HOMETOWN HEROES: 'We should be cheering them as they drive down the street'

Chloe Browning

DANVERS — Group homes for people with disabilities try to blend in with their neighborhoods and stay below the radar. But Chloe Browning knows the work going on inside those residences is deserving of attention, especially during the pandemic.

Browning, who lives in Danvers, is the division director of residential services for Northeast Arc. The nonprofit agency has more than 100 people living in 26 homes across the North Shore for people with developmental disabilities, and 250 direct care staff working in those homes.

As part of The Salem News' Hometown Heroes feature, we talked with Browning about the unsung work of those staff members.

Tell us about Northeast Arc's residential program.

We have a variety of residential settings. We have some group living situations and people living individually. I oversee all of those residential services that we offer to adults with developmental disabilities, and also to people who are medically fragile. We have a lot of really vulnerable people who live in our homes.

What is the most difficult part of the job during the pandemic?

Before this all happened we were in a staffing shortage anyway because unemployment was so low. It's like they say about teachers: direct care workers should be paid a million dollars. Our staff should make a million dollars, but they don't. We were already in a crisis before this happened. We are providing residential care 24/7 non-stop. The biggest challenge has been providing the best quality care we can with the staff we have in place.

What are your biggest concerns?

During these challenging times, trying to keep our folks safe is obviously our No. 1 priority, and keeping the staff morale up. We do emergency planning, but nobody could have prepared for this. The agency has found a lot of new ways to get personal protective equipment out to people to keep everybody safe.

What is it like for the residents?

Our resident have disabilities and they don't always understand what's going on. They can't have families visit. How do we keep our residents happy throughout all this when everybody is struggling through this? Staff has come up with projects like planting flower gardens and craft projects, and local restaurants have been sending food.

What kind of precautions are being taken?

In the actual homes, it's kind of like you or I in our homes. The unknown thing is staff coming in and out of the house. We take their temperature at the start of every shift. They wear masks. We encourage the people in the house to wear masks if they can. Some of them love it and some are not interested at all.

What happens if someone tests positive?

We do have homes with positive people. We need to isolate them in their homes. For the most part we try to continue life as normal but with masks. We've had people make it kind of a fun thing so people aren't scared of that — draw on it, do a funny face. Every one of our residents is a little bit different. We try to tailor to each individual and make them feel more comfortable.

What's it like for the residents to have no visitors?

We find different ways to connect. The first week we got Galaxy tablets to every one of our homes and set them up with Zoom and FaceTime. All the recreation programs of Northeast Arc are now online. They still get to do exercise classes or cooking classes on-line.

How about for the families?

I can't imagine for the families how incredibly difficult it must be. We're trying to do what we an so they still have that contact and so they know their family members are safe. If I was a parent, I'd want to know whether my son or daughter is doing OK.

What have the rates of infection been in the homes?

We all expected that surge and we didn't see it. We're starting to see it a little bit more now than a few weeks ago. The rates with the disabled population is pretty consistent with the non-disabled population. A lot of our staff also work in nursing homes. Because we did the face masks and the screening of staff early we don't see those horrid things you see in nursing homes with 70 percent infection rates. Our houses are small, four people with one or two staff people.

How are the staff members holding up?

Like everybody else there's good days and there's bad days. Everybody shares pictures of what everybody else is doing so we can celebrate the staff. At least once a week we send breakfast over with a big load of bagels and cream cheese and coffee. We send ice cream. The agency has done a really good job to celebrate the staff and what they're doing.

They're the ones that make all the difference. A lot of our staff have worked in our homes for a long time. The residents are like one of their own family. That makes all the difference too. I've heard horror stories in New York City of people just leaving group homes. We might not have quantity but we have quality. They care so much about the people in their homes and they want them to be OK.

Group home workers don't seem to get the same attention as others on the front lines of the pandemic.

We want to blend in. We don't want people to say, 'There's a home for people that are disabled.' We want it to look like any other home. Our staff are the unsung heroes. They're the people you don't see because we are trying to blend in. I feel like when our staff show up to work in a house there should be a parade in their honor, but they quietly go in and no one knows. It's a shame they don't get the accolades. We should be cheering them as they drive down the street.

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535 or pleighton@salemnews.com

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