Summer Street embraces technology to deliver programs, engage staff and clients

Community COVID-19 Featured

In the midst of the COVID pandemic shutdown, Summer Street found new ways to engage its participants while continuing and expanding programming.

The 129 participants who are used to operating out of Summer Street’s physical space are now online via tablets and other devices provided through the organization. The transition, while challenging, has succeeded beyond imagining, according to director of services, Dorothy Doyle.

“The growth we’ve seen in our participants since they came online is staggering. There is no going back from here,” she said.

Participant Wanda Davis said online programming has given her a reason to get out of bed in the mornings.

“When COVID shut everything down Summer Street came to the rescue by offering online courses and programming. Doing virtual classes helps break up the day. With online social networking we can still have interactions with staff and friends, so it gives me something to look forward to.”

She is finding the new courses interactive and easy to follow. “They are helping me add new skills to my resume,” she added.

Doyle said there was fear and uncertainty when Summer Street had to suspend regular programming.

“Staff were making phone calls to stay in touch, but we knew we had to do more,” she added.

She approached co-workers, Jannesta Sharpe, manager of skill development and Katie O’Farrell-Sutherland, manager of client support and counselling therapy. Together they committed to find a way to take programming online — and in two weeks they did it.

“It certainly involved learning some new skills on our end before we could go to our participants and bring them online but staff were quick to see the potential,” said Sharpe.

With additional financial support provided via the United Way of Pictou County’s Atlantic Compassion Fund and the Government of Canada’s COVID-19 Emergency Community Support Fund, Summer Street was able to maximize its initial investment in June to purchase tablets and laptops. Based upon many positive outcomes, additional financial support was provided through the Department of Community Services. In total, 33 tablets were circulated amongst Summer Street participants who would otherwise not have been able to be involved. Ongoing support through the Riverview Home Corporation and Highland Community Residential Services contributed to the overall success of the new programming which utilizes Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams.

“We’re now able to connect everyone who wants to be connected. We’re offering classes and activities but we’re also keeping in touch on a personal basis,” said Sharpe.

O’Farrell-Sutherland described the online contact as invaluable. “It is tremendously reassuring to maintain steady contact through this challenging time. It has allowed all staff to quickly recognize if a participant is struggling. If that is the case, Facetime and video calls allow me to intervene and hopefully head off more serious issues,” she said.

Sharpe noted the technology also enables participants to connect with each other.

“Being in contact with other participants, being able to see each other on their screens, has helped with the loss and isolation.”

Doyle added COVID has greatly reduced the social circles of many Summer Street participants.

“Some were unable to see their families for an extended time and that was extremely difficult. Others live alone and don’t have the daily contacts they are accustomed to so being able to continue our connection with them has been vital.”

While some participants approached the new technology with trepidation, others already had some skills and a surprising number relished the new possibilities.

“It just makes our day when someone grasps onto new technology and takes it a step further on their own,” said Sharpe, adding that through Google Classroom staff have resource material for 56 courses.

O’Farrell-Sutherland pointed out interactive learning games are also proving helpful.

“Through our online approach we have been able to offer counselling as needed, keep communication open, provide courses and just make life more enjoyable since COVID spun our wheels,” she said.

Doyle noted Summer Street has traditionally based its programs on a participant to instructor ratio but being online is more flexible. Courses are offered Monday to Friday and include such topics as food services safety, basic first aid, sign language, internet safety, job readiness, self-esteem, and anger management.

“A number of participants are receiving their WHMIS and first aid certification, having completed their course online and that is a notable milestone for Summer Street,” said Doyle.

Summer Street, so named because it represents optimism and a place in the community, has been serving the needs of adults with intellectual disabilities for over 50 years. Like so many organizations, it relies heavily on the dedicated support and unfailing generosity of the people of Pictou County. It is open to donations of all kinds, including gifts of cash, bonds, mutual funds, GICs and shares, as well as life insurance, property, land, art, vehicles and so on. The organization asks that anyone who is in a position to make a gift to consider Summer Street or any of the many organizations in Pictou County that are supporting vulnerable persons during this crisis. For more information contact bob@summerstreet.ca or visit summerstreet.ca.