Group Home Residents Navigate a New World During COVID-19

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Garry Evans, left, a residential program coordinator with The Arc Westchester, and direct support professional Althea Palmer help the organization set protocols to protect group home residents through the coronavirus pandemic.

By Sherrie Dulworth

Community inclusion has long been an important part of life for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Before the emergence of COVID-19, some went to day programs for skills training while others went to work. They engaged in and enjoyed social activities such as bowling, shopping, dining out and visits with family and friends.

To halt the spread of the virus by mid to late March, outside activities and visitors have been restricted for residents of New York’s certified residential facilities.

“Their lives have changed drastically,” explained Garry Evans, a residential program coordinator with The Arc Westchester in Hawthorne. “They are pretty much stuck at home.”

Not only has it affected the residents, but the coronavirus has affected the work of the direct support professionals (DSP). As frontline workers, DSPs offer personal care support. An important part of their role since the pandemic has been helping the disabled adjust socially and emotionally to the crisis.

In late March, a resident in one of The Arc Westchester’s ( group homes tested positive for COVID-19. With several employees out ill and others quarantined, Evans, along with DSP Althea Palmer, volunteered to self-quarantine at the group home along with six residents who also needed to isolate.

“We teamed up and took care of everything,” said Evans.

Everything included counseling, skills training and monitoring the residents and themselves for symptoms, in addition to their usual personal care duties. They also established practices for physical distancing, including two-person paired round-robin dining instead of the usual family-style meals that are held.

In the 13 group homes operated by Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS), employees are providing skills training along with devising creative arts, crafts and entertainment. They are virtually linking activities via technology so residents in different homes have the option to participate together. During this time of major adjustments for everyone, Janet Alpert, director of residential services, said, “Our team is doing an incredible job.”

One WJCS home held a high tea party complete with finger sandwiches, fruit, sweets and of course, tea. Later, five homes joined a virtual dance party offered by the JCC of Mid-Westchester where 15 residents, families and employees moved to music ranging from reggaeton to oom-pah.

“Everyone had a blast participating,” said Lauren Bassen, the JCC’s assistant executive director of community programs.

According to The Arc Westchester’s Executive Director and CEO Tibi Guzmán, residents at one of its 44 group homes decided to make and donate face masks. So far, they have made more than 100 masks and donated those to Caritas, a food pantry in Port Chester.

“The public may not be aware of it but the people we serve also like to give back,” Guzman said.

Caritas Executive Director Bill Cusano said he was especially appreciative that the donated masks were made for children, who he says often get overlooked.

“I was in awe,” he said.

Guzmán explained that some developmentally disabled individuals lack language ability and use gestures to communicate. She said the DSPs forge long relationships and provide support to individuals with a strong sense of responsibility and in a passionate and loving way.

Some of the residents do not have close family members. Palmer, who has worked with The Arc Westchester since 2001, said the group home residents depend on staff at all times, not just during a pandemic.

“We become like surrogate family to many of them,” she said.

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