The following is adapted from the presentation given by Jennifer Phillips, Acting CEO, at Keshet’s Annual Meeting on June 28, 2020. The slides that accompanied the presentation can be found here.
Operating with Success During a Pandemic
By March 12, the news about COVID-19 had been building for days. It had become clear that Keshet was going to need to make some significant changes—and quickly. That day, we set out on a course to not limit our thinking to if we were going to operate, but, instead, how would we operate with Coronavirus.
March 12 was the day our world changed. It’s the day that we made the difficult decision to close all of our programs because of COVID-19. We also set three priorities to guide us during the pandemic:
- Move as many programs and services as possible to take place online. Make these opportunities available to all families in the larger community at no charge.
- Provide support to families who are now solely responsible for the daily physical and emotional care of their children with disabilities
- Continue to employ all full-time and part-time staff.
It’s been 15 weeks that feels like an entire year or more, and we’ve held true to each of these priorities.
Keshet pivoted immediately to move from in-person programs to virtual activities for all of our program areas. We were up and running on Zoom within days—not weeks—of closing our doors. If Keshet’s mission is to do whatever necessary to support people with disabilities to achieve their potential, then we have a responsibility to do this in good times and hard times. All staff rose to the occasion to transform Keshet into something that could be lived through a screen.
Since this crisis began, Keshet has:
- Led 1,083 hours of virtual programs in recreation, MY Life and GADOL.
- Delivered 6,300 hours of individualized e-learning facilitated by our teachers, paraeducators and therapists.
- Formed 10 new community partnership, including 2 new foundations who have provided funding for Keshet for the first time.
- Offered 15 new programs for adults at GADOL. At least 6 of them will continue when we re-open in person.
- Developed a daily routine of virtual programs for MY Life residents.
- Created 2 new summer camp programs and figured out how to operate Teen & Tween Camp in person.
- Facilitated 10 group sessions for parents inside and outside of Keshet.
- Retained 100% of our direct service staff.
The work of the last three and half months is not just a time filler for the stay-at-home-order. It will shape Keshet moving forward in ways that we could have never imagined.
Looking Towards a Safe Reopening
To begin reopening, we established a Safety Committee made up of staff and lay leadership to build processes for each of our program areas.
Although everyone on this committee deserves special recognition for their work, I want to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Jim Schneider for his leadership, help and connection to experts who we could have never reached on our own.
The Safety Committee has worked tirelessly to read national and local guidance; assess our programs and physical locations; develop pages upon pages of protocols; and secure necessary PPE, equipment and cleaning supplies. Their work has allowed us to take some giant steps towards reopening in just the past week:
- The first MY Life residents have moved back into their homes. This process will continue slowly over the next few months.
- Six days ago, we opened Rapha House, Keshet’s third residence, and welcomed the first two new residents.
- Two of our camp programs began—Camp@Home, which is virtual camp, and Counselor@Home, which brings a counselor to your house for a few hours each day to lead activities with your child.
- Staff in the business office can now work at the office in small numbers and with physical distance.
In July, Keshet will provide inclusion support for 40 campers at our partner day camps. We will open Teen & Tween Camp for 25 campers beginning July 13.
Other programs will have to wait for reopening. The State of Illinois has instructed that adult day programs, like GADOL, should be able to open in September. We will continue to provide Zoom programs for this group along with our MY Life residents. This summer, Keshet will be operating Extended School Year through online platforms with some in-person support for certain students.
Growth Earlier in Year
While these past 15 weeks have seemed like an entire year (or longer), it’s really only a third of our year. There was a whole world of Keshet that took place before March 12, 2020. It was a year filled with accomplishments, growth and a lot of hard work from staff.
Enrollment Growth at GADOL
This year marks the largest growth in GADOL enrollment in recent memory. We increased enrollment by 13% by adding 4 new team members. Adding just 4 people took over a year of planning and coordination. Our program continues to provide meaningful days and opportunities for our adults to be in the community.
New Education Curriculum
In the fall, our Education team piloted a new curriculum, TeachTown, to our day schools. TeachTown is partially web-based, which was extremely helpful when we had to transition to e-learning. Also, our vocational skills lab continues to grow with the addition of a Keshet Kwik Mart where students can practice skills needed for inventory, stocking shelves, check out and more.
Focus on Recreation and Social Activities
We continued to expand recreation offerings. For adults, we launched a variety of recreation and social programs that take place on evenings and Sundays. We also piloted Club Keshet, a series of arts-related activities for kids and teens. These programs enabled us to engage new participants and helped shape some of the virtual offerings of the past few months.
Strong, Professional Program Directors
It has taken nearly a year, but I have assembled a team of strong program directors who are a guiding force in developing the programs that Keshet offers. This group includes Lauren Feldman in MY Life, Jen Evans in Recreation, Melinda Remaly in Education, and our newest addition, Lisa Lew at GADOL. They are all deeply committed to Keshet’s mission, being available to families, and providing opportunities for meaningful engagement and inclusion. We could not be doing what we are today without this group of remarkable leaders.
The Year Ahead
At Keshet, we are never satisfied with the status quo. In addition to the challenges associated with the pandemic, I have three areas of focus for the year ahead.
Since we began implementing our strategic plan two years ago, I have been very focused on Keshet’s staff culture. I believe that we are only as good as our staff, and it is important to attract the most skilled and dedicated professionals to work at Keshet. There is a national shortage of Direct Support Professionals, who we rely on to work with our adults. It is not easy to find people to work at Keshet, and we want those who are here to want to stay with us.
Our staff need to feel that they are an important part of our community and that their opinions matter. Last year, we introduced staff core values and we have continued to build upon them this year with staff awards, a staff holiday party and a staff-led committee to create more engagement opportunities.
I am also committed to addressing issues of race and bias that impact our staff. I am currently exploring ways to facilitate conversations that are long overdue at Keshet.
Financial Stability of All Programs
The work of our strategic plan must continue to address financial sustainability of all core programs. With a growing unemployment rate, unpredictability of the markets and funders’ concerns about the state of the economy, these discussions are exceptionally important right now. The first program we are assessing is GADOL and then we will move on to examine other areas. What is found during this process is likely to shift how we budget and prioritize these programs moving forward.
Feedback & Communication
We will begin a new process to collect families’ and participants’ feedback on Keshet to help us create future programming. Keshet has been accepted into a program called Listen4Good, which is helping us develop surveys and assessments to gauge people’s satisfaction with our programs. I know that this process will help us better communicate with families and also provide ideas for how to develop programs and services that are in-line with what people need and want.
Our Community’s Involvement
We have a very lofty agenda ahead of us, and one that is not clear, straightforward or certain due to the pandemic. What I do know, though, is that when we continue to not dwell on if something can be done, but, rather, how we will do it, we can meet any challenge that comes our way.
There is one area where I hope that I can have your help. Now, possibly more than ever, we need our community to become actively involved in fundraising. Keshet has a long history as a family-run organization. Those first few generations of Keshet families, many of whom are still actively involved, committed to raising money for Keshet as part of their membership in the organization. This was typically done through letter writing campaigns. Over time and due to fatigue and a changing world, we moved further and further away from this practice and focused increasingly on major events—a concert and a banquet—to raise money for Keshet. Unfortunately, large gatherings like Keshet’s events are going to be nearly impossible this year.
On July 1, we are launching our largest fundraising campaign called Forward 2020. There is a role for everyone here to play in that campaign as an advocate, fundraiser and donor. Advocates for Keshet share their Keshet stories with their friends and on social media. Fundraisers engage friends, family and colleagues in giving to Keshet. We are going to make this easy for you, even easier than letter writing, with an awesome online platform that will let you create your own fundraiser. And, of course, donors are Keshet’s lifeline to providing exceptional programs that make a huge difference in people’s lives, well-being and futures. We are living in a world where every dollar counts and is appreciated. Gifts of any amount contribute to our ability to continue to meet challenges head on and propel us forward.
I’m excited to be part of everything this year has to offer. My door, email and phone are always open to you. We are a family at Keshet, and we will continue to be by your side.