By Zandy Dudiak, Communications coordinator
Candice Johnson, supervisor for Baum Boulevard Adult Training Facility (ATF), Bridges to Employment, and Community Employment programs, is among the Pittsburgh Mercy Intellectual Disabilities (ID) Services colleagues who is adjusting yet again to another “new normal.”
Pittsburgh Mercy’s ID day programs resumed on June 7. In addition to the programs that Candice supervises, day programs starting back up include the ATFs at Beechview, Brookline, and Wexford.
“Since we’ve been closed, this service that Pittsburgh Mercy provides with the day program has been missed,” Candice says. “It is a needed service.”
Participants are eager to return to the structure and friendships provided by the day programs, which initially closed in Spring 2020, then came back for a while in the fall before closing again in November 2020 amid a surge of COVID-19 cases.
“They are excited to be back,” says Michelle Harper, Wexford Day Program supervisor.
Not all the individuals who previously participated are returning now. Masks are required of all colleagues and persons served, whether vaccinated or not. Only about 4% of the persons served aren’t vaccinated, but that’s not why some aren’t coming back.
“Most of the day program individuals are not able to wear a mask,” Candice notes. “Some just come on the days they want to come,” Candice says. “Some come five days a week.”
Baum Boulevard’s day program is averaging just 10 to 13 individuals. Beechview Adult Training Facility (ATF) has 6 to 7 participants rather than 21. Brookline’s day program has 11 or 12 compared to 44 pre-pandemic. Wexford ATF has gone from 45 participants down to 9 to 11.
Only two colleagues have returned to service at the Wexford Day Program, Michelle says. The others are still working in the residential programs, where they moved when the day programs closed down.
Sadly, parents and others report that during the pandemic shutdowns, the participants experienced muscle loss, decline in their sleep patterns with longer periods of sleep and difficulty waking up, and lack of physical activity. They’ve been bored because they can’t get out, Candice adds.
“Individuals have been declining mentally, physically, and, I’d say, spiritually,” Candice says. “Sometimes, you don’t know what you miss until you don’t have it.”
Pre-COVID, the persons served would have a lunch break during a full-day program. Now they can only have drinks—no food—to cut down on the amount of choking and coughing in the modified half-day program. As the programs resume, exercise and art activities all are designed for physical distancing.
“All the individuals have bins that are personalized,” Candice says, noting that colleagues clean the paintbrushes after each use. “The biggest change is they aren’t doing the Community Participation Support.”
Before the pandemic, day program participants spent 25% of their time out in the community. This week, some participants of the Baum day program ventured a block away to the community garden that they have tended with firefighters for the last several years, except in 2020. They also planned to walk to a store to get a drink, Candice says.
Bridges to Employment is a specialized employment program located at the Baum Boulevard facility that teaches adults with intellectual disabilities job readiness skills in a supervised setting. Despite the fact that all 10 participants are able to wear a mask and most are vaccinated, the program has been modified since pre-COVID months.
“Because Bridges is employment training, they haven’t been able to go out and work and train for employment,” Candice says. “We were on such a roll having things to do.”
Prior to COVID, individuals would practice job-related activities in the community, such as folding towels and linens at Fisher House, a free hotel where families of veterans stay as their loved one is being treated at the Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital. Trips to Carnegie Library and volunteering at the Library of Accessible Media for Pennsylvanians (LAMP) on Baum Boulevard have been curtailed. For the time being, the Bridges participants are practicing skills in the center, such as sweeping, removing expired groceries from the shelves, filing, and computer accuracy, Candice says.