Arc of Greater New Orleans Establishes A Virtual Community Center To Continue Serving Those With Intellectual Disabilities


METAIRIE, La (press release)  – “Some of our participants are deaf, and others are non-verbal, but we are finding ways to communicate and connect,” notes Jessika England, who goes by the nickname, Jay, and serves as the Director of Community Integration for Arc of Greater New Orleans (ArcGNO), a non-profit agency that supports children and adults with Down syndrome, autism, or some other intellectual disability (ID). “To say we have had to pivot and stretch our imaginations and creativity during this pandemic may be an understatement,” England adds with a muffled laugh due to the mask that she wears while sitting in her office.

For England and ArcGNO, the pivot has meant finding a new way to continue day programs even though those the agency serves have not set foot in an Arc building in nearly five months. The solution, says England, was to launch the agency’s first-ever Virtual Community Center. Before the coronavirus, a typical day at ArcGNO meant more than 220 adults would arrive at one of the five centers the agency manages; there are two centers in Jefferson Parish and one each in Orleans, St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes. During the week, attendees would pick and choose among a list of activities on how to spend their day, but all of that came to a screeching halt in mid-March when the agency was closed due to COVID. Now, through technology and a little ingenuity, those who wish to continue with day programs remotely can do so via Google and Zoom.

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“We have a daily schedule of activities, such as cardio and yoga exercise classes, music and sing-along programs, work readiness, cooking classes, and soon we will start a sign language class. All our participants have to do is sign up and log in,” England explains. While this may sound simple and no longer a rarity in today’s pandemic world, it is a bit trickier for ArcGNO as some of their community center participants are hard of hearing or completely deaf, and there are a few who don’t speak. “Our group leaders have learned to use more hand signals and facial expressions to encourage feedback. It’s definitely much harder to do via computer, but we are finding ways of making it work and keeping our participants connected and active even though they are at home,” notes England.

Being home was actually one of the first hurdles ArcGNO had to overcome as not all of the community center participants have access to a computer and internet service. Thanks to a grant from the Metropolitan Human Services District, the agency was able to purchase 16 electronic tablets that were distributed, and they continue to look for ways to fund more tablets or internet connection in homes. Another challenge was teaching everyone how to use the tablets, as well as gain access to the various classes that are offered daily from 9 am to 3 pm. One-on-one set up instructions were done over the phone, and to date, they have successfully registered 84 people.

As for the participants enrolled, the virtual center is not only a way to occupy their time doing productive activities from home, but it’s also a way to stay connected with those they have not seen in person in months. “I like the activities we do, and I love seeing my friends and staff. It helps me to let go and not worry about COVID,” comments Jill Egle. For others, like Brianne Rideau and Katie Baril, both said enrolling in the virtual center has got them moving as both admitted that since the lockdown, the only things they were doing were sleeping and watching movies. Jessica Noble just recently finished her first day with the virtual center, and her enthusiasm was contagious as she noted, “Oh my god, I had so much fun! We played I Spy and a fruit and vegetable matching game with Xavier Wellness.” And, when Lavar Brooks was asked about the new way the center is operating, he got right to the point. “What’s my favorite part? Everything!”

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England says she’s thrilled with all the positive feedback, especially when it comes to the agency’s core belief that those with ID have the opportunity to make daily personal decisions and programs be integrated with the general public. The presence of choice is available as those taking part chose what they want to do daily, and ArcGNO has been successful in collaborating with numerous community partners such as the New Orleans Recreational Department, LSU Health Science Center, Tulane and Xavier. Those community partners are leading some of the programs being offered. Moving forward, England says she believes the virtual community center will continue even after the pandemic guidelines are lifted, so she and her team are already researching and planning to expand available programs that will continue to be offered to those who wish to participate from home.



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