Before yoga instructor Mike Preston asked his class to assume a warrior pose, he had to make sure his yogis’ Skype connections were warmed up and ready to go. It’s an adjustment for Preston, a social wellness and expressive arts facilitator at JESPY House, to teach this and other programs virtually, but a necessary one with the organization’s programming having moved online.
While the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting stay-at-home directives in New Jersey have stopped many familiar programs in their tracks, a switch to virtual programming and changes in procedures have allowed JESPY House in South Orange and the Jewish Services for the Developmentally Disabled (JSDD) in West Orange, two essential partner agencies of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey, to keep chugging along. Which is important, because their clients depend on them.
“We are using every social media and communication tool we have available,” said JESPY House executive director Audrey Winkler in a telephone interview with NJJN. “We have Facebook, Facebook Live, WebEx, Skype, messaging apps like Snapchat, you name it. We’re using it all successfully.”
And because of the positive reception from clients, aspects of the virtual programming could become permanent when the pandemic finally ends, according to Winkler. “If these interactions are of help to our clients, I’m for it.”
JESPY, now in its 41st year, serves 260 clients, ages 18-73, who live in a variety of JESPY-supervised housing, including the Michael Och House in South Orange and apartments in the area. As the virus spread, clients were offered the choice to stay in their residences or move into their families’ homes.
“Nobody was told to leave,” said Winkler. Eight of the 38 residents remain in JESPY housing.
In-person day programs for adults with developmental disabilities at JSDD’s Wellness, Arts, Enrichment Center (WAE), based in West Orange, were ordered stopped by the state on March 16. The center usually attracts some 60 members who participate in classes like cooking, creative writing, jewelry making, music, and theater. Members live with their families, or in a JSDD or other disability agency-supervised residence. Forty live in 12 group homes in nine communities in the Greater MetroWest area, and many have Smart TVs in common areas that allow residents to participate together in classes and engage in interactive opportunities.
“We have kept as many administrative staff, instructors, and facilitators as possible to develop remote learning and virtual classroom activities,” JSDD executive director Linda Press wrote to NJJN in an email. “There was a new Facebook page designed for WAE Center Members and JSDD residents, which can be accessed by invitation only, to keep the community connected, and they are connecting and socializing daily.”
To aid their efforts, JSDD, which was founded in 1984, received a $40,000 grant from the Healthcare Foundation of NJ’s Covid-19 emergency fund to develop online content and protect staff working in the field — $35,000 for virtual programming and $5,000 for staff Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
“Resources for learning, the arts, wellness activities, and enrichment opportunities are being forwarded to the families of our members and our residents for use at home on a regular basis,” wrote Press. “A schedule of activities is implemented in each of our homes designed to keep residents as active and engaged as possible.”
At JESPY, Winkler works closely with staff members to reach as many clients as possible. “What has been marvelous is some of our clients are doing better with the social media interactions than they do in certain face-to-face situations,” she told NJJN.
Over social media channels, Nicole Rambone, JESPY’s social wellness and expressive arts supervisor, leads programs such as book discussions, drawing, meditation, and indoor gardening. Clients, she said, are “eager” to “branch out into this online JESPY community.”
“The number keeps getting bigger,” said Rambone in a statement. “Some have never been on Facebook or participated in a live chat or group before. What’s great is that they are learning new skills and communicating in new ways.”
She said that she has observed changes in JESPY participants who are making use of the online offerings. “They are more social because many are overcoming the barrier of face-to-face social utilization,” she said. “They are opening up and speaking more freely.”
JESPY hosts daily meditation via Skype, and live chats are held on topics such as trivia, cooking, relationships, and work experiences. Virtual clinical and behavioral services are offered as well.
Mike Depoy, JESPY’s day project director, is using Facebook Live and other channels to lead his fitness programs, which include cardio, strength training, Zumba, and stretch classes.
“We are going to expand to other apps to try to reach the most clients possible,” Depoy said in a statement. “Those clients unable to use technology are being helped by their families.”
Press credited JSDD families for the valuable role they play in the Covid-19 era. “The families of our residents have been patient and have shared information and resources with us as we have limited access to their loved ones to [make] FaceTime and telephone calls,” she wrote.
“Our residents and members are also working hard to make sense of this new reality and have been understanding and supportive of each other.”
JSDD continues to operate at nearly full employment, according to Press, and WAE Center employees willing and able to work in the agency’s group homes have been re-deployed, and a JSDD Quality Assurance Team has been working “remotely and from the field to assure that the homes have everything they need to operate — personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and paper products, groceries, medication, etc.”
And, of course, new safety “protocols, policies, practices, and procedures for entering the home and limiting access to only JSDD employees and residents have been developed and implemented,” Press wrote.
The residential staff, she said, was doing an “extraordinary job.”
“They are showing up for their shifts every day and are working tirelessly to keep themselves and our residents healthy and safe.”