An incredible journey.

If there’s anything that 2020 has been, Linda Kerns will tell you, it’s that.

Especially when you start to look at life today through the lens of a “new normal” thanks to the weathering of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But you know what comes with a journey? Ups. Downs. Opportunities to learn. Opportunities to grow. And opportunities to see the best in people.

We sat down with Kerns, VersAbility’s Chief Community Living Officer, to find out just what life has been like during the global pandemic for the organization’s residential program.

What have been the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic for the community living homes that VersAbility operates?

The challenges COVID-19 presents Kerns and her team don’t go away at 5 p.m. Instead of being daunted by them, Kerns is even more committed to VersAbility providing safe, supportive homes for people with disabilities.

Kerns oversees all 10 of the community living homes that blend into neighborhoods throughout Hampton, York County and Newport News. Six of those 10 homes require skilled nursing care around the clock.

“In all of our homes, we have residents with fragile medical conditions,” Kerns says. “But in those six they have even more fragile medical conditions.”

Masks and temperature check protocols were in place long before they became common elsewhere.

Safety for the residents — 46 in all — is priority No. 1. And that happens 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

There is a team that supports all the residents. How big is the team?

Kerns coordinates the team effort for a staff that is never off the clock. Roughly 150 make up the Direct Support Professionals who provide the care to residents, who, at times, require a ratio of 1:1.

“We have to keep a certain number of staffing to keep every individual safe,” Kerns says. “I am absolutely astounded at the way we have been able to do that.”

Shuffling staff to plug in needs has long been part of Kerns’ regimen. Life, in the form of last minute illness or family emergencies, has always called for her to adjust and then readjust schedules. But COVID-19 added a different kind of wrinkle.

“Never in my life did I think I would become a COVID-19 dispatching expert working with the Department of Health along with our director,” Kerns says.

How has the pandemic impacted the team in other ways?

The pandemic heightens stress in other ways, too.

“COVID has put a pressure on a number of staff,” Kerns says. “Some have children at home trying to do online school. Some who might have worked during the day no longer have childcare. There’s not anybody who hasn’t been impacted by this.”

As important as safety and sanitation are, so, too, is the mental health of the residents living. All follow individual support plans.

How does the team keep the residents active when they are still staying at home?

Keeping therapeutic recreational activities ongoing increases stimulation and prevents boredom during a time when family visits are infrequent.

Arts and crafts projects continue to occupy many, even a sewing project specific to the times.

“One of our houses made cloth masks for two of the other houses,” Kerns says.

Outdoor activities are encouraged. One family member of a resident recently dropped off a homemade cornhole set. A Halloween Zoom costume party is in the works for all of the houses.

Family visits are limited to outdoors with masks and social distancing measures in place. Birthday celebrations continue with cake and ice cream outside. Pizza drop-offs from family are constant. Residents with their own iPads use them to connect with family via Facetime and Zoom.

“Each week we seem to get better at technology in terms of the interaction between families and the residents,” Kerns says. “Really our family members have been wonderful.”

One sister of a resident added a second swing in the yard. Others have delivered masks. Another has already inquired about cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Meals are, of course, provided at the homes, but families want to go overboard right now, Kerns says.

“It makes them feel useful and involved,” she added.

If COVID-19 takes a toll on Kerns, she doesn’t let it show. VersAbility residents are family to her and the rest of the staff. They aren’t just a group of faceless people; they’re all individuals.

“Even though they need a level of support, there’s not a single individual who can’t communicate their likes and preferences,” Kerns says. “They all need a certain level of support to feel safe. That’s what we’re here for.”

How can you help? 

VersAbility is accepting donations from community members for arts and craft supplies and large-piece puzzles. Monetary donations are especially appreciated during this time. Contact VersAbility at 757-896-6462 or jcrihfield@versability.org to learn more about ways to help.