MHA’s Charlene Champagne Puts Life on Hold to Care for Residents with COVID-19

SPRINGFIELD — Would you put your life on hold to help someone you care about? What if it was four people? What if it was every minute, night and day — for two weeks?

For the past eight years, four men with developmental disabilities have lived together at a group home in Wilbraham, with care and support from MHA staff, including Program Supervisor Charlene Champagne.

“They are just like a family and Charlene is as much a part of the house as they are,” said Fred Destromp, Integration & Community Living program director for MHA. “She started as a direct-care staff and worked her way up to supervisor. Charlene has been the constant for these men ever since they moved in together. She is very dedicated to them.”

Champagne exemplifies how dedication can be expressed in demanding circumstances. COVID-19 has placed unprecedented demands on society, particularly in the case of congregate-care settings such as group homes.

“Recently, two of the four gentlemen developed COVID symptoms, and all four tested positive,” Destromp explained. “Charlene, who tested negative, volunteered to shelter in place throughout the recommended 14-day isolation period on her own. The guys have some understanding of the virus, and they’re scared of it. Charlene put her own life on hold to help them get through it.”

“Yes, of course I volunteered,” Charlene added. “It’s more than a job. I’ve been with them going back 14 years, and I truly care for their health and well-being. I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing this.”

Essentially, Champagne volunteered to work 42 consecutive eight-hour shifts with no time off. “The first few days were a bit stressful,” she recalled. “I had to check their oxygen levels four times a day. There was cooking and cleaning to do, and sanitation was obviously a big thing. I got up in the night to make sure they were all doing all right. I didn’t get my best sleep over those two weeks. The two guys who were sick slept a lot and rested while they were awake. It turns out they did really well. The two who were asymptomatic understood about precautions and staying in their rooms, so they had Zoom meetings or talked on the phone with their family and friends. Everybody is fully recovered, up and about, and back to their usual routine.”

It’s worth noting that Champagne did all this over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. “The kind of people who choose this work understand it’s about people,” she said. “I don’t think of it as going above and beyond, either. It’s just what it takes. I knew I would have to be away from my own family for those two weeks, so I asked them, ‘what do you think?’ They supported me, no hesitation, no question. And it really was good for my soul. I was able to give to people who needed me, which was much more important than anything I could have done selfishly.”

Champagne shared how rewarded she felt by an expression of gratitude offered by one the men. “It was Christmas Day, and I spent time with each of the guys while they opened presents. One of the guys just randomly said to me, ‘hey, Charlene, you do a really good job taking care of me.’ It was absolutely heartwarming. It’s one thing to think you’re giving good care, and quite another when a person you provide care for tells you, randomly, with so much enthusiasm. Who could want more for a Christmas present?”