Lessons in Resilience is a blog and webcast series we created to share inspirational stories from our clients with the nonprofit community. You will learn of their ingenuity, flexibility, and most of all, their resilience throughout the pandemic.
For STARC of Louisiana, Inc., (STARC) the stay at home orders issued last year at the beginning of the pandemic created a unique situation as they offer a range of programs to help individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (clients) including home care and residential living as well as on- and off-site work opportunities. As part of LaPorte’s “Lessons in Resilience” series, we asked Angela Lamarque, CPA, Chief Financial Officer, and Suzanne Bourgeois, Director of Operations, to share what they had learned during the pandemic shutdown. The key learnings they shared include how to: staff their operations while keeping clients and employees safe, partner with other organizations for solutions, and bridge the technology gaps.
STARC operates four residential homes for 32 clients, and two supported independent living homes for four clients, with employee caregivers on site around the clock as well as home care services for some clients in their family homes. In addition, the organization has two locations where clients work to fulfill contracts such as assembling flatware packs (knife, fork, spoon) and sorting Mardi Gras beads for resale. Clients also work off site providing services such as janitorial or mops delivery to local schools. As the shut-down hit, the immediate challenge for STARC’s leadership was how to keep their staff and clients safe and employed as the on-site work shut down, and also providing additional staff for the residential homes.
Working together, safety protocols were developed, and employees were willing to shift into new roles to assist where needed. For example, staff members would be assigned to the same residential location in order to mitigate the potential for exposure between residences. While employees are known for their passion around their work, STARC leadership felt for all of the above reasons it was important to offer additional compensation to employees. STARC developed incentives that included double-overtime, hourly pay incentives for staff working COVID-19 positive homes, and bonuses for staff who continued to stay on duty.
“Thinking back,” said Suzanne Bourgeois, Director of Operations, “one thing that I’m most proud of is all of our staff who continued working together throughout. They all really listened to each other and were all in to make changes in order to make things work.” Bourgeois went on to commend Executive Director Mark Baham’s leadership and his passionate commitment to making safety the top priority. Although he has been involved with STARC for 20 years, he was just one year into his role as executive director when the pandemic hit.
As challenging as this past year has been for STARC’s employees, it has been perhaps even more difficult for their clients for whom routine and being among their friends is critical to their wellbeing. “For example, one of our clients who is missing his job and coworkers, asks his dad each week to drive by The Center to confirm that we are really still closed,” said Angela Lamarque, CPA, Chief Financial Officer.
Community Partnership Opportunities
Throughout the past year, STARC leaders have also been able to partner with organizations to meet emerging needs. “In the beginning, we didn’t have enough PPE,” said Bourgeois. “Working with the State, we were able to secure what we needed and met the National Guard at a McDonald’s to get the supplies.” Lamarque also tapped into her network to learn as much as she could about available resources such as PPP loans. Most recently, STARC was assigned by the state to partner with Walgreens in setting up a vaccination clinic for their employees and clients. In January of this year, they held vaccination clinics at their Mandeville location for STARC employees as well as residents of their group homes. Vaccinations were available to all who wanted them, and they were able to vaccinate 160 people over the three clinic dates.
Clearing Technology Hurdles
STARC had transitioned to a paperless environment prior to the pandemic, which was an advantage when there was the need for everyone to work from home. Also, they had begun to establish remote work protocols particularly for those who traveled and worked off site. However, when the entire administrative staff began working from home, it put a strain on the system which their internal IT department had to resolve.
When asked what lessons she would share from this experience, Lamarque shared two: adapt and network. “As an experienced accountant, I was comfortable in my role and in solving problems. With the stay-at-home orders, everything began to shift. All of a sudden it didn’t matter how experienced a person was in their role because no one had experience in navigating a pandemic,” she said. Lamarque found that it was important to reach out and learn from others in her network, especially when learning about new programs such as the PPP loans. The more she connected, the more she realized that everyone was struggling with similar challenges. Bourgeois added, “In the end, we’re all more alike than we are different.”
If your organization has a story to tell and you would like us to feature it in our Lessons in Resilience blog, please email Michele Buckingham. We would love to highlight your lessons learned so that others can benefit from your valuable experience.
STARC’s mission is impressive. For individuals with disABILITIES in St. Tammany and four surrounding parishes, the organization provides a lifetime of Services, Training, Advocacy, Resources and Community Connections. STARC’s programs and services include early intervention, day care, respite care, work training, vocational employment, home care and residential living to help move individuals through a life-long process toward greater wellbeing and independence.