Meaningful Days Continue At Community Living South Muskoka Despite Limitations Of Pandemic

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Group home resident Vanessa enjoys games in the garden. She loves water activities, especially when they include water guns and the chance to spray people with them. Photo courtesy of CLSM

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted nearly every area of life, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the dedication Community Living South Muskoka (CLSM) has to making everyday meaningful for their residents.

CLSM operates nine group homes for people with developmental disabilities, and whether it’s virtual bingo, games in the garden or baking birthday treats, the staff have been working hard to find creative ways for their residents to stay active and connected throughout the pandemic. Along with their group homes, CLSM offers many other services for people with developmental disabilities, including employment services, community participation support and respite services.

The Fraserburg crew baking treats and having fun in June. Photo courtesy of CLSM

CLSM CEO Krista Haiduk-Collier said the pandemic led the agency to close their day support program and collapse their services in order to properly staff their residential homes, but the agency has kept in touch with the people supported through their other programs, providing help whenever possible. While the agency has had to reorganize many aspects of their operations, their goal remains the same.

“We’re all about making sure that everybody has a meaningful day, that they’re valued members of their community,” Haiduk-Collier said. “Our goal is to really work on what’s important to them, what their strengths are, so finding the ability within the disability and then figuring out what we can do to match that.”

Haiduk-Collier has been working with CLSM since 1991, starting as a senior community planner and working her way up to CEO. She’s worked in and touched every part of the agency and has loved it since the first day. CLSM’s dedication to inclusion and community involvement spans back to the time when she first started with the agency, but carrying out that mandate came with its challenges during her early days at CLSM.

“The community is far more welcoming and receptive than they used to be,” Haiduk-Collier said. “I think back 30 years ago, more doors were slammed in our faces than not and people just honestly didn’t want us to be there.”

CLSM CEO Krista Haiduk-Collier and supervisor Kelly Cleland. Photo by Maddie Binning

While the community has become much more welcoming since that time, the team at CLSM still has a lot of work to do to create better awareness of the organization and grow their base of support, Haiduk-Collier said. Kelly Cleland, a supervisor with CLSM, has worked hard to get their name and mission out to the community, in part through Facebook updates about their supported individuals.

“We’ve actually had people coming to us and saying, ‘We saw this post, we want to get involved, how do we get involved? How do we work together to raise dollars or to help someone achieve their goal?’” Cleland said, adding that some employers have come even to them seeking workers. “It’s not always us going out, it’s people coming to us as well.”

Residents Vanessa and Frank throw a beach ball back and forth on the lawn. They both like spending time with their fellow residents and enjoying the many activities they do at the group home. Photo courtesy of CLSM

Many of the issues that CLSM is currently facing are struggles shared by many others in Muskoka, Cleland said, such as housing limitations, staff turnover and now COVID restrictions. Though staffing can be difficult, especially during a pandemic, many CLSM employees have been with the organization for decades. CLSM is an employer of choice in the community, Cleland said, and while it requires a lot of work to help people plan and achieve their goals, it’s also very rewarding.

“People are sending in the photos and wanting to share stories because they’re proud of the work that they’re doing and they feel good about the support that they provided,” Cleland said.  “They’re proud of the things that they help people achieve or people have achieved themselves, and I think it’s a great agency to get involved with. We have a lot of people who are very proud to be involved in it.”

Members of the Woodward Street crew enjoy a bike ride. Photo courtesy of CLSM

CLSM is now looking to get more people involved through a virtual job fair on Oct. 21, aiming to grow their team of part-time residential support assistants as the second wave continues. Their team has worked hard and deserves a pat on the back for providing quality care to their residents throughout the pandemic, Haiduk-Collier said, but it’s been a monumental task.

“We changed our staffing model so that we had our staff working in single teams in each location,” she said. “Before some of our part-time staff would work between different homes, but we wanted to kind of contain everybody into one single team so that there wasn’t the risk of spread from house to house.”

While their group home residents haven’t been able to return to their jobs due to COVID-19, Haiduk-Collier said they’re proud that eight individuals supported through CLSM’s other services are considered essential workers and have continued their positions throughout the pandemic. 

For their other supported individuals, CLSM has used technology to keep them connected through activities like online bingo, virtual coffee dates and even their annual Community Living Idol, which moved online this year with participants sharing videos of their performances. The team at CLSM has also encouraged time outdoors for their residents through a garden beautification contest, backyard camping and other inventive activities.

“Our staff did a great job of trying to keep people engaged and busy and still have a meaningful day even though they couldn’t get out and do anything,” Haiduk-Collier said. “That’s no different than everybody else, but it’s different when you don’t really understand the reasons why and they did a wonderful job of supporting people through that.”

A painted hay bale at the Fraserburg group home. Photo courtesy of CLSM

Support from the community has also played a major role in CLSM’s operations as they face the limitations of the pandemic. Early on, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies were a major challenge as many of their suppliers were unable to provide their usual shipments. Members of the community stepped up to the plate and donated items like hand sanitizer as well as hand sown masks and medical gowns, and when it comes to masks, the need continues.

“Everybody we support wears a cloth mask, and we can go through lots of them, so we’re still looking for cloth masks to be sewn and donated to the agency,” Haiduk-Collier said. “They’re well used and very much appreciated.”

In addition to providing PPE, locals can support CLSM in other ways, including simple things like writing a note to residents or staff, connecting with CLSM on Facebook, or making a financial donation to support the increased costs caused by COVID. While the pandemic has changed many things, one thing that remains is the deep commitment that CLSM’s staff has to making sure life at their residences remains active, vibrant and above all meaningful for the people they support. 

“Everybody’s really pulled together at all levels and it’s been great to see,” Haiduk-Collier said. “I’m just really proud of everybody and how hard they’ve all worked to keep things running pretty smoothly. They’ve done an incredible job. I’m grateful to work with such a great team.”

Visit CLSM’s website to learn more about the agency and the services they offer. For regular updates about their group homes and other operations, visit CLSM on Facebook.

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