A look at how the COVID pandemic has changed Gateway Services this past year

Gateway Services Inc. main offices are located at 406 S. Gosse Blvd. in Princeton.

PRINCETON — The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way of life for a number of people and the individuals served by Gateway Services Inc. are no different. The last year has been a huge adjustment on daily life and the routines that were at one time set in stone.

Programs offered at Gateway are slowly making a comeback as the number of cases of COVID decrease in the area and the number of vaccines administrated are on the rise.

The facility was shutdown at the start of the pandemic a year ago in March and wasn’t approved to reopen until Sept. 1. As individuals began going back in September, a COVID outbreak among staff and individuals forced the facility to shutdown once again. With holidays approaching at that point and strong encouragement from state officials to avoid gatherings at that time, the agency made the decision to hold off on reopening until Jan. 4. Since then, programs have been offered to individuals four days a week.

Some restriction are still in place, such as a limitations on the number of people in one room to stay in line with the social distance guidelines, community outings are still on hold for the time being to decrease spread of the virus and individuals are encouraged to stayed masked when not in their homes.

Despite the limitations, the staff and individuals are just happy to be back to some sort of normalcy.

Tawnya Marciniak, director of community services, said the individuals have handled this past year “phenomenally.”

“I’ve got to tell you, after this past year, they all deserve one heck of a party,” she said.

Marciniak talked about how staff were very concerned at the start of the pandemic at how the lockdown would impact the mental health of individuals as they don’t handle change very well. However, she said there was never any cause for concern.

“It’s almost like they understood it better than we did,” she said.

A key to this was the effort put in by staff to keep the individuals entertained during the long days in their homes.

“The staff did an amazing job keeping them entertained and making sure the contact with family and friends was still there. That did help a lot,” Marciniak said.

Both Marciniak and Jene Kinsley, director of residential services, talked about one particular home that celebrated the national recognition day every day to give individuals something to look forward to, whether it was National Pizza Day, National Hot Dog Day or Beach Day — the individuals made a day out of it. At the end of the week, they would have a celebratory theme that included color pages, activities and fun props.

When the weather was nice, they took advantage of it and spent time outdoors doing safe activities like walks at the Hennepin Canal, picnics in the park and scavenger hunts around town in the vans.

Holidays, while difficult because they had to be spent away from family, were also celebrated with a little more emphases this past year in the homes to keep spirits alive.

Like everyone else, the individuals relied on technology to stay connected with their family and friends when outdoor, social-distanced visits weren’t possible.

One of the highlights from the past year was when 11 individuals received free iPads through a state grant that allowed them the opportunity to use online programs like Facetime and Zoom with keep in touch with the outside world.

Marciniak said this was huge, especially for the individuals who would have never had the funds to pay for the devices.

The Department of Human Services/Developmental Disabilities Division, in partnership with the Illinois Department on Aging and the IDHS Division of Rehabilitation Services, secured the grant to provide support to older adults and individuals with disabilities who were socially isolated as a result of the pandemic.

As for the individuals who are able to live in the community, but still rely on some assistance to ensure their daily needs are met, Gateway had to stop providing those services as they could not be in contact with individuals face-to-face. While this made for quite the adjustment on these individuals, Tracy Wright, CEO of Gateway, said it forced them to become more independent, which turned out to be a positive thing.

“We were able to see more independence,” she said.

Not only were the schedules and routines of the individuals impacted, but also the staff. Some who had been used to going to the Gateway facility every day to work with all the individuals were assigned to work in the homes with the same four or five individuals.

Despite that change even, Marciniak and Kinsley said they handled it very well and went into it with the mindset of working as a team to support all the individuals. To show appreciation for their efforts, Gateway beefed up employee appreciation to show they couldn’t have done it without them.

The pandemic also forced the board of directors to take a look at some of the agency’s policies and make necessary updates.

“As challenging of a year it’s been, I think it’s focused us in other ways to look at how things have been done and how we can do it better,” Wright said.

Looking ahead, the facility plans to remain offering services four days a week for the foreseeable future. They hope to be able to get individuals back out in the community once they receive their vaccines, which they all are anxiously awaiting for at this time, and also when COVID metrics show that it’s a good time to be back out and about. They also still plan to hold small recognition days to keep the fun going and give individuals something to look forward to. With March being Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, Wright said there most likely will be some sort of small, socially-distanced celebration.

What is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month? In 1987, Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month began as a presidential proclamation and has now expanded into a national movement that helps acknowledge the progress that people with developmental disabilities have made through advocacy. It also calls attention to the societal barriers that still exist and highlights actions that need to be taken.