When the coronavirus pandemic led to a statewide shutdown in March and a switch to virtual services for education, employers and health care providers, Gándara Center staff had to quickly figure out how to keep in touch with their clients, many of whom are dealing with mental health conditions.
“We immediately tried to understand the impact as the CDC and Gov. Charlie Baker were both sharing information with us,” said Lois Nesci, CEO of Gándara Center. “There were directives and guidelines we had to interpret and implement. We had to hit the pause button so that we could regroup to really address how to best tackle what COVID-19 was presenting to us.”
Gándara Center is based in West Springfield but offering services across the state.
Nesci has held executive leadership positions at several nonprofit human services agencies in Massachusetts and Connecticut, including the title of Chief Operating Officer at the Center of Human Development in Springfield. She began her role at Gándara on Feb. 3, right before the pandemic hit a peak in March and April.
She said even though much of the staff is now working virtually or in the office for limited periods, the shared mission remains the same.
“The focus and the goals of Gándara are really based on providing good quality behavioral health services, substance use services, and children’s behavioral health services to Latinos and all people in the communities we serve in Western and Central Massachusetts,” she said. “We work with individuals with limited resources who often find themselves homeless, unemployed and with poor access to health care. My personal goal is to strengthen that array of service delivery to those who need it most.”
Nesci credits the hardworking staff at Gándara Center, who immediately transitioned to providing telehealth services whenever possible and ensured that every client was getting the services and medication they needed.
Yeika Serrano, program supervisor for the agency’s Adult Community Clinic Services, said her staff of clinicians, outreach workers and peer specialists doubled their contact with clients once they went virtual.
“Many of them don’t have the option for the telehealth video conferencing, but our clinicians have been calling them multiple times a week just to check in on them and ensure that their mental health is stable,” she said.
The program serves clients with serious to severe mental health illnesses ranging from social anxiety to panic disorders and hallucinations. There are also some clients with severe physical disabilities. Most of them live alone, Serrano said.
“One of the reasons my staff increased the phone contact with clients is that many of them are completely isolated outside of maybe a community event or gathering. With those events being limited or canceled they can develop depression or increased anxiety from the isolation,” she said. “That’s why I have been so impressed with our staff. They care about their clients and want to make sure that they are making it through this pandemic.”
While Serrano’s team deals with adults, Kritzia Garcia has the added challenge of working with teenagers and young adults. Garcia is a housing specialist with the Shine Young Adult Housing Program.
Gándara Center works with homeless youth between the ages of 18-24 providing them with housing and helping them secure employment. During the height of the pandemic, many of them lost jobs or could not go to school and were confined to the small shelter nearly 24 hours a day.
“Normally we are just an overnight shelter with five rooms for youth who are currently homeless, but in March we had to transition to being open 24/7 because these youths really had nowhere else to go,” Garcia said. “Normally during the day they were working or going to school or participating in some of Gándara’s outreach programs.”
The program also provides housing for about 30 young people across Greater Springfield.
“We pay for their rent for a year and provide them with case management services that help them with finding steady employment or getting them onto school,” Garcia said. “We also teach them about financial literacy and saving money so that after the year they are financially stable enough to continue paying for their apartment and hopefully keep them from facing homelessness again.”
While youth are resilient, Garcia said the challenges have ranged from those who did not take the social distancing guidelines seriously at the beginning to dealing with anxiety, depression and even boredom.
“It’s hard for them to not be able to be out and about,”she said. “They also are in close quarters so there is bickering and little arguments, but eventually they realized that this is a serious thing, that this wasn’t something that was going away anytime soon.”
While counseling services and at-home visits have gone virtual, Nesci said many of the services including the bilingual pharmacy on Main Street have remained operational throughout the pandemic.
“We certainly had to adapt to how we were delivering services, and that included the use of telehealth, which allows for clinicians and staff to meet with people virtually to address their mental health needs, their substance use needs, including youth who have be behavioral health needs,” she said. “We have a variety of congregate care settings for individuals who have needs around substance use and recovery and those programs have operated on site because those are considered essential services.”
Nesci said the agency has also seen an increase in clients seeking mental health and behavioral health services in the past few months.
“The reality is all of our lives changed almost overnight,” she said. “The biggest thing that happened was the physical distancing and isolation and the lack of contact with people because that’s what we were asked to do. But everything we do as humans is relational, so when you say to folks not to be around other people, that often times means they can’t go to work or go to church or go to the store. With isolation often comes depression, and on top of that there is a fear factor. People are scared, even now. So we have definitely seen more people reaching out.”