When a surge in COVID-19 in March 2020 shut the doors of Independence360’s Whippany campus, its directors could not have imagined how long it would take to return. But, thanks to their quick thinking and innovative planning, the clients who attend the day program for adults on the autism spectrum weren’t left behind.
Instructed by New Jersey’s Department of Developmental Disabilities to close immediately for an initial period of two weeks, most programs in the state opted to shut down entirely for that time. However, I360 Director Kim Rushmore and Assistant Director Jason Wetzel knew that for its clients and their parents, even two weeks was a lot of time to be left unaided – especially in a crisis.
“We didn’t think it was good to lose contact with our clients and families while this was happening,” says Kim. “And we both decided that really wasn’t in the spirit of how we do things.”
Following the phone call from the DDD, Kim and Jason put their heads together to devise a plan that would continue to serve their clients. They knew these adults needed routines and consistency, and even more so as families grappled with the confusion and fear caused by the pandemic.
“We talk all the time about our I360 community and what it means to be part of this community. Now it was time to put our words into action and show how a community can come together.”
In the following days, Kim and Jason, Supervisor Lumane Metullus and the team developed a virtual programming plan to keep their adults involved, learning and connecting with each other.
Clients were broken into small groups and staff members were assigned to each one. With input from parents, schedules were devised that included fitness, personal development, social skills, life skills, clubs and the all-important socialization with friends and staff.
“The social hour was key. It was a great time to talk, to have fun and to check in with each other,” says Lumane. “A lot of our adults don’t have phones, so this was a perfect way to stay in contact with each other.”
The new technology was an adjustment, as adults, parents and staff all needed to get up to speed quickly.
“The team effort was HUGE,” says Kim. “Staff and families figured out the zoom platform to use, and websites to access, and were sharing resources they found. I love our staff and I think our staff have always done a really good job with our adults, but I would tell you now – our staff is phenomenal. We had professionals show us skills and talents we had no idea they had.”
I360 Director Kim Rushmore stars in her own “What’s the 411” video in early March 2020.
The switch was not without its challenges, they found. “At first it was difficult to come up every day with different things to keep everyone excited, engaged,” says Samantha Nelson, Compliance Coordinator. “It was mentally draining. But, once we got into it, it was fun. You found your groove.”
Several weeks into what was now an open-ended lockdown, Independence360’s programming began attracting attention from other organizations seeking solutions.
Lumane says, “Everything that we are doing is our own creation. Which I think makes it more genuine and unique.”
One unexpected benefit of virtual programming was parents being able to see firsthand what their adults had been doing while at Independence360.
“Parents were observing what life skills we were talking about in group and then helping their adults apply them at home. Taking a recipe we were discussing and then cooking it with them. If we discussed cleaning for COVID-19, they could then walk them through it and incorporate the steps at home. It was carrying out what we were discussing in group into real life,” Sam explains.
Group leader Karen Chrobock adds, “It’s worked beyond my expectations. Because I have the BEST PARENTS IN THE WORLD. This would not have worked without them. They are side-by-side with us.” Kim Rushmore seconded this. “Many of our parents have been participating in weekly and then bi-weekly parents support groups. They give each other support and advice. “We laugh, we cry, we scream, we support each other through the ups and downs of this journey, and we do it together,” says Rushmore, the Coordinator of the I360 Parent Support Support Group.
As time went on and the pandemic endured, clients acclimated to the virtual environment and began looking forward to their scheduled times. Independence 360 staff members tried to keep consistency – celebrating birthdays, participating in the annual Walk for a Lifetime virtually and even talking walks together (via virtual devices).
“They loved ‘being together’ and being social. That’s what they missed most. They missed being there, they missed being with their friends, they wanted to come back.”
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In Fall 2020, Independence360 received the welcome news that they could reopen to restricted numbers according to guidelines provided by the DDD. Kim, Jason and the staff were thrilled to begin to get back to in-person services.
As Spectrum360 had been gearing up at that time to reopen the Academy360 program, Independence360 was ahead of the curve in preparing for their own reopening. While guidance for adult programs differed from schools, the major requirements such temperature machines, cleaning and disinfection procedures, and social-distancing allowances had already been reviewed by their parent organization.
In October, Independence360 opened their doors to 25% of their clients. The joy and excitement from clients and staff was palpable – but short lived.. I360 was carefully moving back into their in-person programs, while continuing to support many clients virtually, Even though I360 did not have cases of COVID-19, when the second wave of COVID-19 hit NJ, the building had to shut its doors.
Staff quickly readjusted and virtual programming restarted. But the stress and pressure of year long pandemic struggles and shut downs were beginning to impact clients and families. While most had adapted well to the virtual environment, for some, virtual programming was too challenging, and behaviors and skills were starting to regress. Some parents were struggling to balance it all; family life, jobs, virtual programming for their adults and the general stress of the pandemic..
For everyone, concerns were growing as schools were given guidance and reassurance to a road “back to normal,” while adult programs seemed forgotten.
“It felt like the rights of our adults and their guardians were being jeopardized, and the frustration level was high with the State of NJ,” Kim says. “Around us things were gradually re-opening, but adult programs were left out.” I360 led the way, with other adult program leaders and families advocating to make this right and open day programming.
“The hardest part for our adults is that they all lost touch with the people they saw every day. With routine. And a lot of our clients struggled with that, and about why it was happening,” says Lumane. “With individual counseling, we were able to talk many of them through it, to develop coping skills and how to handle anxiety.”
Throughout the uncertain and stressful year, the organization, adults and families managed to keep their community together, active and motivated as best as possible.
Karen sums it up: “It’s about the community as a whole. Everyone is doing their thing day-in and day-out, and Independence360 is the perfect name for it. There is a deep love for these clients and these families. You can’t put a price tag on that.”
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With New Jersey vaccinations increasing and new case numbers easing up, there is at last good news.
Since closing last fall, Spectrum360 along with several other programs in the state have been strongly advocating for DDD to allow reopening of adult day habilitation programs. In April, the state announced that these programs could soon resume in-person services.
On May 3, Independence360 reopened the doors at restricted capacity to its clients. They continue to offer virtual services to those not able to attend yet, and for those unsure about returning to in person services yet. “It’s important to offer choice, and to be responsive to the community we serve.”
Kim Rushmore hopes this is the beginning of a return to “normal” for the program. “Best day of the year! Watching those beautiful, happy, excited faces enter our building on Monday. Together again!”