St. Louis’ Agencies for Blind & Disabled Share Dogged Optimism despite Covid-19
If there is a common hope among St. Louis’ blind and disability communities six months after COVID-19 changed everybody’s life, it may be that a silver lining is ahead.
More than 300 not-for-profit organizations – small, medium and large – provide metro St. Louis with crucial human services, education and therapeutic support programs.
When COVID-19 hit like a runaway train, some of those agencies closed for weeks or months before re-opening to serve people who are blind, disabled, suffering from debilitating disease, senior citizens or people with developmental issues.
Lighthouse for the Blind-Saint Louis (LHB) contacted officials at local not-for-profit charitable agencies to ask how they dealt with COVID-19 when it erupted in March and what they believe the future will bring.
St. Louis HELP Health Equipment Lending Program
The St. Louis Health Equipment Lending Program (St. Louis HELP) offers free loans of revitalized home health equipment to anyone suffering from accident, illness or disability, including senior citizens and caregivers. All may keep the equipment freely for as long as necessary. (www.stlhelp.org).
Founded 2008, the group revitalizes all types of home health equipment except oxygen devices. Before Covid-19 arrived, St. Louis HELP collected about 14,000 home health items in equipment drives and donations that people brought to its warehouses. All donated equipment was reconditioned, then loaned when people requested items. In this way, St. Louis HELP recycled about 140 tons of equipment every year. The group won a “Points of Light” award for positive change from the President George H.W. Bush program.
St. Louis HELP Founder & Executive Director Laura Singer says, “’Recycle, Revitalize, Redistribute’ is our motto but when COVID-19 hit everything became, ‘What arm on the octopus do we grab first!’ She shut down the organization from March through May. Singer says, “We asked ourselves ‘What must we do to protect our people, deal with our volunteers, and reinvent ourselves to serve people who need us?”
Tough decisions were made to furlough employees, cancel the Spring Equipment Donation Drive and twice-a-year newsletter, and to dismiss dozens of volunteers who’d served St. Louis HELP for years. “We were like a family that Covid-19 ripped apart. Failure was not an option, so we put our energies into rebuilding,” Singer asserts.
“We fortunately gained an SBA Payroll Protection loan and, with significant support from donors, we were able to reopen our facilities in Crystal City and in the Maplewood area near St. Louis’ City limits. We are now looking to open a new facility in either St. Ann, Overland or St. John in St. Louis County, and we are accepting donations of used equipment and loaning out refurbished equipment by appointment only.
“Right now, we are hoping to conduct our Fall Equipment Donation Drive in October to help fill our facilities with a lot of inventory to revitalize and loan. Since last March we have struggled and endured lots of uncertainty, but we kept our heads up and our nose to the grindstone. With deep thanks to our supporters, we became more efficient and I think we’re going to pull through. That’s our saving grace.”
St. Louis Society for the Blind & Visually Impaired
St. Louis Society for the Blind & Visually Impaired originated in 1911. Its programs and services range from low vision medical exams and low vision therapy to assistive technology, daily living training, orientation and mobility, counseling for adults and educational services for children. (www.slsbvi.org)
Laura Park-Leach, whose career background is managing people and organizations dealing with blindness and low vision, was hired to succeed the retiring David Ekin as Society President on July 31, 2019. Eight months later after she and her husband moved from to St. Louis from Charlotte, North Carolina, COVID-19 erupted.
She says, “We have a very supportive Board of Directors and we began meeting once a week. We were trying resolve a lot of concerns and questions – Do we need thermometers for this, do we need gloves for that? How can we best provide services?’ We closed our doors for about six weeks to sort out needs and priorities.
“We wrote to donors and supporters asking for their support. Their outpouring of help was very important to us at that time. In addition to financial support, we had a major donation of PPE from our volunteers, and a local craft brewer making antiseptic alcohol donated a lot of disinfectant that was very helpful for staying sanitary. It was a morale booster.
“This year is a huge transition but not as disconcerting as next year. We are taking a very hard look at planning for 2021, and the year beyond. Our traditional autumn fundraising dinner is ‘Guess the Grape,’ a very popular event that unfortunately we won’t host it this year though we will conduct a solicitation.
“Our staff, clients and patients feel safe thanks to precautionary measures we have taken. We allow only one person to accompany a client or patient visiting for appointments. We are not conducting group meetings right now but we are conducting support groups by tele-consults and that is working very well.
“We introduced a new program called ‘Talk Tuesdays.’ It has a different topic every week with seven people attending by telephone for an interactive group experience. It’s proving very popular. We’ve also started Zoom calls.
“Public education has always been important to us and we are pleased to be able to sustain it or even expand it with new technology. That’s where the silver lining is. We are trying new things that we haven’t tried before. Maybe COVID-19 pushed us that way.”
Founded in 1970, Paraquad is one of the nation’s oldest Centers for Independent Living. Programs and services in eight different categories address almost every type of disability. Paraquad believes people with disabilities should integrate fully into society. It operates a Health and Wellness Center staffed by Adapted Exercise Specialists to help people with disabilities and older adults achieve cardiovascular, strength and mobility goals by utilizing fully accessible exercise equipment. Paraquad also operates The Bloom Café. (www.paraquad.org/).
Paraquad President Aimee Wehmeier admits, “Our biggest change since Covid-19 hit is how we do business. We now rely on technology and teleconferencing to transmit many of our services to offsite locations. Some people don’t have the technology to enable our service consultations. If they have problems using Zoom, we use the telephone. We also educate people about how to use new technologies. We provide fitness and exercise classes on YouTube. We purchased a new software that helps people who are disabled learn though computers. We continue to apply for grants that would enable us to acquire more data connection technology and lend it to people who are disabled,” Wehmeier says.
“We pivoted our services as community needs shifted. We did receive funding from the St. Louis Community Foundation to become part of a Regional Response Team specifically working with people with disabilities that was later extended to include older adults. We handled more than 350 deliveries of groceries, food, toilet paper and toiletries, and delivered masks, gloves, sanitizer and other PPE.
“Covid-19’s impact has been big on people with disabilities who live in nursing homes and skilled nursing centers. The situation may result in more lobbying and putting more pressure on powers that be to direct more support for disabled communities.
“Paraquad assists about 2,200 people a year. That does not include our responses to thousands of incoming calls. We’re building up our brand. Our bottom line is to reach out and serve more people. Paraquad hasn’t made layoffs or furloughs in the pandemic, but the locked down society we live in is more than a little scary. To protect people, our plans to host celebratory events and fundraisers came to a screeching halt for the time being.
“We believe the ‘new normal’ is prompting more businesses to recognize new definitions of talent among people who are disabled and can work at home. New technologies have opened doors to new opportunities for people with disabilities, not only for therapeutic services but with employment.
“We’re seeing more partnering for major grants. Donors and funders are looking for creative ways to work together to resolve major problems. There’s definitely a silver lining out there.”
St. Louis Arc
St. Louis Arc enables people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families lead better lives with diversified programs, family support and advocacy for a lifetime with residential and other services. The organization’s core beliefs are Respect, Collaboration, and Empowerment. Individualized services that help make a difference for adults, children and for families are designed to maximize choice and support for people as they build high quality lives. (www.slarc.org).
St. Louis Arc Director of Communications Kathleen A. Schue, MBA, admits, “It was difficult for us at first when the pandemic began, but it’s been going very well since we started making adjustments to protect our staff and protect our residents. We have about 137 people in our residential support program yet only one incident of Covid-19 infection and it was contained.
“One of the major advancements in our experience over the last six months has been our ability to adapt as an organization and implement more technical innovation. For example, we established a virtual program link with the Center of Science & Industry in Columbus, Ohio.
“Since then it’s been interesting and fun for our residents to experience many virtual programs via links to different cultural institutions across the United States. In addition, our new ‘Technology Café’ allows residents to expand their interests, connect with family via video chat, learn new skills, and maintain cognitive fitness.
“Last year we received a Spectrum Digital Education Grant to fund the purchase of adaptive computers and equipment for the Tech Café at our facility in Creve Coeur. The Tech Café really supports our mission to empower people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families to lead better lives.
“I think that Covid-19 really helped our relations with community partners because of our ability to adapt to challenges while preserving safety for our staff, our residents and their families. We hope and believe those community partnerships will continue.
“People talk about ‘The New Normal.’ Well, that’s where we are right now, Schue says. “St. Louis Arc will continue to build and adapt as we keep working to keep our staff and residents safe and involved with new advancements.”
Lighthouse for the Blind
Lighthouse for the Blind-Saint Louis, also known as LHB Industries, differs from most non-profit organizations in that it is a fully functioning manufacturing facility.
Ninety-Five percent of the Lighthouse’s direct labor force is legally blind. Employees manufacture, pack and kit products that span over six different government and commercial brands ranging from liquid disinfectants to emergency preparedness supplies. Proceeds from the sale of these products fund 18 community outreach “See the Future” programs that provide support services to children and adults who are legally blind. (www.lhbindustries.com).
John Thompson, Lighthouse President, says, “COVID-19 prompted us to significantly modify our operations at all levels. Our top priority became Initiating safety precautions to help protect our employees from the COVID-19 virus and prevent it from spreading.
“For approximately eight weeks, office employees, LHB officers, and managers transitioned to work at home and participated in teleconferences to manage operations and conduct business.”
LHB offered all in-plant employees who are visually impaired the choice to work during the crisis or take temporary time off. Fewer than ten percent chose to take time off.
“Our production employees understand the mission-critical nature of the products we manufacture for our government and commercial customers. Their jobs are important, and our employees wish to continue reporting to work despite the pandemic,” says John.
At LHB’s headquarters in Overland, and its laboratory in Berkeley, all workstations are re-situated to be at least six feet apart. All employees are provided with PPE.
“COVID-19 created challenges for our manufacturing and shipping operations, such as increased lead times for receiving raw materials and delayed customer shipments,” says Manager of Marketing Brittney Bettonville. “We adapted by sourcing additional suppliers and hiring extra personnel. We appreciated our customers’ patience as we worked diligently to overcome the challenges caused by the pandemic. “We continue to fulfill orders for our products; however, the safety of our employees remains our top priority,” Bettonville says.
Unfortunately, The Lighthouse had to cancel several of its summer and fall “See the Future” programs to ensure the safety of participants and staff. (Visit Our Programs Page for updates about these programs.)
“The Lighthouse was able to take swift, insightful action to support our employees, our clients, and our customer expectations to retain public trust,” Thompson says. “For those reasons, we believe that managing our priorities in the pandemic has been largely successful so far, and will continue to be successful when Covid-19 finally dissipates.”