Our firm admires the hard work, dedication and fierce commitment of frontline workers who are helping those in need, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have stepped up in the face of this great challenge and we, along with the rest of our community, are profoundly grateful. To shine a light on some of the heroes in our community, we have created a series of blog posts to help share their stories of working during COVID-19.
Tess Nostrand, a dedicated senior family educator at Family Services, has creatively and passionately faced up to the challenges of helping her clients during the pandemic. She shared about her organization’s mission, how she has been adapting to social distancing protocols and what has resonated most with her. Thank you for all that you do, Tess!
Tell us more about the mission of your organization and the populations you serve.
Family Services brings people together to find the support they need, improving their lives through innovative and effective programming. In our Family Education Program, we provide critical support to stabilize families and ensure child safety. We provide home and group-based parenting education programs that are tailored to each individual and family. We strengthen and support families by enhancing their nurturing skills and provide a safe place for caregivers and children to learn and grow.
How have you have been carrying your mission, programs and services forth during COVID-19? What has changed?
Our job is to help families remain safe and stay together. We have check-in questions about their physical and mental health, basic needs, social distancing practices and handwashing, etc. Some clients want to establish routines with their family members, so I schedule regular visits and add ritual questions as part of our time together. Here are some questions I ask:
Home visiting has always been done in person at each family’s home. Due to COVID-19, I must build rapport over Zoom video conferencing or through phone calls. We are not allowed to hand over forms to sign, let alone enter homes. However, to meet a new family for the first time, I went to their home with a Child Protective Services (CPS) worker and safely met them across the parking lot from their deck. It was critical for the family and I to see each other – at least for the initial meeting. We developed trust almost instantly and keep in touch over the phone. With my clients, I text pictures of lesson materials and community resources (ex: emergency food resources and educational websites for kids). I also brought a new, plastic wrapped responsibility chart to help a client with establishing routines with her children.
At home, my little Schnauzer barks at anything he hears or that moves outside. I asked my husband to park the RV in the backyard so I could use it for uninterrupted staff meetings and reflective phone visits. When the weather permits, I load up things in my car for a visit at a parking lot with my clients. There is a small wood barrel in the trunk of my car that I bring to sit or place things on, and I also have a poster tripod which holds my visuals. And, of course, I always wear a mask and practice social distancing.
It was tough not having our Family Visitation (FV) crew as well. With the direction of my supervisor, Pat DeJesus, my colleague, Sara Rauchendorfer, and I started to contact the families to see which of them had access to Zoom. Eventually, the FV component of our program was re-opened and my colleague, Vailea Rutty, was able to come back to serve double caseloads. The two new employees I was training had been furloughed but are now back to working with us remotely. Sara Rauschendorfer, who is a bilingual family educator, has a full caseload plus two cases in the FV program. My colleague, Prudence Karr, continued to work on our Parenting Journey I group by contacting the group members to help them continue their journey with our program. Our vice president of community programs, Leah Feldman, had the idea of doing check-ins with clients whose case closed within six to nine months. I went to our office in Kingston and took the information from our closed files. Our FV family educator, Lacey Riordan, has been assigned to call the former clients for check-ins. Our Orange County office coordinator has created our activity log with her magical skills in spreadsheets.
How has your specific role changed since the start of this crisis?
Initially, not all of our staff were able to work remotely, including out office coordinator, as the Family Visitation component of program closed. I was going to the office to gather critical information for case updates and to meet report deadlines. Our office coordinator started to work remotely during the first week of April, which was perfect timing because she assisted us with monthly reporting, and I was referred new cases. I now have a full caseload of six families and conduct televisits with them twice per week. This week, our new employees are back to work and shadowing the family educators, and I am training them via Zoom on how to write notes and input on Connections – a database we share with the county and other service providers. I am providing the same training I would have led at the office, using virtual forums instead. To help clients see the content on our posters (ex: feelings faces and survey choices) from six feet away, I am enlarging the print.
What are the biggest challenges your organization is facing right now?
Funding is always needed for our many programs at Family Services. At the Family Education Program (FEP), some of our clients do not have enough storage for data on their cell phones to install Zoom, and some do not have Wi-Fi. This makes it challenging to engage in virtual programming, but we are finding creative solutions. It also adds a challenge for families who have school-aged children – but our families are resilient!
How can people show support?
During this crisis, Family Services has stepped up our support to families in our community. For those who can, we ask that you join our emergency effort by donating any amount at: https://familyservicesny.org/donate/
Self-care items for the clients are always great! During the holidays, when asked about what they want, the parents we work with always think of their children and request things for them. When businesses re-open, parents could benefit from self-care services and items (ex: haircuts, coffee gift cards from Dunkin’, etc.). At the present time, clients could use sponsorships for Wi-Fi service. I have three clients who do not have Wi-Fi and only engage in speaker phone visits with me. Sometimes I go to their parking lot and see them across their deck.
Our staff members just miss each other, and we are excited to hold a potluck when we all get back into the office.
What has resonated with you most during this time?
I saw a quote on Facebook that says, “I think that when the dust settles, we will realize how little we need, how very much we actually have, and the true value of human connection.”
When I wake up in the morning, I feel grateful and take time for gratitude and visualize my day going well. During the day, whether I work remotely or at a client’s parking lot, I give it my all! At the end of the day, I know I did my best and then I switch gears to practice balance with my family.
If you had to pick something positive that has come out of this, what would it be?
Accompanied by a CPS worker, I met with a client at her home’s parking lot. The client has a history of trauma. During our intake over the phone one Friday, after asking her the weekly ritual questions, she said, “This is EXACTLY what I need and have been waiting for!”