JARC gets nimble in the pandemic to keep its vulnerable people safe and connected to communityThe Nonprofit Journal Project

I have always been passionate about helping people who could otherwise be marginalized. As the CEO of JARC, a nonprofit that helps people with developmental disabilities, I am doing exactly that.
 
JARC was started in 1969 by a group of parents who looked at the landscape and said, ‘What's going to happen to my child when I'm not here?’ At that time, as a society, our solution for persons with cognitive impairments and developmental and physical disabilities was to institutionalize them. Our founders were among the first parents to say, ‘There has to be a way for our children to both live and participate in community.’ 

In 1972, through creativity and innovation, we opened our first residential group home. Ensuring that any person with a disability is truly participatory in the community is still our driving force today. We now have 21 different group homes, and we serve people, currently aged 14-93, in nearly 50 locations, corner to corner across Oakland County. This includes adults living in their own homes, and children who are still with their parents. 

I stepped into leadership here four years ago. I'm committed to serving my Jewish community, but I didn’t want to be in a space where I was serving that community exclusively, because as people, we're all interdependent on one another. Our organization serves broadly through our Jewish values, specifically that everybody is created in the image of God, and that God doesn't make mistakes. Every single one of us is exactly the person we were intended to be.

The individuals we serve are at such high risk of being marginalized if we're not advocating for them, if we aren’t working on the front lines for them and making sure their voices are heard. When everything closed due to the pandemic, for our persons served, that meant their family visits suddenly stopped, and their vocational programs closed. Today, only 30% of our population has been able to return to work. 

Our homes were locked down for many months to keep our people safe, our greatest concern. Folks were accustomed to going out into the community regularly, working, and having friends and family visit, and all of that was gone overnight. We became everything and everyone to every person we serve 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For all intents and purposes, that lasted for two years. 

We had to figure out how to keep people engaged. We were dealing with isolation, and could see the potential for depression and aggressive behaviors due to boredom and confusion. A number of people we serve crave and need structure to organize their day. Not overnight, but within two weeks, we got tablets out to all our houses and we organized an entire group of online activities including music, yoga, meditation and art.

We also realized, while delivering PPE, cleaning supplies and groceries to our homes several times a week, that we could purchase and pack items for hands-on activities. We created virtual community engagement courses and ways to socialize on Zoom with other houses. Because baking is a hobby I love, I led a weekly class called, “Baking with Shaindle.” 

We leaned into many wonderful partners to help us, like Friendship Circle, who supplied art classes and teachers. We fostered partnerships with folks like the Jewish Hospice & Chaplaincy Network, who’ve provided spiritual support for our people through their clergy members and virtual worship services, along with music, yoga and even virtual pet visits.

This Passover was the first in two years where we could gather together in small groups. Holidays are so important to us at JARC. Integrating the technology we’ve adopted, we created an even greater sense of community by connecting in-person groups virtually with others. It’s critical that our people are able to stay active, even if it’s different than before. 

We're incredibly proud of how we’ve been able to adapt through the pandemic. We certainly weren’t in the recreation, vocational or technology business, and we've figured out how to make those things work together, beyond all we put in place to keep our people safe. I’m also proud that we haven’t had a COVID-19 case in our homes since January. As things open up, it may be inevitable, but by choice, 100% of those we serve are fully vaccinated, and about 70% of our staff.  I believe staff need to come to vaccinations from a place of education and trust, and we continue to have more buy-in every day.

During this crisis, I think, finally, there was a real recognition of how critical direct care workers are, especially if you look at the residential providers. We were the only people standing between many people and homelessness. With our staff shortages, I, and my entire leadership team, had weeks of filling in six or seven shifts at houses because our people couldn’t be left alone. If we had shut down, if we couldn't staff, people would have nowhere to go.

In the new normal, I believe there’ll be a process in which we all need to recognize the post-traumatic stress frontline workers are carrying. I hope we're ready to acknowledge and honor it, and to make sure people have the support they need, including long term wages, as we begin this recovery. 

I’m also concerned with vocational programs and employment, especially for those we serve. Seventy percent are still home after two years. They're home because there aren’t enough staff available at these programs. There's so much loss for them in skill, potential, and freedom by not having these programs. We need people to help with solutions and out-of-the-box thinking to get our people back to their lives.

COVID-19 has pushed us to consider if our model at JARC is sustainable for the long term. Do we need to be in more spaces, to be a part of the solution for vocational opportunities? Are group homes the model, or should we be having people in more intentional communities? We’re working to stay nimble and flexible, and to best situate ourselves to respond to an outside environment we just can’t control. 
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Shaindle Braunstein is the CEO of JARC, serving Oakland County. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.