Navigating through a year of challenges

ARC of Baldwin County adjusts to life during a pandemic


LOXLEY, Alabama — Through a year of challenges, ARC of Baldwin County is continuing to navigate adjusting to life during a pandemic.

“It’s been quite an adjustment,” said the organization’s director Kathy Fleet, “but I’ve been pleasantly surprised how well they’ve been able to manage under the circumstances.”

ARC of Baldwin County serves 93 clients who experience varying stages of both mental and physical challenges. Most of ARC’s clients live in apartment complexes or private housing set up for assisted living and participate in a day program at the organization’s training facility in Robertsdale.

ARC clients are used to a daily routine, said Fleet and ARC assistant director Heather Gisczinski, with planned daily activities and scheduled events, such as the Baldwin County Strawberry Festival, which is held annually in April and is in part a fundraiser for ARC.

But that all changed in March of 2020.

“They went from being busy with activity to being forced to quarantine in their homes for a period of time,” Gisczinski said. “We do our best to fill in the gaps, but it has to be difficult for them.”

When everything shut down in March, Fleet said, ARC employees got together and made a plan of action, putting social distancing and protection guidelines in place, as well as cleaning guidelines for the facilities.

They then sat down with all of their clients and went through with them all the challenges they were going to face over the coming months.

“They are all very well aware of what they have to do,” Fleet said. “We did our best to explain to them about social distancing, wearing masks and the importance of washing their hands. I think under the circumstances, we’ve come through pretty well.”

Even then, Fleet said, a good number of their clients have physical needs and are either unable or just won’t wear a mask.

“A lot of them if you try to put a mask on them, they would just take it right back off,” she said. “They’re not a lot you can do but just do the best you can to keep them as safe as possible.”

In all, about a third of ARC’s clients ended up testing positive for the virus, but out of 30 clients, only five experienced mild symptoms.

“I had it once and I don’t want to get it again,” said Chris Racine, an ARC client who lives in Loxley.

Racine said, while he misses being able to get out and participate in certain activities such as Special Olympics, he understands doing what he has to do to keep everyone safe.

“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” he said.

Tony Madaris has a parttime job working at Longhorn Steakhouse and said he missed being able to go to work when the restaurant had to shut down because of the pandemic.

“I’m a good worker,” he said. “I like going to work and I’m happy to be able to do that again. I’m just ready to be able to go more places and do more stuff.”

On top of the challenges faced by the coronavirus, 53 of ARC’s clients were displaced in September when Hurricane Sally blew through the area, damaging several of the apartment complexes being used for housing.

It’s been a real challenge placing clients in new apartments, especially since most of the apartments prior to Sally were rent-controlled.

“They were living in apartments that where rent was between $1,000 and $1,200 a month,” Fleet said, “but most of the apartments that qualify for our needs are more than $3,000 per month, which a lot of our residents cannot afford.”

The day program, which had begun to start back, had to shut down again when those clients displaced by Hurricane Sally had to move into the facility. As of Feb. 25, five clients remained at the facility still looking for a place to rent, Fleet said.

“Many of those who lived in the apartments had friends and family that they would go visit,” Giszinski said, “but after Sally, most of them got separated.”

For Bea Smith, she was separated from her sister Martha.

“We still get to visit, but it’s not the same,” she said. “I miss being at Blackwood (the apartment complex where they were living before the storm) and want to go back there.”

Smith said she also misses spending time with her boyfriend and other activities such as getting to go on an annual trip to Disneyworld, which had to be canceled last year.

Even with the vaccine rollout there have been several challenges that ARC has faced and will continue to face over the coming months.

“A good number of our clients have medical needs and we’re going to have to consult with their doctors to determine if it’s even safe to give them the vaccine,” Fleet said.

It has also been a challenge for the staff, many of whom don’t qualify as medical workers even though they deal with clients who have medical needs, Giszinski said.

“A lot of us have had to go outside the county to get the vaccine,” she said. “It’s been a real challenge.”

Fleet said they are continuing to follow CDC protocols for social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing and other areas of sanitation.

“We’re just hoping that the next year will be better for us,” she said, “and we’ll be able to get back to some sense of normalcy for the staff and our clients.”