“A lot, a lot has changed,” says Merry Beth Sheets, executive director of the Hephzibah Children’s Association, as she looks back at the nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the losses are real and profound, Sheets says, “even during the pandemic we can still move forward.” She said that in Hephzibah’s three top programs that changes and growth have taken place since COVID hit in late winter. 

The Intact Family Services program has doubled its case load since the state expanded the project on July 1. Hephzibah social workers are now working 94 cases across metro Chicago with families where there is worry about abuse and neglect. The virus has changed the program but agency staff is still face-to-face with each family at least monthly with virtual visits in between.

“The current situation only adds stressors for these families,” says Sheets. But Hephzibah staff is able to add support services for these fragile families while protecting the children. “Some of these visits may take place on the front porch” due to the pandemic, she says, but the personal contact can never be fully replicated on Zoom.

Hephzibah, which for decades has partnered with the District 97 elementary schools to provide before and after school care for the kids of working parents, has pivoted this year to add daily in-person support for students during e-learning. The program is live in three D97 schools where there are a combined 215 students being supported in virtual classes as their parents – all essential workers – head to their jobs.

Hephzibah had to double its staff to pull this off and added midday hours since the program also continues to offer before and after school care.

Meanwhile there is the group home on North Boulevard near downtown Oak Park. This is home for 26 children – ages 3-11 – who are assigned to Hephzibah by the state having been deemed to have suffered the “most severe trauma” within their families of any abused children in Illinois. 

Building stability and connection is essential to the program and the pandemic has closed several of those routes even as the staff has been expanded and technology brought to bear to foster those virtues. 

“We haven’t had those interactions since March,” says Sheets.

Gone for now is the one-on-one mentoring volunteers provided weekly through the Heart Mates program. Also missing are small but valued efforts such as employees of the Park District of Oak Park who arrive to custom decorate the bedroom doors of each new arrival.

In normal times, the children in the residence also attend school at either a D97 facility or a therapeutic day school. Now with all schooling virtual they have lost connections to school friends.

Mandated in person visitations with siblings and parents have also disappeared though Sheets reports that Zoom visits with family members have been more regularly attended than the sometimes logistically challenging in-person visits.

Sheets also said the kids in the residence have each other, a giant extended family. And that, she said, might be better than an only child in a family home who faces greater isolation. To get the children beyond the four walls of the group home, Sheets says staff will sometimes gather a handful, load them into the van and just go for a drive, maybe stopping by a Forest Preserve to run around.

Like many of the social agency leaders interviewed for this project, Sheets pointed to the resilience of the children in Hephzibah’s care. “It was a shock to all of us at the beginning. Ten months in we have a strong plan on COVID.”

Speaking of the children in the residence, Sheets says, “I hope for a minimal impact. They’ve had challenges beyond belief. But they’re fortunate to be here with all this support. They live in a social situation. I hope they make it up along the way. These kids are resilient.”

Sheets also lauded her staff. “They’ve had to work in a real scary time. I can’t speak enough about our staff. They are heroes.”

And Hephzibah’s legendary volunteers are still at it, making Christmas for the kids. “Our Wish List has gone online for children in the foster program and the group home. We will be bringing in everything that is on those lists.” 

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