When COVID-19 forced Catholic Charities to end most of its in-person counseling services in mid-March, the team pivoted quickly and began reaching out from home, offering sessions to clients by phone or through video conferencing. But the change required a massive technological scramble.

IT staff helped therapists who worked on desktop computers set them up at home. Still, some aging devices were pushed past their limits as staff members shifted more of their work online. And other challenges – from shaky home wi-fi connections to questions about Zoom (a HIPAA-compliant video-conference platform) – complicated the efforts to provide services at a time when many clients were experiencing mounting anxieties.

Pivotal grant

This month, Catholic Charities received a vital grant to buy or replace laptops, docking stations, keyboards, or monitors for staff who provide behavioral health services – particularly those serving youth in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, and Harford Counties. The France-Merrick Foundation provided the financial support through a broader initiative that brought together 16 local philanthropic organizations in an aligned effort to respond to needs resulting from COVID-19.

“It’s support so that we have the devices to be able to work at home,” said Karen Haughey, administrator of the agency’s behavioral health services.

As COVID-19 began to upend in-person treatments, it was not clear how long the crisis would last, and administrators hoped to resume in-person operations quickly. But Catholic Charities staff have since conducted nearly 20,000 sessions focused on psychotherapy or therapeutic services, the vast majority by phone or Zoom. The total number of sessions is similar to those provided in the same period last year, Haughey said, but many clients’ needs have shifted during the crisis and as sessions shifted to a virtual realm.

Building on groundwork

The agency’s ability to adapt services in response to changing needs was due, in part, to significant investments in technology in recent years, said IT Operations Director Jane Terry. These included investments in network expansion, mobile devices, video conferencing, security enhancements, and cloud-based computing, all of which Terry said have provided the technological scalability to allow – in this case – clinicians to swiftly adjust to a virtual environment.

“A lot of times, you don’t see the return on investment, at least on paper. Networks are expensive and network connectivity is expensive,” said Terry. “We were able to support the patients, the students, the clients really without missing a beat.”

The investment in new laptops and other technologies will support Catholic Charities’ effort to ensure all staff members have the right tools to do their jobs, she added.

A digital future

Looking ahead, Haughey expects to see telehealth continue, even after the agency begins opening more of its clinics and programs for in-person visits. The equipment purchased through this grant will support the agency’s efforts to take a thoughtful, methodical, trauma-informed approach when planning its next steps, Haughey said.

“We will be incredibly flexible to do what works for our clients – but also for our staff,” she explained.

That was the goal of the COVID-19 Response Funding Collaborative of Greater Baltimore, which aimed to support “nonprofit organizations seeking to sustain or pivot their operations to address critical needs in local communities resulting from the pandemic” according to an April press release. The group quickly raised $4.29 million to support the work of nonprofits across Baltimore City and four surrounding counties.

Catholic Charities also received a grant through the collaborative to continue emergency food distribution. That funding was from four philanthropic organizations: the Goldseker Foundation, the Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Foundation, the Lerner Family Foundation, and the Rauch Foundation.