06 May 2020 Family Initiative, Inc., Rallies in Challenging Times
This article is part of a summer series that will highlight the vital work of regional recipients of 2020 Community Impact Grants from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.
COVID-19 has caused profound disruptions to the way Southwest Floridians go about our daily lives. Healthcare, the economy, jobs. The ripples have been far-reaching. For the nonprofit Family Initiative, Inc., those impacts have ushered in an additional web of complications related to the community it serves: kids and teens on the autism spectrum and their families. And the organization is rallying to meet the challenge.
Because daily structure, routine and developmental skills-focused social interaction are keys to those on the autism spectrum, the most immediate challenge was to adjust to a new reality imposed by the need to social-distance for health and safety. The children, their families and the Family Initiative staff could no longer gather for the essential range of services the organization provides. These include social-skills play groups, classes in the creative arts that encourage expression, a teen support group and a parent support group, among others.
The nonprofit’s applied behavior analysis and occupational therapy clinical services marked an expansion of opportunities for a growing number of families that has now been challenged by obstacles likely to continue to impact the region well into the future.
Keeping a planful eye on the looming threat of COVID-19 as it spread, Family Initiative partners David Brown and Anjali Van Drie took preemptive action. In early March, Family Initiative implemented a plan that marked a complete transition to the Zoom virtual meeting platform. Staff had been using Zoom in varying degrees before COVID-19, and that familiarity allowed them to jumpstart their pivot to a new primary means of serving their community during the unfolding outbreak.
“We were challenged to reimagine programs on a virtual platform, and the staff rallied over an intense period to make that happen,” Brown says.
And because any meeting is a two-way street – or, with Zoom, a virtually limitless superhighway – Family Initiative’s effort didn’t stop there. Van Drie says, “We had all-day staff sessions to teach our families how to use Zoom, so we were able to help them avoid some of the snags you sometimes hit when learning new technology. We hit the ground running.”
The outbreak has presented an entirely new layer of challenges for families of those on the autism spectrum. Disruptions to routines, from the availability of certain foods to a range of familiar daily structures, present unique challenges. Prior to COVID-19, the parent support group met once a month. Now, it’s once a week.
“The stress our families are feeling right now is truly a challenge,” Van Drie says, “and we want to do everything we can to provide stability in their lives and help them navigate these uncertain times.”
COVID-19’s economic fallout has compounded the trying circumstances in which families coping with autism find themselves, particularly financially. Brown says, “We have families who live on the cusp of economic struggle in the best of times, and we’ve heard an outpouring of anxiousness over food insecurity because primary earners have been laid off.”
Compelled to help drive positive outcomes in the lives of those they serve, Family Initiative partnered with Community Cooperative to provide food to families in need, with Family Initiative staff adhering to social-distancing guidelines as they personally delivered food to homes.
When the staff members see the excitement and smiles of kids and families as they arrive with their special deliveries, or when they see a Zoom screen checkerboarded with young faces excited to see their friends and engage in favorite activities, they’re heartened that their efforts are helping sustain the families that mean so much to them.
With eyes on the future, Family Initiative’s challenge will be able to sustain momentum amid a disruption of unpredictable duration, and Brown says the Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s 2020 Community Impact Grant, so crucial even during “normal” times, has taken on added significance.
“Amid all the uncertainty we’re facing, the Community Foundation acted quickly to make unrestricted those grant funds that had previously been designated for a specific initiative. For them to empower us to use those dollars to best meet the needs of our families, which changed dramatically almost overnight, speaks volumes about their collaborative approach and commitment to helping us get through this so we can continue to improve the lives of those we serve.”