Below is the first entry in our blog series on how Triangle programs are modifying programs for individuals with disabilities during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
EPIC (Empowering People for Inclusive Communities) is a community-based service learning program that normally includes support groups, in-person meetings, and service projects. When the need for physical distancing due to COVID-19 became apparent, EPIC Executive Director Jeff Lafata-Hernandez, EPIC staff, and EPIC Service Warriors knew they needed to get creative to continue programming.
Physical distancing has impacted EPIC youth in several ways. Like many in our communities, they are currently out of work and no longer getting paid, so they are unsure how they will pay rent and utilities. They have been cut off from their support systems at school, and are trying to figure out how to maintain physical and mental health during this time. Additionally, along with many people with disabilities, EPIC youth are also navigating extra challenges. Ensuring that their Personal Care Attendants can still show up to help them, staying healthy when many are at higher risk due to their disabilities, and being able to access needed medical supplies that have become scarce are just a few of the unique challenges that people with disabilities and EPIC youth are facing during this time.
EPIC was able to pivot to 100% virtual programming within a matter of days, using Zoom for video conferencing. They launched the “EPIC Lunch Room,” which is a way for EPIC youth and staff to grab their lunches and eat together every day during the week. This provides an opportunity to connect, share a laugh, and talk about how they are feeling. They have also created recreation-based virtual groups like “Game Day Thursday” and “Friday Fun” for youth to play interactive games and do fun activities to help brighten their spirits and take their minds off the current situation. A general youth support group is occurring virtually once a week, which is helping young people to talk about what is going on and how to handle these uncertain times. In order to meet EPIC’s mission to provide leadership and service opportunities, they are doing virtual youth groups that give young people the opportunity to teach a workshop on the topic of their choosing and to participate in virtual service projects, such as reading bedtime stories to kids.
It took a lot of planning from the EPIC team to transition their work to the virtual world in order to provide an array of meaningful supports for young people with disabilities, and they are seeing it pay off already. Programs like EPIC provide young people with safe spaces to be themselves. When physical distancing began, the EPIC team knew that this could have major effects on the mental health of the young people in their programs. Youth with disabilities are already physically and socially isolated in many ways in our community. It is our job at EPIC and Triangle to break down those barriers, and that responsibility only increases in times like this. We need to continue to find
ways to engage young people in meaningful programs, provide outlets for support, and opportunities for them to connect with others and find new ways to build and sustain relationships.
In the words of Kamisha H., an EPIC Service Warrior, “I like how we are all trying to stay connected because I feel that is important. Connection is important at this time. Because of everything that is going on, you don’t know when it is going to change. So I feel like the more we connect through these groups and the more we have these opportunities it helps to take our mind off of things. It gives us other things to think about.”
EPIC will continue to support young people with disabilities as we all navigate these challenges together. Whether they are sending a text message to check in, running a virtual group on self-care, helping a young person access their therapy services online, or providing a fun activity to take their minds off of things for an hour, the EPIC team is doing everything they can. But the best thing about the young leaders at EPIC is that they are all still supporting one another and helping the community at large, even as they try to navigate the individual obstacles this situation puts in front of them. These young people are looking for projects to help children, the elderly, and healthcare providers. They are seeking ways to build community despite new challenges, and to us, that is the essence of being an EPIC leader!
You can help support of EPIC program by making a donation on the EPIC website. EPIC’s programs are entirely funded through private donations, grants, and fee-for-service work – we need your support now to help us navigate these unprecedented times.