In 1858, Every Child’s Hope (ECH) opened its doors to immigrant children whose parents had died during the cholera outbreak. Now, the organization is helping children of all backgrounds navigate their way through a new pandemic.
“This is kind of going full circle for us,” said Michael Brennan, CEO of the organization. “Our heritage and our legacy is residential treatment of kids who have had difficulty.”
The focus of ECH and its staff right now is helping kids, and their families, through another difficult time. What started as an orphanage evolved through the years to providing residential treatment, transitional living, community-based counseling, psychiatric services, a school campus and early child center, and foster care case management. As the novel coronavirus pandemic spread, ECH found ways to still provide services and help their clients.
Finding New Ways to Connect and Serve
In any other crisis, Brennan would have gathered his staff in a big room to discuss the situation, have a dialog about what was going on and brainstorm the best way to move forward. With this pandemic, that’s not possible. Instead, Brennan and his staff have had to rely on technology. Between phone calls and virtual meetings, he and his staff found ways to still be there for their clients and adhere to social distancing measures when possible.
“For me, the largest single enhancement and positive impact we’ve been able to do through this crisis is being able to turn the key (on telehealth) and get that up and running so we can work with those children who have psychiatric concerns, their families and the community,” said Brennan. “If that hadn’t happened, I would have been extremely concerned about those folks.”
Telehealth allows health care professionals, like counselors and psychiatrists, to meet with clients virtually or over the phone. In March, the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund (CSF) authorized the use of telehealth for its partner agencies, like ECH. CSF also provided $250,000 in emergency funding to 19 partner agencies, including ECH. With emergency funding from CSF, the organization was able to purchase a software program and additional computers to enable their staff to still provide clinical services to kids and their families in the community.
“This is a very stressful time for folks that don’t have pre-existing mental health and behavioral health challenges – the isolation and the stress of this contagious virus – and then you pile that on top of kids and families that have all of these other stressors; it’s very worrisome,” said Brennan.
“I fear we’re going to continue to see the ramifications of that down the road,” he continued. “We would be really concerned if we had not been able to stay in touch with those folks; continuing to provide services for them (through telehealth).”
Taking Care of Employees
But not everything has been able to transition to virtual care. While the school on campus and the early education center have closed, staff members who provide direct care and case management are still meeting with clients. ECH has purchased personal protective equipment (PPE) and are giving front-line employees hazard pay.
While the focus at ECH is always on the clients, Brennan says it has been important to also check-in on the staff. “Making sure our staff is emotionally and psychologically OK and up for the challenge of what we’re dealing with right now is really important,” he said, noting if the staff is not OK, they won’t be able to give the clients the care they need.
Adapting to Change
During the span of his career at ECH – 37 years total, with the past 22 years at the helm – he has never seen anything like this. But it has taught him an important lesson he hopes he and his fellow non-profit directors take to heart – “be nimble.” The spread of COVID-19 was quick. The response from agencies like ECH had to be just as fast.
“We are on our seventh plan agency-wide. We would do a plan and within three days it was obsolete. We had to redo it because things had moved so fast and things had changed.”
With change being the only constant right now, Brennan said communication with staff and clients has been key. “We have really tried to communicate with our staff and keep them up-to-date in terms of planning, and even challenges we’re having,” he said. “I think people appreciate transparency.”
This extends to ECH’s clients. “It’s not just talking but listening – listening to what (our clients) needs are, what their concerns are and trying to be as responsive as possible.”
Today, ECH has some moderate relief. In addition to receiving emergency funding from CSF, the agency also received the Paycheck Protection Program loan from the Small Business Administration, which allowed the organization to sustain payroll for the several months.
As for the future, Brennan and his staff at ECH are taking it day by day. “I don’t know what the new normal is going to be, but we’re not there yet.”