to be able to hug him for so long. We're family."

The role of family members in the lives of people with developmental disabilities & mental health needs can be critical, as routine & consistency can be key factors for growth & meeting new goals.

CRi does its best to provide consistency & help people connect with their loved ones, something that became increasingly important as the pandemic restrictions tightened in the spring of 2020.

Rena Alexander is the Program Manager at Brambleton, a group home run by CRi in Loudoun County, Va. She has been there for so long & knows very well the role that family connection plays in the lives of the people she supports.

"We did the best we could do with what we had, & the families really stepped in during such a difficult time of transition," says Alexander. 
"The families are rockstars."

Rena went on to explain that not being able to communicate with family members in a natural way for so long, not being able to visit parents/guardians, not participating in normal rituals & routines all had a serious impact on the people that CRi supports.

"It's been so hard on them, it's heartbreaking," she says. "Early on, we noticed an uptick in behaviors. We knew that it was a direct result of being isolated from their families, loved ones, & communities for so long."

"We knew we had to be creative & find ways for the families to continue their connection, support, & routines with the loved ones we support. We knew we had to find safe ways for people to be with their loved ones, even if it was only virtually. They needed that connection."

At Brambleton, like many of CRi's programs, family members spent the pandemic going above & beyond to help provide support & normalcy as best as they could. Residents used smartphones, laptops, & tablets to video chat with their families when they were unable to get together. During the winter, when restrictions prevented indoor/face-to-face contact with loved ones, Brambleton family members purchased & donated space heaters for the garage, which allowed them to have safe, socially-distanced, in-person conversations with their families for the first time in nearly a year.

They also arranged two different holiday drive-by parades, participated in window-waves, weekly donations of hygiene items & cleaning supplies, & provided food for the home during special events & holiday seasons. The did this all on their own, organizing events & taking action all through a formal group chat & email chain. 

"After the heaters were purchased, it allowed us a little relief," says Mary. "It was the best feeling just to be able to see him. Even being in the same room was amazing. Seeing him for the first time, even though I couldn't yet hug him at that time, was a feeling I'll never forget."

During the pandemic, a pipe burst at the Brambleton program, forcing residents to temporarily relocate to a hotel for a little over a week while the house underwent repairs. During this time, family members arranged a schedule on their own time to drop off food, games, hygiene & comfort care items to the hotel for the program. They wanted the hotel to seem a bit more like home. Their generosity & quick action provided heartwarming support to their loved ones & staff, & helped to offset some of the associated unbudgeted expenses during the relocation.

"This type of support is immeasurable," says Rena. "When the families are able to come together in support of the program like they did here during the pandemic, it's touching, it's inspiring. Their loved ones feel that comfort, you know?

She goes on to explain that the families play a key role in helping to create a consistent & nurturing environment. "It makes us all stronger when they join forces & dedicate their time & resources to the individuals & staff -- We're like an extended family," she says.

The unwavering support that the Brambleton families provided during COVID was something that took place at a number of CRi programs. Family involvement was abundant during the pandemic & played a key role in mental health & wellbeing of many of the people that CRi supports. 

When asked how she feels about CRi & the role it's played in Ryan's life this past year, Mary summed it up by saying "Brambleton isn't A home for Ryan... It's HIS home. 

"Everyone there goes above & beyond to ensure that my son & all of the other people living there are always surrounded by family, even when he can't physically be with US. 

"The way they have embraced our loved ones & become so close to them has allowed my son to thrive in a way that I couldn't have previously imagined. I owe everything to Rena & the staff there for creating such an inclusive environment. They are his family -- they're OUR family... And I wouldn't ever want him anywhere else." 

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

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