As I See It: Power, strength of human spirit on display at Perkins School

Op-Ed by Perkins President & CEO, Michael Ames, published in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

The stock market has dropped by over 30% since its peak in mid-February, schools have shut down, Gov. Charlie Baker has issued a stay-at-home advisory and a mandatory shutdown of non-essential businesses, and confirmed cases of Covid-19 are increasing at an alarming rate.

There is certainly much to be anxious about and, yet, I find reason for hope. “Essential employees,” the people who work in medical facilities, grocery stores and pharmacies show up to work every day, providing critically important services to the public in the midst of much risk. Another vital part of the Massachusetts workforce is those people who work with vulnerable populations in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and residential programs.

At the agency I lead, The Doctor Franklin Perkins School (Perkins) in Lancaster, I get to see first-hand, and celebrate, the power and strength of the human spirit. Perkins staff, along with thousands of others working in or supporting the human service sector, leave their homes, families, and loved ones to go to workplaces where they care for and support some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

They do so for modest pay and in the face of the incredible uncertainty and fear caused by the novel Coronavirus. What’s more, they do so with passion and creativity, like creating a video of Perkins’ therapy dog, Cooper, encouraging hand-washing and healthy habits, organizing ice cream socials and board game days for the adults, crafting with our elders, and engaging the youth in impromptu spirit, pajama, and spa days.

Staff supporting Perkins’ residential programs and who work with or support services to children with complex challenges and adults with developmental disabilities are an essential part of our organization. These employees include direct care counselors, clinicians, teachers and others who support daily program operations and the needs of our residents. They are among an estimated 30,000 people who work in residential care settings across the Commonwealth, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau (2016).

The services these staff members provide are essential, not only because the governor’s order recognized them as such, but because, every day they show up to work and dedicate themselves to supporting, care for, and making a difference in the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens. They are nothing short of valiant in their commitment to the people they serve.

I am humbled by our staff’s commitment and am hopeful for our future because of them. These employees are the reason I celebrate the incredible good that I see around me each day as the world around us grinds to a halt. Anxiety is everywhere and, yet, we are fortunate to have been well-staffed since this crisis hit earlier this month.

We are doing everything in our power to keep Perkins staff and the people we serve safe, including shutting down our day programs and school and practicing extreme social distancing among our staff and residents. As I write this letter, we are fortunate to have had no Covid-19 cases confirmed among any of our staff or residents. Yet we know the employees working with children and adults in residential settings face a growing threat.

For all of us this is a scary and difficult time. We don’t know when life will return to normal. Some projections bring us to 2022; the more optimistic predict disruptions through spring. As you think about your own fears and the impact of this pandemic on your own life and family, I hope you will take a moment to think about the thousands of staff who are going to work every day to ensure that all those children, youth and adults needing out of home residential supports get the compassionate care they deserve.

As we look forward to a time when COVID-19 recedes, I will always remember what our residential and congregate care workers are doing today.

Michael W. Ames, PhD, is president and CEO of The Doctor Franklin Perkins School in Lancaster