Pandemic especially hard on those with special needs

Day programs restarting has brought crucial routine, interpersonal interaction

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By Jackie Pisano

Contributing Reporter

Closed doors have become routine during the COVID-19 pandemic -- closed schools, closed offices, closed businesses, closed homes. 

And for most people, adapting to this "new normal" has been challenging but possible -- learning online, working from home, taking on new employment and virtually meeting with family and friends through phone calls and video chats. 

One group of people in particular, however, has not been as fortunate in easily adapting to these trying times: those with special needs.

The pandemic has meant an interruption in lifestyle consistency, routines and in-person interaction, especially for things like physical therapy and group-based activities. Isolation and cancelled programming has thrown curveballs into the daily lives of those who have a variety of physical and developmental special needs. 

Additionally, because many with special needs also have compromised immune systems, adhering to social distancing guidelines and avoiding normal daily activities has become essential to ensuring health and safety. 

One area group which had to become creative in delivering services to those with special needs is Community Support Services (CSS), the Brookfield- and Cicero-based organization that provides support to children, adults and seniors with intellectual and developmental disabilities throughout western Cook County and eastern DuPage County. 

For many of CSS' day program participants, the pandemic has meant they have had to go long periods of time without visiting friends in person, working part-time jobs and volunteering in the community — all activities which they rely on for wellbeing. 

Fortunately, with the development of virtual programming, CSS has been able to provide various classes and group activities via Zoom for both residents of CSS' eight community group homes and those who live independently with intermittent care. Classes taught included art, fitness and culture, with sometimes, three different CSS sites being connected in one Zoom call. 

"This provided great relief and enjoyment to them," said Cassandra Colucy, director of clinical services for CSS. "The families and participants who engage in the virtual activities are very appreciative. They say they are happy to have something to do while in the safety and comfort of their own home. Plus, a majority of participants have registered for multiple classes and multiple sessions of the same class because they want to continue to participate."

However, Colucy says that like children and adults who have had to adjust to virtual learning and working, some participants have faced a learning curve, whether navigating Zoom or gaining access to a computer or the internet.

But in recent weeks, thanks to state-wide mandates targeted for special education populations, CSS has been allowed to resume much of its in-person work and learning. 

On Aug. 1, Illinois allowed a soft-opening for in-person day services, though most service agencies, including CSS, did not open until September because of the amount of paperwork that needed to be submitted to the State prior to opening all sites. 

Funded through the Illinois Department of Human Services contracts, CSS has been able to resume a lot of in-person interactions, albeit with COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions in place. 

To comply with state guidelines, wearing masks is mandatory, along with frequent hand washing and routine temperature checks for employees, group home residents and day program participants. 

After sheltering-in-place for several months, residents and employees of CSS' group homes have slowly restarted regular schedules and programming. 

"Especially during the pandemic, we felt it was especially important for this group to resume productive and interactive activities in a new environment," said Diane Farina White, president and CEO of CSS. 

With group home residents now resuming in-person programming full time, Monday through Friday day programming has also picked up. Both sites in Brookfield and Cicero are at full capacity with 30 participants. 

"With a smaller size, we are able to have a higher staff-to-participant ratio and offer more individualized programming," Farina White said.

And, the recent Tier 3 mitigations imposed by the governor won't force the day programs to go on hiatus at this time.

"Because we are deemed an essential service according to Illinois Department of Human Services, we can continue to operate our two day services programs under the current recommendation," said Michelle Jimenez, vice president of marketing and development for CSS. "If it goes into a more stringent phase, then we will have to reevaluate."

Overall, Farina White says that because the residential and day programs supported by CSS help provide the stimulating environments of social activities and opportunities for continuous learning for some of the area's most vulnerable populations, a continued dedication to doing so, whether virtual or in-person, remains the paramount obligation for the organization. 

"The camaraderie that develops [from CSS programming] can be the most important part," she said. "Knowing you have a safe place to go where you will see a friend and do something new and interesting is important to us all."

For more information about CSS, call 708-354-4547 or email info@CSSservices.org.

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