Sixteen months after COVID-19 forced Gallagher Services to shutter its meaningful day programs and shift many of its traditional approaches, program leaders said they are continuing to find creative ways to reach participants, recruit vital staff and evaluate how best to safely re-open services.

“It’s been an interesting 16 months,” said Administrator Kathy Clemente. “It’s definitely changed how we moved forward with some of our strategic initiatives, but it hasn’t stopped us.”

Long history, quick pivot

Gallagher Services, which started in 1977, supports adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in living the life of their choice. Before the pandemic, Gallagher supported more than 180 people in day programs and 208 people living in 46 homes in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties.

On March 16, 2020, 11 days after Maryland officials announced the first local coronavirus cases and declared a state of emergency, Gallagher closed its day programs. Staff from those programs were reassigned to homes where residents required more support since they could no longer spend time in the community.

Katie Kemp, Gallagher’s director of operations support, said all staff kept their jobs and Catholic Charities found ways to recognize the essential, front-line contributions of these Direct Service Professionals (DSPs) through “gratitude bonuses,” phone calls, prizes and other signs of appreciation.

For participants, the program quickly developed virtual and socially distanced opportunities. In addition to hosting online classes focused on topics such as cooking, spiritual development and arts and crafts, Gallagher opened the opportunities to other organizations serving similar populations, broadening their reach. DSPs threw birthday parties for residents, and Gallagher offered drive-through holiday celebrations, including a Christmas bash that featured Santa and the Grinch.

Much of this was possible due to the generosity of supporters, said Clemente, listing a variety of contributions, such as donated meals and stimulus checks, the development of online opportunities in yoga, music, trivia and more, and the creation of a “Hero’s Garden” behind the Pot Spring Road facility to honor front-line workers.

“I can’t say enough how important our volunteers and donors have been to get us through,” she said.

Next up

Recently, Gallagher began opening the day center to small groups, with a strong focus on keeping staff and participants safe. Clemente said the program is evaluating options and safety protocols as it considers how to bring more people back.

Staff recruitment also remains a key priority. Nationwide, service providers are reporting dramatic workforce shortages, a trend Gallagher feels locally. The program is developing creative approaches to recruiting staff.

And, while COVID led to what Kemp called an “all hands on deck situation,” the program continued to push forward on longer-term strategic priorities. In November 2020, for example, Gallagher Services earned accreditation from The Council on Quality and Leadership through an unbiased, external evaluation. The program is also advancing a plan to relocate its community center from Pot Spring Road into renovated, state-of-the-art facilities at Catholic Charities’ Dulaney Valley Road location.

Clemente and Kemp provided the update as part of the agency’s Lunch and Learn series, which allows people to learn more about the agency’s programs and community engagement opportunities. The next Lunch and Learn event will be a discussion of Safe Streets on Sept. 17 at noon. Registration will be available here.