It feels like it’s been a long time coming, says Steffanie Bjorgan, but she and the board of Red Roof Retreat are working on reopening safely, expecting to announce an October date soon.
Bjorgan, founder and executive director of Red Roof, says most of the staff have been volunteering during the closure of their facilities due to the pandemic, and are back in the office making sure they are ready to open smoothly when the time is right to do so safely.
It’s been hard on staff, but more so on the families of special needs children and adults, especially those who have been unable to attend school, with no day programs or respite to provide relief from the 24-hour care required by their clients.
There has been some financial support even during a time when the traditional fundraisers could not be held, says Bjorgan.
But limited capacities and other mandated protocols that will have an impact on program delivery, staffing ratios, as well as all the extra supplies necessary for a safe reopening, will put a strain on their new budget.
The decision has been made to downsize the number of programs and clients to begin with, allowing them to manage the risk better, and hopefully be able to stay open if there is another lockdown.
When programs resume in October, it will be on a limited basis, says Bjorgan, with full reopening depending on many factors that will be evaluated as they go along.
“Our delivery of services will look different, but it’s the best we can do.”
Bjorgan says the biggest change is that they will not be reopening their St. Catharines location. Instead, the board is delighted to be partnering with Cornerstone Community Church, which has offered to donate some space at their Hunter Road location, thereby bringing all programs home to NOTL.
“COVID made us feel like we wanted to come home here, to our community. When we got a call from Cornerstone, telling us what they wanted to do for us, it was perfect timing,” says Bjorgan.
They will be offering day programs, recreation and respite, using Cornerstone, and Red Roof’s Ranch and Kevan’s House facilities, to a limited number of clients — they will be reaching out first to those who need it the most, says Bjorgan.
Staff, volunteers and clients 12 and over will be double vaccinated, and there will be more one-on-one support. With their limited budget, RRR is hoping for more volunteers who will come on board to help out.
Cornerstone’s offer to Red Roof to share some of their program space in the church Monday to Saturday, rent-free, “is a no-lose situation for us, that couldn’t have come at a better time,” says Bjorgan.
Kids who are going back to school will be able to take part in weekend programs and respite care, and young adults who are no longer in school can participate in day programs throughout the week.
And heading into the fall, “all of our fundraisers will resume,” starting with a garage sale Sept. 11 at The Ranch, on Concession 6.
Other donations have come in that were a surprise, including a recent cheque of $1,400 from the sale of NOTL T-shirts by a local Facebook group.
Also a huge surprise was a donation made by local woman Glenda Smith in her will. Bjorgan calls her a “quiet donor,” who made small financial gifts over the years. Her family asked for donations to Red Roof in her memory, and Bjorgan was overwhelmed to learn that when Smith died last December, she left $53,000 to Red Roof, which has helped to fund operations during COVID.
Bjorgan credits Amber Dyck, mom of Megan, a 12-year-old who has been enjoying the services provided by Red Roof since she was eight, as the driving force behind the partnership with Cornerstone Church as part of their reopening.
In addition to being a mom who feels blessed to have the support of Red Roof, Amber has been a member of Cornerstone Church for the last 20 years.
As a parent with a special needs child, she learned during the recent 18 months how isolating a pandemic can be, she says.
Megan was a student at Crossroads, but when she could no longer attend school, it was also not safe to have
caregivers come to the house, says Amber. Megan has respiratory problems, a weakened immune system, and was too young to be vaccinated.
Amber became the only person who could deliver all of the services Megan required, around the clock. Even physical therapy had to be delivered by video, with Amber following instructions offered online.
It was an exhausting full-time job, in a very isolated bubble, also putting stress on her husband and two older children, who were left to step in and keep the household running.
“That’s been one of the hardships and tragedies of COVID, that schools and programs for special needs children have shut down,” says Amber. “This community of special needs children and parents has been particularly vulnerable.”
Amber is accustomed to advocating for support of Megan and other families of special needs children. She calls Bjorgan a “trailblazer” who set an example of all that can be accomplished, but even with the financial support that can be accessed from the government, “it’s not just the dollars we need, it’s the safe support and respite for families that those dollars will pay for.”
Amber recalls the first day she took Megan to a Red Roof program. It’s not easy for parents to leave their special needs children in someone else’s care, she says, but when she picked up Megan, “she said she felt like she’d come home. She’d found other children she could relate to, and a place where she wasn’t alone, and where she could go at her own pace.”
What Bjorgan has been able to accomplish “is such a blessing,” says Amber, who is taking the step with her church to expand those programs locally, “to provide a special place for special needs children and their families.”
She said the church board looked at what it could do internally to be more accessible and supportive, and then looked externally to see if there were programs in place they could partner with.
“Steffanie jumped out as someone already providing care, someone we could offer strategy support to help meet the needs of the community.”
The church has the Sunday school and nursery space that can be used for Red Roof programs Monday to Saturday, and a base of volunteers who want to be involved, she says.
And it is planning an expansion of its space to make it more accessible than it is, she says, fulfilling one of its goals to not only support the church community but to others with special needs.
With Steffanie as an example to follow, Amber says, she feels like she’s taking on a role of facilitator, helping families through the strategic partnership between Red Roof and the church, and continuing along the path of offering “authentic inclusion.”
“I feel like God has equipped me to help do this,” Amber adds.
“It puts me in a position to continue to be an advocate for Megan, while taking on a broader responsibility to the larger community.”
Providing a place where parents feel they can safely leave their vulnerable children in the care of someone else, says Amber, “is providing something more valuable than I can explain.”