ArcGNO’s Executive Director Gives an Update on the Agency’s Status during COIVD-19:
In the 67 years Arc of Greater New Orleans (ArcGNO) has been in existence, it has experienced a lot. ArcGNO emerged in the 1950s when parents of children with Down syndrome or another intellectual disability or delay (IDD), realized they had to come together to create better lives for their children. Today, ArcGNO continues to lead the way in opening up new horizons for individuals with IDD, who are still not as fully incorporated into the community as they deserve to be. To this end, ArcGNO operates five community centers in four different parishes to provide community integration and skills development opportunities for hundreds of ArcGNO participants. In addition, we manage three social enterprises, which are non-profit businesses that employ dozens of people with IDD, all paid a salary above minimum wage. The agency has survived wars, economic crises, and catastrophic hurricanes. One thing we never imagined was a pandemic, but here we are today working through COVID-19, and we are starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel with the hope that some sense of normalcy will return by the end of the year.
For all the families we serve, and to those who generously support us, I know these past few months have been a bit chaotic, so I want to give you an update on where we are in our recovery. While this pandemic has been difficult, it’s also provided us with opportunities that we may never have imagined had we not been challenged.
One of the most exciting advancements is our new Virtual Community Center (VCC). Keeping all our participants and employees safe meant closing all our centers in mid-March. Realizing the need to pivot, Jessika England, who serves as the Director of Community Integration for ArcGNO, and her team, devised a plan to take what we usually do in person at our centers, and with the help of technology, went virtual with day programs. Thanks to community partners and ArcGNO staff, participants can log in daily via Zoom and take part in several interactive sessions such as cardio and yoga exercise classes, music and sing-along programs, work readiness, and cooking classes. Even after we fully reopen, our VCC will continue operating, offering more access to activities, especially if someone is not able to get to a center in person.
There’s good news for those we employ through our social enterprises: they are again operational, though somewhat limited due to strict social distancing regulations. Our Grounds and Janitorial Crews are once again working throughout the metro area. Our Mardi Gras Recycle Center, a year-round initiative where Carnival throws are collected, sorted, repackaged, and sold, has actually expanded. To comply with health regulations, we are now utilizing multiple spaces in Chalmette and Metairie, and have even begun to welcome back volunteer groups, who,are critical to our success. At this time, we anticipate our retail store to reopen for this upcoming Mardi Gras season, which means customers can come and shop in-person from November through Mardi Gras. We will adhere to social distancing guidelines, and we are prepared to take extra precautions with sanitation stations and added cleaning. Our online store is also available at arcgnobeads.org as customers can purchase items and then schedule a pick-up.
When it comes to supporting the families of infants with IDD, I am proud to say we found a way to continue all services, even at the height of the pandemic. Our Family Support Coordination (FSC) team, who serves as case managers for our youngest participants, arranged for remote visits and teletherapy sessions with speech, physical and occupational therapy, as well as other treatments. Because we have now invested in more computer-based communication, the 185 children enrolled in our FSC program never stopped receiving the support they need. Like our VCC, we anticipate that remote visits will continue even when in-person restrictions are lifted, as this will give parents more access to help.
Throughout the pandemic, clients receiving support through ArcGNO Residential Support Services (RSS), have been kept safe from COVID-19 either in independent living situations or with family members. They have received ongoing daily support from our Direct Service Professionals (DSP), who serve as personal care attendants. We continue to take extreme precautions providing personal protective equipment to residents and caregivers in our
RSS program and closely monitor everyone to ensure they are safe and healthy. We look forward to the day everyone can get back to their routines, which includes coming to our centers and/or participating in community activities.
And finally, as executive director of ArcGNO, I have, over the past few months, reorganized the agency’s senior leadership as a means of making us more resilient for the future. We have a new CFO, a new HR manager, and we now have a team focused on development, something we have never had. We have also invested in professional development for many of our staff, which will only enhance the quality of services we can provide to those whom we support.
So, as I noted earlier, these past few months have certainly been challenging. Still, I think we are a more robust agency now than before COVID, as we’ve taken the time to reorganize and, in some instances, expand our comfort zone. And that will allow us to be more flexible and adaptable in the future no matter what may be thrown our way.
Since 2017, Stephen Sauer has served ArcGNO as its executive director. A native of Metairie, he has spent many years in higher education and non-profit administration. He earned a BS in Psychology from Georgetown University, an MA in Counseling Psychology from the University of Minnesota, graduate degrees from The Gregorian University in Rome and Institut Catholique in Paris, and a doctorate from The Catholic University of America.