On March 19th, 2020, Youth and Family Services of Haddam Killingworth Inc. (HKYFS) closed its doors like many other small businesses in Connecticut thinking we would open once the new, novel Coronavirus had run its course. We continued to plan for upcoming spring and early summer events; we assumed there was time for them to come to fruition. We were comforted knowing that people looking for assistance with short-term crises would soon be able to cross the threshold of our office. And we were certain that clients already known to us and those looking for longer-term counseling support or guidance would in no time be comforted by the welcoming warmth and safety of our offices on the 2nd floor of the old white house adjacent to the high school. Our website, Facebook page, contacts through email, Constant Contact, and occasional school bulletins pointed to the fact that we were here and that we would respond to every single call received during the week within a 24-hour period. We encouraged folks to reach out if they needed someone to listen, or talk; or wanted general information about HKYFS; or needed assistance with resources for the first, second, or even third time.
Along with thousands of other small and large businesses, we held our breath and waited for the warmth of spring. March turned into April and then, April into May. In time we realized that our plans for spring, summer, and even fall programming and fund-raising, no matter how well thought out or planned, would at best need to be drastically altered; at worst, canceled. So, we started to let go of plans:
- March: The Wellness Series programming and dinners planned for families with young children in partnership with Brainerd Public Library
- April: The Pizza Delivery Night in partnership with Da Vinci Pizza and our work with the schools to conduct a bi-annual survey of youth perceptions and behavior
- May: A Drug-Take-Back program with the Haddam State Troopers and Family Olympics at Parmalee Farm in May
- June: our second annual Run-a-Muck, a community event planned since the prior September that falls on the first weekend after school ends each year and the final Kids Night Out (KNO) to introduce local teens to local families and provide group babysitting, fun and games for their young children
- July: a regional leadership camp for teens focused on reducing substance use and perceptions by teens with regional partners
In order to continue to serve the community and provide confidential one-on-one or group health and wellness programming, we adjusted our infrastructure and operations. We experimented with several products and purchased a one-year contract with a HIPAA-compliant Zoom program so our Clinical Director could continue to communicate 1:1 with her clients, our staff to work with the schools, and our Juvenile Review Board (JRB) to work with HK youth and families referred for having had issues with behavior or had a run in with law enforcement. We altered our scheduled roll-out for an in-person mentoring program with elementary school-aged children to a virtual program with a Pen Pal option and we developed activity bags for families with young children to engage parent and child in activities to stimulate learning and fun play. We rotated office coverage ensuring that someone was available, daily, to answer the phone while the others worked remotely, from nine to five. And when we realized emergent calls continued to come in after-hours, we purchased second phone lines for all staff to have the ability to respond more quickly to calls.
And the calls did come in. A trickle at first but over time, a slow steady stream of requests. Requests, needs, and challenges ranged from small to large: assistance with back-to-school supplies, help finding housing, food purchases for families of one, two three, and more, food purchases for beloved pets, help with first month or security payments, difficult conversations with landlords, empty oil and propane tanks for heating and hot water, and help or direction with processing bills or payments for health care. To the extent possible we worked and continue to partner with local support services and systems: Haddam Social Services and the Killingworth Backpack and Helping Hands Programs. Most recently, we are handling requests from families, some for the first time, some not, who need help to bring the joy of the holidays and specifically the Christmas Season, into their homes for their children. The requests, though not unfamiliar to HKYFS, have come in numbers not seen by the agency. And though the numbers are small in comparison to what one would see in a large urban area, the past two years tell a story of growing needs:
- 150% in the number of families requesting school supplies
- 87% in the number of families requesting holiday giving
- 60% in new or newly returning clients/families requesting counseling services
- 100% increase of referrals of students receiving Free or Reduced Lunch whose parents gave permission for HKYFS to contact them regarding services
Just as telling of local needs is the fact that as we approached the end of November, the number of families requesting crisis management assistance (food, fuel) equaled the total requests made for the entire prior year. This is significant because with colder weather coming the Governors’ Executive Order regarding evictions is drawing to a close.
Working together as a staff, we crafted a plan that would direct funds toward local restaurants and businesses that could in turn be distributed to families we worked with who would not only benefit but be delighted. The United Way of Middlesex County granted a request to redirect a portion of unused grant funding to directly benefit HK families impacted by COVID. Additional awards were received from the Middlesex County Community Foundation and the Killingworth Lions to do the same. To date, more than $5,000 has been directed to local restaurants and markets with the gift cards distributed to HKYFS youth, their families, and neighbors. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and in the colder months of winter, we will repeat the program to the benefit of both business and individual families.
In partnership with RSD17, we are currently working on plans to house two of our agency clinicians in HK schools to support staff, administrators, and support youth attending those schools with non-academic and community support and referral. HKYFS clinicians will work with youth on challenges that go beyond the parameters of the academic school day and offer counseling or related supports for youths’ families. High school youth, involved with HKYFS through Ignite, our youth coalition, meet monthly with their HKYFS advisors. With parental permissions secured, recent speakers introduced topics that addressed substance use, local trends in substance use, suicide awareness and its prevention. In October, a suicide awareness training, QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) took place at Valley Bible ___ Church and was attended by 17 HKHS youth and 6 adults. More recently, St. Peters Church in Haddam, reached out to HKYFS to offer to partner and provide for live streaming of a QPR training to be made available to any and all persons interested in becoming certified in QPR. Staff at HKYFS will also be introducing a program of peer support and advocacy for adults in the community who want to work with others on what they perceive as needed change.
During this time of COVID, much of which we once knew, counted on, or may even have taken for granted, has been taken away. The Coronavirus has been a collective experience of change, loss, and for some, even trauma. We know from our work that families in HK Community are working incredibly hard to manage under the most stressful circumstances. “Staff at HKYFS have been working hard to continually remind the community to bring awareness that we are here to help, in any way needed, for however long it is needed,” said Clinical Director Katy Kennedy. She added, “but unfortunately, we all will have a bit more to endure; however, by reaching out, leaning on one another, receiving the services that are available, we can together, find the strength to persevere”.
In 2002, a collection of children’s book illustrators came together to illustrate the words of hope, grief, and promise in response to the events of 9.11. The poems seem relevant now, too, as they remind us of the importance and value of helping individuals and the community find what is good and what is strong.
I think I could walk
through the simmering sand
if I held your hand.
I think I could swim
the skin shivering sea
if you would accompany me.
And run on ragged, windy heights,
climb rugged rocks
and walk on air.
I think I could do anything at all,
if you were there.
“To You” by Karla Ruskin
HKYFS is here and we want to remind everyone that we are not going anywhere. Hard times are falling on many and we are here to help. No one needs to feel alone. And when things change, which we know they will, and people have the resources to do more, we will be here cheering them on.