Reflecting on a year like no other for Empower Simcoe, Chief Executive Officer Claudine Cousins is quick to shift praise to her staff, clients and their families for the way everyone has come together to meet each other’s needs during this pandemic.
Empower Simcoe offers a wide range of services across the county including supportive housing, infant development, group homes, residential respite, and it runs Family Centres and the EarlyON Child program.
“We do have 41 group homes across Simcoe County,” said Cousins. “We provide support to people with intellectual disabilities, from children right up to adulthood.”
The agency’s reach goes beyond group homes.
“Our job is to help bridge the gap between those who are at risk of losing their homes or who are marginalized and do not have housing, and to work with landlords to finding housing,” explains Cousins. “And to put housing first as opposed to whatever issue that individual may have at that time.”
The Ford government issued the first province-wide lockdown in March 2020, and by July, the local health unit ordered that masks be worn in all indoor public spaces including congregate settings.
Cousins believes one of the greatest challenges Empower Simcoe faced was explaining social distancing and mask requirements to their clients with intellectual disabilities.
“It’s one thing for me to explain to you or someone else who ‘does not have an intellectual disability’ that they have to do something like wear a mask or physically distance, or not congregate, and not to go off and hug,” said Cousins. “and for our staff to manage it.”
“How do you tell someone that they can’t do what they normally would do from day-to-day because we have a pandemic, and explain what a pandemic is?”
Like everything during COVID-19, Empower Simcoe found a way to navigate these challenges.
“Once we were able to model, show and educate, we were able to overcome that in the administrative aspect of things.”
Another challenge early on in the pandemic was sourcing personal protective equipment.
“We had no access to PPEs from our own health systems or from our own ministries,” said Cousins. “We did a lot of cold calls, internet searches and tracking down vendors from all over the place so that we could have the protective equipment we needed for our employees and the people we support.”
COVID-19 forced Empower Simcoe to change its model of service delivery, and not just to clients with intellectual disabilities.
“We knew we couldn’t meet in the same way,” said Cousins. “But we were also cognizant of the needs of our communities, the families we support and the people that we supported.”
Empower Simcoe continued to deliver services by leveraging technology and creating innovative programming. The EarlyON Child program created a YouTube video series where families could be engaged and access information. They also had individuals online who demonstrated cooking to those supported by Empower Simcoe.
When recreation centres and libraries were closed during lockdowns, individuals who used to go into the community to access those services could no longer do that. Cousins said staff was able to identify other things these individuals liked to do, such as hiking and enjoying nature.
“We also identified hobbies that individuals might have that we could help support virtually by creating packages of activities and dropping them off at their home, so they could use that on one of the online programs we have, or use it at home to build whatever their hobby is,’ said Cousins.
The pandemic has forced charities and businesses to literally think outside-the-box, a phrase some might feel is overused, but has come to the forefront during COVID.
“We realize the pandemic is a two-edged sword,” said Cousins. “It has forced us to do things differently or quicker than we would have without the pandemic.”
“As part of our strategic plan, we’ve always been looking at how we deliver services in a different way, and looking at other options for individuals instead of group homes.”
This includes allowing individuals to be part of the process in choosing where they live, how they live and who they live with. Cousins said the pandemic has allowed Empower Simcoe to move forward on those aspects of its strategic planning.
“It has also allowed us to understand that you can use technology and create a hybrid approach to how you deliver services.” said Cousins.
She said not everything has to be done face-to-face.
“We cover Simcoe County, and a lot of times we would have families who are on the outskirts, and what a great way to include them and make things easier for them and not have to worry about the travel and the weather, and they can still access services and programs.”
Cousins said that has empowered her staff to look at how Empower Simcoe delivers services so the agency can offer choices and options to families in a way that hasn’t been done before.
“We’ve heard from our families and we’ve heard from those who access our services, and through a number of testimonials, that they have liked what we’ve done,” said Cousins. “They have seen the value of what we have done. Their loved ones are still able to access services, which is so important.”
“When individuals are even more isolated, it requires a huge effort to make sure that those individuals feel like they are part of the community.”