Everyday heroes: On the front lines in Catholic Charities’ group homes

Netta Mack has been a licensed practical nurse for 10 years, most recently in the eight group homes that Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton runs on the grounds of Ancora Psychiatric Hospital and in Salem County. The daily routine after a decade on the job takes on a certain rhythm and a soothing predictability: You refill prescription medications, read reports, and make sure everyone is getting the care they need.

Then came the coronavirus.

“It’s like the Twilight Zone now,” Netta admitted recently, recounting long days when – covered head to toe in protective gear – she visits as many residents as she can to listen to lung sounds, take temperatures, and otherwise do everything she can to keep COVID-19 away.

“It’s like walking through fire,” she said. “You’re looking at it like everybody has the virus right now, that’s just how you have to look at it. You just feel like you’re literally walking through fire when you leave your house every morning, and you get watered down when you walk back in your door.”

Netta is one of about 80 staff members in Catholic Charities’ Intensive Residential Program-South who tend to 36 residents around the clock in the behavioral health group homes. Because the residents rely on Catholic Charities for their every need, staff there are considered essential workers and have continued working through the ongoing pandemic to ensure residents stay safe and healthy, as they shelter in place.

The crisis has affected everything in the group homes, said Heather Alexander, director of IRP-South.

Before the coronavirus, residents spent much of their days off-grounds attending group therapy and other psychiatric rehabilitative activities in Catholic Charities’ Partial Care program to help them reach their potential for independent living. They also frequently went into the community, accompanied by IRP-South staff, to do things like shop for groceries, run errands, eat out, or go to the movies.

Because the governor issued a stay-home order last month, residents now must remain in the group homes and get therapeutic services remotely through Zoom and tele-medicine, Heather said. They spend more time in their rooms, try to “socially-distance” in common areas, and prepare and eat meals in shifts to limit interaction in the kitchen, she added.

Many residents have underlying medical conditions that health officials say increase the risk of becoming more severely ill if the residents catch the coronavirus. That makes precautions even more important, said Dymier Sharper, a residential counselor in IRP-South’s Salem group home.

“Some days, it’s stressful, but knowing that my consumers are safe, and knowing that they are in the same boat as every body else, that’s all that matters to me right now,” Dymier said. “At the end of the day, I feel as if I was put on this earth to help people. Now more than ever, that’s really important.”

Pandemic precautions have driven staff to get creative to keep boredom at bay. With residents of various ages and interests, that can get challenging.

“Our oldest guy was born in 1957, and then we have younger guys in their 30s to 40s who are more active and up on current things,” Dymier said. “So with the younger guys, I’m throwing them a football, and the older guys, I’m taking them on nature walks.”

Like everyone seeking solace in the outdoors nowadays, the IRP-South staff find themselves escorting residents on frequent strolls around the group homes. They’ve also enlisted residents in the effort to ensure their own good health. For example, one recent afternoon residents made protective face masks to wear.

As challenging as the crisis has been, IRP-South staff are fiercely proud to be considered essential workers.

“I haven’t seen my grandson in a month, and my son asked me to quit. He said: ‘Mom, I’ll pay your salary, if it’s about the money,’” said Donna Drummonds, an IRP-South office assistant. “But I love what I do, I love where I work, and I love who I work for.”

Netta agreed: “I’m proud to be a nurse, I’m proud to be fighting on the front lines, I’m proud to be a Catholic Charities employee right now. I love being an essential worker. Never for one second have I thought about quitting. It definitely is scary, because you always worry about taking things home to your family. But we are nurses, and this is what I signed up for, so I’m ready. I’m ready to jump in the fire. If you love what you do, you’ll never ‘work’ again a day in your life, that’s where I’m at. I wake up every morning with a teeny bit of anxiety, but once I say my prayer to God, I’m ready to come in here and do battle.”

That dedication comes with a burden, unfortunately. To protect their families at home, some have gone to unusual lengths.

The first thing Dymier does when he gets home, before anything else, is throw his clothes in the laundry and then he showers.

It’s a similar scene at Netta’s house. At the start of the quarantine, Netta went to Walmart and bought 10 pairs of sweatpants. Each morning, she leaves a fresh set of clothes in the garage, and each night, she immediately changes out of her work clothes there before entering her house. Her adult sons are essential workers too – one works in a residential home, and the other at Home Depot. They take similar precautions.

Heather and housing specialist Jeanne Echols have worked hard to sustain their own mental health through the crisis.

“Whatever mood I’m in is going to impact everyone around me, so I really try to find things that are inspirational to keep me going,” Heather said. “I rely heavily on my faith to keep me grounded, and my desire to make sure our consumers and staff are taken care of keep me motivated as I come in to work.”

Jeanne bought a bicycle and inflatable kayak, so that she can exercise more, while still following social distancing guidelines.

They applauded the public for staying home and doing everything in their power to stop the spread so that essential workers can stay healthy too.

“Everyone has a role in this crisis, and if your role is to stay home and not be out, then stay home,” Donna said.

Jeanne agreed: “Please follow the guidelines health officials have set. If you want things to get back to the way they were before, just follow the guidelines. Remember: You’re part of the world. If you’re not taking care of yourself, that means you’re not taking care of the people around you.”

Dymier said he’s grateful for everyone who works in direct care, “because they’re risking themselves for someone else.”

He urges the public to follow all precautions.

“Look towards tomorrow,” he said. “This virus is going to keep spreading if we don’t take the precautions as a whole society. Keep chugging along, and know as Annie would say, the sun will come out tomorrow.”