Michelle Harris and Faith Jackson
Assistant Director and CRN, Pam Dudley Handicapped Center
What is the Pam Dudley Handicapped Center and who does it serve?
Michelle: The Pam Dudley Handicapped Center is a day-hab and educational facility that’s been around since 1985. It also has five independent living centers and each of the homes houses two individuals with developmental disabilities. We staff the homes 24 hours a day, and they’re all in and near this town. The day-hab is a learning center for the individuals who come here. We provide transportation to and from, and then we provide transportation to and from the enhancements, which are sheltered workshops for individuals with developmental disabilities. We do daily care for them and help them be as independent as they can. If they can cook, we assist them. We help them with medicines, doctor’s appointments, all sorts of things.
We’ve worked here for 13 and 14 years, respectively. I got involved in this work since I was in high school when I did respite care for families who had people with developmental disabilities. The work was always interesting, and you feel like you're really making a difference.”
Faith: I got into this work because I have family members who have developmental disabilities. I came here just to have a part-time job. I have three kids, and I wanted a change in my career Two years later, I came on full time.
Challenges during COVID pandemic
Michelle: We try to do outings, and we used to go to concerts and movies a lot. We even went to Florida. But it’s all come to a halt. The houses were open, but everything else was shut down. We just opened back up in May 2021.
Faith: And since we’ve been open, every other week we’re having to partially close because of the number of COVID cases rising in our county. We have three classrooms here, and at least once a week, one of the classrooms has to be closed because it’s contaminated and we have to do a deep sanitizing of everything.
Michelle: When we first closed, we were one of the lower counties in terms of COVID rates for several weeks. It was October 2020 before it really started hitting our county. We’ve had a couple of people who have passed away from COVID, including staff and individuals we serve. And we’ve had several who have been really, really sick in the hospital. It’s just so hard on our guys. They’re all pretty immunocompromised. So we probably go way above what the CDC says because we are trying to be very, very careful.
Transportation challenges and no outings during COVID
Michelle: Every one of our houses has an accessible vehicle for the people we serve to be able to go places. We used to go shopping, go to the movies, watch sporting events, and participate in the Special Olympics. For the year we were closed, we had them go to Lone Elk Park or anywhere we could find a safe place where they could get out and take a nature walk. But they don’t have the freedoms they did before COVID because we can’t take them where there are a lot people. All those things we used to do, we can’t do at all anymore.
Faith: We’re "over" COVID, and they are, too. They couldn’t understand why they can’t go to the movies or shopping or out to eat. They’d ask, "Why do we have to go through the drive-through? Why won’t places open the inside?"
Special employees required for the work
Michelle: We serve about 70 individuals. We used to have 75, and we've lost a few due to COVID. We become family here. We work so closely with individuals and their families that we know everything going on with them, too. But it’s been a struggle lately due to the unemployment rate and getting people to return to the workforce. This job takes special people to work with our individuals. It’s been really hard on the staff we currently employ. That’s why we want to show our appreciation to them by providing lunch.
In the first year of COVID, our staff was outstanding. They stood alongside us through the whole thing. I think that the staff that has been here is starting to feel overwhelmed and fatigued. This field can be stressful, at times. For instance, when you’re working with someone who has a developmental disability, they may repeat things and sometimes they don’t understand the life changes that COVID brought on.
Most difficult day
Faith: One of the most difficult days we experienced since the pandemic started was when we lost one of our individuals. He lived in one of our houses, and we must have brought COVID in somehow because we weren’t letting anyone out at that time. It wasn’t intentional or anything like that, but we still brought the virus in. We lost him in November 2020, and then we lost another one of our coworkers the following January. We’ve got more staff in the hospital now, too. And we’re facing it within our own families.
Michelle: We’re going above and beyond trying to protect our individuals to keep them out of harm's way. But it’s not a guarantee. We knew this would be devastating for a lot of our individuals. It’s hard because when you lose one, a lot is lost. So we really are doing our best to protect them as much as we can.
Supporting each other
Faith: We talk a lot. We probably annoy each other, we talk that much. It’s not like you come to work at 8:00 AM and get off at 4:00 PM and that’s it. We talk at six or seven in the morning and nine or ten at night. There have been times me and her have stayed up talking until two in the morning.
One of the most rewarding days at work
Faith: The most rewarding day at work was the day we opened back up after the COVID shutdown. Just seeing everyone’s faces, they were so happy to see us, and we were so happy to see them!
Michelle: They were happy to be able to go back to shopping in stores. We tried to go to where they’d be able to be the first people there at the beginning of workday hours. And they really were so happy to get to go into a store and make choices for themselves.
Michelle Harris, Assistant Director
Faith Jackson, CRN
*NOTE: Faith and Michelle shared their story in fall 2021. Some information about COVID has changed since that time. Please see the CDC's website for the latest information on COVID.
Storytelling and photos by: