Schenectady ARC shifts quickly to serve residents, community

Nonprofit supports people with intellectual, developmental disabilities 
Kirk Lewis, executive director of Schenectady ARC.
Kirk Lewis, executive director of Schenectady ARC.

SCHENECTADY — On Friday, March 13, the world turned upside down at Schenectady ARC.

Schools across the region began announcing extended closures that day in an effort to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. ARC leadership knew they also had to take action to ensure client and staff safety while finding a way to continue supporting the 1,000 individuals they serve.

Schenectady ARC, a chapter of The ARC New York, Inc., supports individuals with intellectual and other developmental disabilities and their families. The nonprofit organization offers employment assistance; residential, day and medical services; recreation programs; and respite services.


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The Gazette spoke to executive director Kirk Lewis about the challenges ARC is facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic and how those obstacles are being overcome.

Q: Why are COVID-19-induced lifestyle changes particularly difficult for the people you serve?

A: A lot of our people really depend on having a good routine and a set routine, and this has disrupted everything. Not to be able to do your regular activities or to see your family is really challenging.

The Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, our regulator, has issued a flat restriction of no visitors in our residences. They also said [residents] can’t leave the residences. If you do leave the residence, then the residence shouldn’t bring you back into the house until this emergency is over. So that is tough for people who are used to having family come by and visit. My brother lives in one of our houses. We can’t do visits now and that’s tough for him to understand.

Rising to the Challenge: Faces of the COVID-19 crisis in the Capital Region

Q: What challenges has your organization faced due to COVID-19? 

A: Now we have people in our residential housing 24/7, whereas before we almost always had people going out and doing different things during the day, so we needed increased staffing in our houses.

We have two good-size day programs that serve people who live with their families or with other providers in the community. Those had to shut down.

We have speech therapists, physical therapists and occupational therapists who work with a lot of our people face to face. That had to change.

Q: How did your operation adapt to meet those challenges?

A: We ended up redoing our whole master schedule. Everything changed in about the space of five days and we’re still adjusting. We focused on making sure people were well-supported in our residences, and also looked at how we could support people in the community who come to our day programs and live at home. We redeployed staff whose daily work was affected by the day program closure to support our houses.

Our transportation staff [has] been doing grocery shopping for our houses. Normally the houses’ [residents] would go to the markets once or twice a week, and it would be something to do, but the markets are frowning on people shopping in groups. By keeping people in their houses, and having transportation do their shopping for them, we minimize the potential to bring the infection back to the houses.

In the space of a week and a half, we switched to offering speech, physical and occupational therapy either by Zoom, video or FaceTime. We made an incredible transition to using technology to deliver these services to try to help people to not lose ground, to keep up their skills and abilities during this period when we can’t do face-to-face visits.

We have a health care clinic here, which has gone telephonic. We’re providing psychiatric consultations and primary medical consultations by telephone. We’re still open if people absolutely need to come in, but we’re trying to limit the amount of face-to-face contact.

At least once a week, our day program staff have been calling families of people who attend our day programs just to check in and to see if things are going OK. Do they have everything they need? Are there things we can do? There are people who may be living at home who have real challenges and maybe we can help by connecting them with the person who used to work with them every day.

Q: Were you able to keep your entire staff employed?

A: Yes. We have close to 600 full-time employees. We’ve had fewer than 10 who we’ve kind of mutually agreed to furlough until we’re back at regular operations, but we’ve kept everyone and we’ve worked hard to do that, to try to have an opportunity for everyone we employ.

Q: What are some ways your staff has stepped up during this crisis? 

A: I can’t tell you just how great our staff [is] and the creativity that they’ve shown. Someone [from our horticulture center] delivered flowers to the houses to cheer the residents up and also sent gardening kits so people can do their own planting.

Staff members have used their own phones to help people to FaceTime with family members.

The people who work in our houses — our direct support professionals — have been amazing. They’re leaving their own homes and they’re providing essential support and services. They’re really committed and dedicated, and they’ve done an incredible job.

I’m really lucky that I get to work with such great people. I’m in awe of the work they do. We have very committed and very caring employees, and it really shows at a time like this.

Q: How are staff helping clients avoid cabin fever while staying at home?

A: We’ve got painting going on, some craft things, games. We’re using technology as much as we can. Wii bowling is a big one. We’re working on a Friday afternoon dance party, which we’re going to try to do electronically and have people connect across different programs.

Q: How are ARC staff and clients helping others during the pandemic?

A: We are working with the Schenectady Foundation’s coalition that’s been delivering meals to people in need throughout the county.

It’s a way for us to use our resources to help the whole community. We have a small grant from the foundation that covers our costs for gas and time.

Our Pine Ridge Industries is a work center where we provide a labor resource and we do contract labor. People who get supports and services from us work there.

One of our big customers is VistaLab, a company that manufactures and sells plastic pipettes used for lab testing, so their business, as you can imagine, has skyrocketed. Their test kits are being used at Regeneron and a variety of other labs around the country. As their demand has increased, we’ve tried to ramp up production.

We have a lot of people who are really proud that they’re doing something that’s part of the fight against the coronavirus.

Rising to the Challenge: Faces of the COVID-19 crisis in the Capital Region

Q: How can the public support ARC right now?

A: I think just by recognizing and celebrating that what our direct support professionals are doing is essential work and they’re right in there like other health care providers.

They’re on the front lines of this and they’re doing an incredible job.

Categories: Rising to the Challenge, Schenectady County, Special Sections

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