Residents of the Walnut Street Center were elated when Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn stopped by for a visit on October 7, showering her with attention, colorful designs, handshakes and hugs and even to cheer her on when she played basketball and a game of balls on the Obie floor projector.
“I like you,” said Maureen Mercer, a participant in the centre’s day program, giving the mayor a picture to hang in his office.
Mercer introduced the mayor to her boyfriend Bill Marshall as she greeted him. Lungo-Koehn hit his fingers and praised the artwork, assuring Maureen that the image would be in the spotlight.
Lungo-Koehn stopped by the center to deliver a proclamation from the city in honor of the more than 150 employees for the National Direct Support Professionals Week celebrated on September 10.
Direct support professionals are those who work with adults with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities. Caregivers work in programs that support those who have suffered traumatic brain injuries as well as adults with physical and intellectual challenges.
“The team showed up daily to work with our clients,” said Carolyne Guffey, Executive Director of the Center. About 150 to 170 people work for the center, both in the 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekday program and in 17 residential programs, including group homes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The day program was closed by Massachusetts on March 17, 2020, remaining closed during the spring and summer months.
“We saw people coming back with intensive needs, when we reopened we first worked with the family caretakers, we prioritized them,” Guffey said, explaining that families who were used to a certain support during the day needed a break, especially as many caregivers have returned to pre-pandemic jobs.
The center moved to its modern home on Mystic Avenue in Medford from Somerville about four years ago, moved by the extension of the Green Line. While administrators were frustrated that they could not find new space in Somerville, the move was beneficial as it opened up new service areas including Malden, Melrose and other neighboring communities, Guffey said.
At his pre-COVID-19 height, he served about 110 adults with developmental disabilities in his day program and another 100 in residential programs in Arlington, Cambridge and Somerville. Many clients overlap, spending their days at the center and nights at supervised establishments run by Walnut Street.
Currently, some 40 adults, aged 22 and over, have returned to the 30,000 square foot center which shares much with the Mystic Community Market. There, clients have access to physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy, rehabilitation services, financial counseling, exercise programs, art, games, music and social interactions. Everything is designed to allow customers to live as independently as possible.
“They start at the center after they graduate from high school,” said Eva Osagiede, Walnut Street director of operations. Services continue throughout a client’s life, Walnut Street provides palliative care.
Some clients, like Melanie Catanzano, who enjoys painting rainbows, prefer the quiet of art classes. Others, like Tallia Monroe, play basketball every day. The players, Monroe, Bobby Spezzaferro and Ildevert Olivier, applauded as Lungo-Koehn advanced to the foul line to shoot. They cheered even louder as the ball went through the net on its first shot from the hoop.
Beverly Mercer, Maureen’s twin, serenaded the mayor with a verse from “Over the Rainbow”. The two women are clients and are proud to match their masks with their shirts. The mayor pointed out with a laugh that she, too, likes to correspond.
The center is the daytime home of Joseph Russo, a Medford man who nearly died in a motorcycle crash in 2015. Through his recovery, setbacks and health issues, the center has fought to keep him in the program, engaged and even facilitated his return to Medford where he lives with roommates in a supervised environment.
Russo is still fighting and is happy to be back, just steps away from his family, kids, and the town he grew up in.
Like many other companies, the program seeks to hire workers and promises an hourly wage of $ 16.50 for fully trained union shop employees. The contract negotiated over the summer between the store and the board guaranteed a 6.1% pay rise. The company offers a matched 401K fund and pays 70% of employee health insurance costs.
When it received additional funds from the state, the center gave its employees a bonus of $ 500 and allocated its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to its workers.
Guffey hopes to see salary increases in the future for all essential employees.
“Not everyone wants to work for passion,” she said dryly.
But it is the passion and dedication to their clients that ensures staff return to work on a daily basis even after the virus is first reported in the residential program.
“That first hit at home was the hardest,” Osagiede said. The organization honored the federal leave mandate and a third of the staff took time off, either to isolate themselves after exposure or to recover from illness. “We had to find what to do, how to manage the exhibitions. “
Now its customers are 100% vaccinated, and most staff are too. The next step is booster shots, and the center plans to partner with a local pharmacy to offer Pfizer arm injections to its customers.