SPRINGFIELD — Late last winter, with COVID-19 spreading rapidly, the state closed all community-based day programs. These day programs, such as MHA’s Resource Center, support individuals who are survivors of acquired brain injury or who have other significant medical conditions, including multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, and severe mental illness.
MHA’s Resource Center offers its members a welcoming community of peers and staff who understand what individuals are going through and can help them work toward their current and future goals. The state’s closing was a proactive measure for the safety of program participants and staff, given the in-person and highly social nature of these programs; even before the state mandate, the Resource Center had closed. But Program Coordinator Emily Gracewski was determined to keep serving members.
“Everyone thought the pandemic was going to be short-lived, maybe just a few short months, which today we know is not the case,” Gracewski explained. “Initially, we started to connect with our members by phone on a regular basis, just to continue the connections and relationships we have built. That’s important because our members have a voice in programming so it addresses their individual needs. We were engaging with folks who live in MHA residences, in other residential programs, and at home with their family, so we had to figure out how to reach our members in a variety of settings. There was a lot to think about.”
Gracewski and her team put their minds to work and came up with a four-part engagement plan, including phone calls to connect one-on-one, daily Zoom groups, activity packets delivered to members on weekly basis, and weekly in-person visits (with full COVID-19 protocols) to engage with program members at MHA residences. MHA operates programs in dozens of residential sites, offering a wide range of housing options and person-centered support services to encourage the greatest level of independence in the least restrictive setting.
Even months after the team’s plan took shape, Gracewski is still at work before the official start of the day, creating and assembling dozens of activity packets for Resource Center members in their various locations. Each packet includes multiple items for folks to enjoy each day, all organized and presented so they can dive right in. Examples of activities include mindfulness exercises, this week in history, memory games, trivia, a weekly creative-writing prompt, word searches, and stories of current events. Physical activities are included, too, such as a craft project including materials and instructions.
Kate Cook, 43, is a Resource Center member. “Kate started there about two years ago,” her mother, Linda Cook, recalled. “Socialization is important for her, and it’s so nice to see other people. When COVID came and things had to close, Emily Gracewski started up with Zoom, and now Kate looks forward to it every day. It takes her away for that hour to another world. Someone from the Resource Center drops off an activity packet to our home, which is wonderful. Kate has been going to the Resource Center again since they reopened on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and we hope that can continue. I can’t say enough good things about the people who work there. Kate’s eyes are sparkling and she’s smiling when she gets home. We are so happy she has this great resource of people, activity, and engagement.”
Added Gracewski, “we didn’t let the pandemic get in the way of providing services that people rely on for their overall emotional health and wellness. It would have been easier to be passive and shut down and say we’ll pick this up when things are better, but that wouldn’t have been helpful to anyone, especially to our members. Our team realized we had to make people know that we’re still here, that we still care about them and will keep supporting them during what is the scariest time most of us have lived through. A creative, problem-solving approach has delivered outreach through virtual engagement, and it speaks about the person-centered culture of MHA and the Resource Center. Constant, continual engagement is key to cognitive recovery, and people can regress quickly if that engagement goes away. We’re working to keep people engaged and moving forward.”