In March, as cases of COVID-19 started to climb in Manitoba, the province issued a public health order to close non-critical businesses. The Salvation Army’s Community Venture (CV) in Winnipeg, which supports adults living with intellectual disabilities through residential homes, outreach and day programs, remained open as an essential service, even as it adapted to the new provincial restrictions.
“From March to August, about 95 percent of our members stayed home,” says Kim Park, executive director. “We knew their physical and medical needs would be looked after, but our concern was their mental health. We knew it would be hard for some of them to understand why they were suddenly not allowed to leave their home and, in some situations, to see family or friends.”
Community Venture offers day programs at six locations, for 154 members. For many, it provides structure, a sense of purpose and community.
“Our question was, how can we help people feel connected—not only with us as staff, but with their friends?” says Park. “That connection to community is really important, so we started experimenting with different ways to keep in touch and move our activities online.”
I felt sad because I didn’t see my friends for a long time,” says Dennis, who attends the CV South day program. “It made me feel a lot better to talk to them on the computer.”
“We are Their Community”
Before the pandemic, people started to arrive at their day program around 8 a.m. The day followed a predictable pattern: a morning activity with a break, lunch and an afternoon activity. Members signed up for activities in three general areas based on their interests: an educational track to learn life skills, volunteer placements to gain work experience and recreation.
“Our members are used to getting up at a certain time, catching their bus and coming to a scheduled program,” says Cheryl Marrone, co-ordinator of day services—CV Booth.
“Some have been in this routine for more than 20 years,” adds Crystal Ryland, co-ordinator of day services—CV South. “This is what they do, where they come every day. Some have family and other social connections, but for many, we are their community.”
“And that was all thrown out the window,” continues Marrone. “For a lot of the people we support, it was very hard to just stop coming to the program.”
“We didn’t want them to feel isolated,” says Ryland. “So much of what we do is based on relationships, and we wanted to maintain that connection. We decided to take our regular schedule and try to do it through a computer screen.”
Each location did things a little differently. At first, Ryland’s team tried to bring people together through FaceTime, but soon realized it didn’t work well for a large group. Zoom was better, but the times didn’t fit everyone’s schedule.
“We settled on using Zoom, so it could be live and interactive, and then posting a recording on YouTube, so members could watch it later if they missed it,” says Ryland.
Every day, the staff led three fun and creative activities. With a monitor facing the staff person so they could see everyone, members were able to talk and ask questions as if they were sitting at the same table.
On average, about 12-15 people joined each Zoom call, participating in everything from arts and crafts to mad science experiments to karaoke. They listened to stories read in front of a crackling fire (on a screen), learned new recipes in the food studio and played giant board games.
Dennis, who continued to attend the program throughout the restrictions, helped adapt Snakes and Ladders for a COVID-19 context (wash your hands—move up; bite your nails—move down). He also led morning stretches and shared jokes (Why shouldn’t you write with a broken pencil? Because it’s pointless).
Several times a week, there was also a chat group at the end of the day, so members could catch up with each other. “It made me happy to see my friends,” Dennis says. “If there hadn’t been Zoom calls, I’d be really upset.”
Fun “To Go”
At the CV Booth location, they focused on creating content for YouTube.
“A lot of the staff here are musical, so they started a band and put on shows,” says Marrone. “Our members love singing, so we’d send home lyrics so they could sing along at home.”
Every week, they dropped off a package with instructions and all the supplies needed to make a craft or recipe—with enough for roommates, as well—to each member’s home, also giving them a chance to check in on everyone. Then they shared a how-to video for the activity and encouraged members to send in pictures of what they made.
One week, Marrone included photos of the staff, attached to paper cutouts of superheroes, glued to popsicle sticks. “We said, ‘Take a picture of the staff person doing something with you!’ ” she says. “The members sent us photos of drinking coffee and eating breakfast with them. It was a fun way to keep in touch.”
They also let members know they were thinking about them on birthdays. “We made sure we still celebrated everyone,” she says. “We decorated our vehicles and did drive bys. They loved that.”
Some locations also facilitated physically distanced backyard gatherings for members.
Care and Comfort
Another significant part of helping members through this time was spiritual care. Major Shelly Rands, chaplain at Community Venture, experimented with different ways of offering chapel— sometimes as a Zoom call, sometimes by posting a video on YouTube. For their community choir, she sent out a list of songs with links to videos for members to practise on their own.
During the months of restrictions, Community Venture was saddened by the loss of a few members.
“When they heard news that one of their friends had passed away, it was hard for our members not to be able to see anyone,” says Park. “It was so important that Major Shelly was able to connect. She called and sent messages and cards.”
The response from families and care providers was positive and enthusiastic.
“We received so many phone calls and emails thanking us,” says Marrone. “Parents would say, ‘We were running out of ideas of what to do—the “to go” package was so helpful.’ ”
“And they told us that the members looked forward to the activities—there were certain things they would watch for and anxiously anticipate,” says Ryland. “They loved seeing the staff, interacting with their peers and participating in familiar activities.”
“As a ministry unit within The Salvation Army, we’re here to serve the most vulnerable,” says Park. “We provide opportunities and support so that everyone can reach their full potential and achieve the personal goals they have set for their own life.
“During the pandemic, we knew developing ways to stay connected would allow that growth to continue, even in these difficult times. But more importantly, we knew maintaining relationships with our members would have an impact on their mental health, when natural interactions outside their homes were limited. So whatever we could get them to engage in, we tried it!”