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Taking Things to a Higher Gear

Bob Charland

Bob Charland

 

While providing BusinessWest a tour of the facilities that were once home to the makers of Absorbine Jr., Bob Charland stopped at the top of the stairs leading to the huge basement.

“You want to see what 2,000 bikes looks like … there you go,” he said, gesturing with his hand toward a room absolutely crammed with bicycles of every color, size, and shape imaginable. “And that’s just a fraction of what we have here.”

Indeed, on the other side of a wall that divides the basement are probably another 1,000 bikes, he said, adding that more are stored in a facility in Palmer and still more in a trailer. Meanwhile, in other parts of the massive home for the nonprofit known as Pedal Thru Youth, several hundred bikes are in various stages of being ready for delivery to various constituencies, including 200 that are ready for delivery to working homeless individuals in Hartford.

These rooms filled with bikes go a long way toward telling the story of this unique individual known to most as simply “the Bike Man” and the nonprofit he created four years ago. But there is much more to that story as well, as his tour makes clear.

“There’s nothing in the stores; I was in a bike shop the other day, and there were maybe four bikes there, and these were the high-end models that sell for a few thousand dollars.”

There are also large supplies of clothes for the needy here, as well as backpacks filled with health supplies bound for the homeless, wheelchairs being retrofitted, and bicycles customized for those with special needs.

There’s also a bedroom that Charland adjourns to when he’s working very late (which happens often) and is simply too tired to drive home — which happens “once in a while.”

Collectively, the stops on the tour tell of the mission and the inestimable energy and passion that Charland brings to his work, which has certainly evolved since he launched Pedal Thru Youth and evolved even further in the wake of the pandemic.

 

Changing Lanes

Indeed, when COVID-19 shut down schools (to which this agency provides a large number of bikes), the economy in general, and non-essential businesses and nonprofits, Charland shifted to making cloth masks and distributing them to police departments and other destinations.

“I was bored,” he said when recalling those first few weeks after COVID arrived. “I know how to sew, so I started sewing face masks at home with my stepson. We then started putting the masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves in backpacks and handing them out to police departments, because those departments certainly weren’t ready for COVID — they didn’t have enough supplies.”

Just some of the thousands of bikes waiting to be repaired and prepared for delivery to children

Just some of the thousands of bikes waiting to be repaired and prepared for delivery to children, veterans, and other constituencies at the headquarters for Pedal Thru Youth in Springfield.

The story went viral on social media, and People magazine published a piece that caught the attention of Samsonite, which sent Charland some industrial sewing machines, fabric, and elastic so he could ramp up production of masks.

“We ended up having nine sewing machines out in the community,” he said, adding that he soon had more than 100 masks coming his way each day that he started distributing to senior centers, nursing homes, and a host of police departments.

Because of that initiative, Charland’s agency was deemed essential. And soon, most of the focus was back on bikes and other, more traditional aspects of its mission. But there was some pivoting as well.

With schools closed, many of the donations of bicycles shifted to the homeless and veterans groups, he noted, adding that he also teamed up with the Massachusetts Military Support Foundation to bring food to veterans’ organizations.

Getting back to bicycles … this is still the primary mission of Pedal Thru Youth, and the work of repairing and readying those thousands of bikes that have been donated or collected by police departments, public-works employees, and others has gone on throughout the pandemic.

The donations have mostly been much smaller in scale — again, because most schools remain closed or not open to the public — but Charland has improvised.

“There’s nothing in the stores; I was in a bike shop the other day, and there were maybe four bikes there, and these were the high-end models that sell for a few thousand dollars.”

“We did a very large donation of bikes, 169 of them, to West Springfield, but, because the schools were closed, we had to go house to house to deliver the bikes to individual families,” he said, adding that now, as the pandemic is easing, there is greater demand and an even a greater sense of urgency — if that’s possible.

That’s because bicycles — and bicycle parts — are now firmly on the growing list of items that are in demand, but also short supply. As in very short. During COVID, with children out of school, demand for bikes soared, Charland explained, adding that manufacturers have struggled mightily to build inventory amid supply-chain issues.

“There’s nothing in the stores; I was in a bike shop the other day, and there were maybe four bikes there, and these were the high-end models that sell for a few thousand dollars,” he said, adding that this dynamic is generating more individual requests for bikes from families and nonprofits in need.

Pedal Thru Youth is better equipped to handle larger requests and bulk deliveries of a few dozen or a few hundred bicycles, but, out of necessity, it has adjusted, as with those deliveries to West Springfield families. Overall, he meets roughly 90% of the individual requests for bicycles.

He tries to meet this demand not all by myself, but pretty close.

He has some help from some volunteers, including a few individuals involved in the program called Roca, which strives to end recidivism and return offenders to society through job placement and other initiatives. They assist with basic repairs to bicycles — Charland handles the more difficult work — and getting them ready for transport.

On average, he and his volunteers will get roughly 20 bikes ready for the road each day, said Charland, adding that many of the donated bikes are in decent shape, and those needing considerable work are often stripped down for parts.

In addition to traditional bicycles, requests are soaring for bikes for children with special needs. And they come from not only Western Mass., but across the country. Charland had a few ready to go out the door on the day BusinessWest visited, but there are roughly 90 requests for such bikes on his desk.

 

Pedaling On

Meanwhile, as he goes about meeting these requests, he battles a number of health issues, most recently three hernias, and shoulder and kidney issues that now keep him from working for a living and waging legal battles for workers’ comp. This is addition to a head injury that has long impacted his quality of life.

He said he soldiers on because of the satisfaction he gets from his various efforts, especially the delivery of a bicycle — and a helmet, water bottle, and first-aid kit — to a child in need.

“I love what I do,” he said simply. “This is a lot of fun, and to see the look on the kids’ faces … that’s what drives me.”

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Baby Steps

Rachel Szlachetka, Jazz, and Cindy Napoli play in the kids’ room at the Center for Human Development facility on Birnie Ave in Springfield.

When looking at 2-year-old Jazeilis “Jazz” Jones, she seems like any normal toddler who loves to eat and play. But what you can’t tell from looking at her is that Jazz, born a month prematurely, has overcome several developmental hurdles to get to where she is today.

When Diany Dejesus gave birth to Jazz, she was already fighting her own battle with anxiety and depression. A newborn baby who wouldn’t latch to her breast or drink from a bottle only added to her stress and made it nearly impossible for Dejesus to sleep at night. After talking with her therapist, she was referred to the Early Intervention program at the Center for Human Development.

Today, Jazz could seemingly eat all day if you let her, and Dejesus is exponentially more confident as a mother.

This success story, like others similar to it but unique in some ways, wasn’t written overnight, but rather over time and through perseverance — as well a partnership, if you will, between the parent and the 22 staff members of the Early Intervention program.

Erinne Gorneault, a licensed clinical social worker and program director, explained how it works. She told BusinessWest that each child is unique and grows at his or her own pace. But sometimes a child needs help.

“It’s the best feeling in the world to feed your kid. Everybody should be able to have that joy in feeding, and it can be so stressful for our kids who are developmentally delayed or on the autism spectrum.”

With a caseload of 230 families, CHD’s Early Intervention program works with infants and children from birth to age 3 who have, or are at risk for, developmental delays. A CHD team can assess a child’s abilities and, if indicated, will develop an individualized plan to promote development of play, movement, social behavior, communication, and self-care skills. Staff members work with children and their families in their own environment.

The work is extremely rewarding, said Cindy Napoli, an occupational therapist and program supervisor of Early Intervention, who cited, as just one example, how the program can help give parents the gift of being able to feed their child.

“It’s the best feeling in the world to feed your kid,” she said. “Everybody should be able to have that joy in feeding, and it can be so stressful for our kids who are developmentally delayed or on the autism spectrum.”

For Jazz, her biggest challenge was with feeding. At one point, she was labeled as “failure to thrive,” meaning she was unable to grow or gain weight. Even when Napoli and other CHD staff found a solution by having her drink through a straw, she was still struggling. Now, Jazz is thriving, eating more than enough food to keep her healthy, and speaking in full sentences.

“She’s doing so great, I’m so amazed. At the beginning, it started off so slow, I was really afraid for her. I didn’t know what I was going to have to deal with, but she’s way ahead of herself now.”

Erinne Gorneault says that being receptive to parents’ wants and needs is a critical part of the early-intervention process.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at CHD’s Early Intervention program and that aforementioned partnership between team members and parents to achieve life-changing results for both the child and the parents.

Food for Thought

Gorneault said parents often contact CHD’s Early Intervention program because they are concerned about their baby or toddler’s development in the areas of speech delays, or delays in walking or crawling.

The experienced team can assess the possibility of a delay and work with parents and their children to help them attain their milestones — essentially, to catch up — if that’s what’s needed.

Program staff members also work with children diagnosed on the autism spectrum, infants and toddlers with feeding concerns, toddlers with sensory issues, and infants and toddlers with medical needs. They support the family by providing education and improving developmental milestones through teaching parents to interact with their infant or child while building strong emotional relationship. In all cases, staffers work with families to connect them with other community services that might be helpful and provide several playgroups for both community members and CHD Early Intervention families to participate in without interactive team members.

Although the 22 staff members in the program may be the experts, Napoli said the most important part of their work is going at the parents’ pace and empowering them to be advocates for their child.

“It’s about enabling and empowering the parents to be the lead person and the specialist,” she said. “We believe the parents are the specialists. It’s about empowering them and teaching them how to be advocates.”

Gorneault agreed, adding that the trans-disciplinary approach used at Early Intervention allows them to guide parents effectively while also keeping them in the driver’s seat.

Diany Dejesus says that one of the most beneficial things that has come out of her participation in the Early Intervention program with daughter Jazz is that it has built up her confidence as a mother.

“We just help; the parents are the ones doing all the work,” she told BusinessWest. “They’re the ones working on the outcomes; they are making the difference.”

With occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech therapists in the program, staff members use a trans-disciplinary approach to work with families and find the best way to help achieve milestones.

“You don’t go in there with blinders on, thinking, ‘I’m only here for feeding,’ or ‘I’m only here for walking,’” said Napoli. “It’s about where the child is at, where do we want them to go, what are the priorities of the family, and how can we all do it together?”

One of the most important aspects of this program, said those we spoke with, is that the specialists work with the families in their most natural environment, usually the home or a day-care facility, in order to get the most successful outcomes.

“Being in the home, you’re able to adapt the environment,” said Napoli. “You’re able to see what they’re cooking. I can’t say enough about the natural environment.”

One of the priorities during the hour-long sessions staged over several weeks is working on what is most difficult for the parents, said Napoli. Once staffers have made their suggestions, their goal — and their hope — is that parents continue to practice the suggested strategies on their own.

“You’re modeling in hopes to encourage the parent to do the same thing,” she explained.

This is important, she said, because while CHD staff see the child for only one hour a week and specialists may visit a family at different times, parents are with the baby daily, almost 24/7.

Gorneault agreed, adding that being receptive to the parents’ wants and needs is a critical part of the process.

“They run the show,” she explained. “We make recommendations, but if they’re not ready for that, we slow down and just stay at their pace and support them and build their confidence as parents.”

A Matter of Confidence

And a confidence boost was exactly what Dejesus needed.

“I started off doubting everything, due to the fact that I have anxiety and depression; it just made it so much harder for me,” she said. “Little by little, with a lot of help from here and from my therapist, I just got reassured more, and it made me that much more confident.”

Dejesus said the people she interacts with at CHD are like another family, and have helped her achieve the confidence she needs to be a great mother.

“Having more people that can help you and guide you, that really did help me a lot,” she said. “Now, I trust myself and my instincts as a mom when it comes to Jazz.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

‘We Are a Different Place’

Shriners Hospitals for Children – Springfield is in a much healthier place than it was nearly a decade ago, when its parent organization seriously considered shutting its doors. A move in 2011 to accept third-party insurance — although free care is still provided to those who need it — stabilized the national network, and canny decisions to introduce new services have helped the Springfield facility not only survive, but thrive and grow stronger: the same goal it has for each young patient.

George Gorton recalls a conversation he had with the parent of a child who nearly drowned — and then required months of intensive rehabilitation to regain full function, both physically and mentally.

Unfortunately, the only two pediatric inpatient rehabilitation units in Massachusetts are located in Boston.

“There was nowhere in Western Massachusetts to bring him back to maximum function level,” Gorton told BusinessWest. “She couldn’t transfer her family to live in Boston for two months to get the care she needed.”

That has changed, however, with last month’s opening of a new, 20-bed Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit at Shriners Hospitals for Children – Springfield.

“Now, everyone in Western Massachusetts who needs that kind of support can come here rather than figure out how to maintain their family 90 miles away,” said Gorton, the hospital’s director of Research, Planning, and Business Development. “It made sense; we had this excess capacity and didn’t need to do a lot of renovation work. It seemed like a natural fit, so we worked to get it set up.”

That excess capacity is due to a trend, increasingly evident over the past two decades, toward more outpatient care at Shriners — and hospitals in general. But despite the space being in good shape, it still needed to be converted to a new use and outfitted with the latest equipment, and that necessitated a $1.25 million capital campaign, which wound up raising slightly more.

George Gorton, left, and Lee Kirk

George Gorton, left, and Lee Kirk say long-standing support from Shriners, their families, and community members — reflected by this display in the lobby recognizing donors — has been a major reason why the hospital provides care regardless of ability to pay.

The new unit is an example of both the community support Shriners continues to accrue and the hospital’s continual evolution in services based on what needs emerge locally.

Specifically, Gorton said, the hospital conducts a community-needs assessment every three years, and out of the 2013 study — which analyzed market and health data and included interviews with primary-care providers and leaders in different healthcare sectors — came a determination that an inpatient pediatric rehab clinic would fill a gaping hole.

When H. Lee Kirk Jr. came on board as the facility’s administrator in 2015, he and his team honed that data further, spending the better part of that year reassessing the hospital’s vision and putting together a strategic plan. They determined that continued investment in core services — from neuromuscular care and cleft foot and palate to spine care and chest-wall conditions — was an obvious goal, but they also identified needs in other areas, from fracture care to sports medicine to pediatric urology, as well as the new rehabilitation unit.

“After a traumatic injury — a brain injury, serious orthopedic injury, it could be spinal injury — a child might have some functional deficits, even though they are not in a medically acute situation,” Kirk told BusinessWest. “So they come to this program and spend anywhere from two to eight weeks with intensive rehabilitative services, which is physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy, and also physician care and nursing care.”

Under the supervision of a fellowship-trained pediatric physiatrist, patients admitted to the unit will receive a minimum of 15 hours of combined physical, occupational, and/or speech therapy per week, added Sheryl Moriarty, program director of the unit. “Using an individualized, developmental, and age-appropriate program model, our Inpatient Rehabilitation team will manage medically stable children and adolescents with a variety of life-altering and complex medical conditions.”

That evolution in services makes it even more clear, Gorton said, that the landscape is far different than it was in 2009, when the national Shriners organization seriously considered closing the Springfield hospital.

“We’re stronger in every sense of the word,” he said, “from our leadership to the quality of the employees we have to the diversity of programs we have to the financial strength behind all this. We are a different place.”

First Steps

When a boy named Bertram, from Augusta, Maine, made the trek with his family to Springfield in February 1925, he probably wasn’t thinking about making history. But he did just that, as the hospital’s very first patient.

“While Shriners opened hospitals primarily to take care of kids with polio, Bertram had club feet,” Kirk said — a condition that became one of the facility’s core services.

After the first Shriners Hospitals for Children site opened in 1922 in Shreveport, La., 10 other facilities followed in 1925 (there are now 22 facilities, all in the U.S. except for Mexico City and Montreal). Four of those hospitals, including one in Boston, focus on acute burn care, while the rest focus primarily on a mix of orthopedics and other types of pediatric care.

As an orthopedic specialty hospital, the Springfield facility has long focused on conditions ranging from scoliosis, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida to club foot, chest-wall deformities, cleft lip and palate, and a host of other conditions afflicting the limbs, joints, bones, and extremities. But that’s the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

“This is along the lines of a community service, and our athletic trainers are working with school systems and private sports clubs in the community, to participate from a preventive point of view, but they certainly can attend games as a first responder and then follow up with treatment.”

“There’s some consistency in services, but each of the hospitals has adapted to the needs that present themselves in that community,” he went on, noting specialties like rheumatology, urology, and fracture care in Springfield, as well as a sports health and medicine program that brought on two athletic trainers and is currently recruiting a pediatric orthopedic surgeon with training in sports medicine.

“This is along the lines of a community service, and our athletic trainers are working with school systems and private sports clubs in the community, to participate from a preventive point of view, but they certainly can attend games as a first responder and then follow up with treatment.”

In all, more than 90% of care provided in Springfield is outpatient, reflecting a broader trend in healthcare, Kirk added. “We have always had, and still have, the only pediatric orthopedic surgeons in Western Massachusetts.”

Jennifer Tross stands in a hallway of the new Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit.

Jennifer Tross stands in a hallway of the new Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit.

After its clinical work, he noted, the second part of the Shriners mission is education. Over the past 30 years, thousands of physicians have undertaken residency education or postgraduate fellowships at the children’s hospitals.

“We have a lot of students here in a lot of healthcare disciplines, particularly two orthopedic residents who come on 10- to 12-week rotations from Boston University and Albany Medical Center. We have nursing students, nurse practitioners, physical and occupational therapists — a whole cadre of individuals.”

The third component of the mission is research, specifically clinical research in terms of how to improve the processes of delivering care to children. That often takes the shape of new technology, from computerized 3D modeling for cleft-palate surgery to the hospital’s motion-analysis laboratory, where an array of infrared cameras examine how a child walks and converts that data to a 3D model that gives doctors all they need to know about a child’s progress.

More recently, a capital campaign raised just under $1 million to install the EOS Imaging System, Nobel Prize-winning X-ray technology that exists nowhere else in Western Mass. or the Hartford area, which enhances imaging while reducing the patient’s exposure to radiation.

That’s important, Kirk said, particularly for children who have had scoliosis or other orthopedic conditions, and start having X-rays early on their lives and continue them throughout adolescence.

It’s gratifying, he added, to do all this in a facility decked out in child-friendly playscapes and colorful, kid-oriented sculptures and artwork.

“It’s truly a children’s hospital when you look around the waiting areas and the lobbies,” Kirk said, noting that ‘child-friendly’ goes well beyond décor, to the ways in which the medical team interacts with patients. “This is a happy place, and it’s a privilege for me to be part of such a mission-driven organization. I’ve been in this business for 35 years, and this is the most mission-driven healthcare organization I’ve ever been associated with — and I think others feel that way too.”

Joint Efforts

Jennifer Tross certainly does. She’s one of the newest team members, coming on board as Marketing and Communications manager earlier this summer. “I felt the commitment as I was being recruited here,” she said. “It’s an honor to be a part of it, really.”

It’s not that difficult to uphold the hospital’s mission when one sees the results, Kirk added.

“Our vision is to be the best at transforming the lives of children and families, and that’s what we look for every single day,” he told BusinessWest. “You see how their lives are transformed, and how, regardless of their situation, they’re treated like normal kids here. That helps them to evolve and have confidence to function normally at home, at school, and in their communities.”

There’s a confidence in the voices of the hospital’s leaders that wasn’t there nine years ago, following a stunning announcement by the national Shriners organization that it was considering closing six of its 22 children’s hospitals across the country — including the one on Carew Street.

“Our vision is to be the best at transforming the lives of children and families, and that’s what we look for every single day. You see how their lives are transformed, and how, regardless of their situation, they’re treated like normal kids here. That helps them to evolve and have confidence to function normally at home, at school, and in their communities.”

In the end, after a deluge of very vocal outrage and support by families of patients and community leaders, the Shriners board decided against closing any of its specialty children’s hospitals, even though the organization had been struggling — at the height of the Great Recession — to provide its traditionally free care given rising costs and a shrinking endowment.

To make it possible to keep the facilities open, in 2011, Shriners — for the first time in its nearly century-long history — started accepting third-party payments from private insurance and government payers such as Medicaid when possible, although free care is still provided to all patients without the means to pay, and the hospital continues to accommodate families who can’t afford the co-pays and deductibles that are now required by many insurance plans.

“That was a very good strategic move,” Kirk said, noting that, regardless of the change, 65% of the care provided last year to 11,501 children was paid for by donors, the Shriners organization, and system proceeds.

If a family can’t pay, he noted, the hospital does not chase the money, relying on an assistance resource funded by Shriners and their families nationwide. “One of the largest causes of personal bankruptcy is healthcare. It’s unfortunate that all healthcare can’t be delivered in the Shriners model. But I don’t disparage my colleagues — they don’t have a million-plus Shriners and their families around the world who are incredibly passionate about raising money to take care of kids.”

As a result of this model, “Shriners Hospitals for Children is a net $10 billion business with no debt. And one of the things we try to minimize is the support we require from system proceeds, other than our endowment,” he noted. “And we’ve been very successful here. It’s kind of an internal competition — which hospital requires the least support from the system.”

In the past three years, the Springfield facility has ranked second on that list twice, and third once. And that’s despite actually growing its services significantly. In 2016, Gorton said, the hospital grew its new patient intakes by 44%, followed by 26% the following year and a projected 20% this year. “So we serve a lot more children across the diverse set of services we provide.”

He noted that the outpouring of community support in 2009 — which included a sizable rally across the street — was an awakening of sorts.

“They said, ‘hell no, don’t go, we need you; stay here,’” he recalled. “Since then, we’ve done everything we could to identify what it was that the community wanted from us and recreate ourselves in that image. I think we’ve been largely — more than largely … exceptionally — successful on that.”

The hospital saw a lot of turnover in the years following 2009, Gorton added, “but the people who stayed are committed to the mission and vision of transforming children’s lives. The people who have joined us since then sense that the one thing we don’t compromise on is our mission and our vision.”

Best Foot Forward

When asked where the hospital goes from here, Kirk had a simple answer: Taking care of more children.

That means making sure area pediatricians, orthopedists, and hospitals are aware of what Shriners does, but it also means bolstering telehealth technology that allows the hospital not only to consult with, say, burn experts at the Boston facility, but to broaden outreach clinics already established in Maine, New York, and … Cyprus?

“We go to Cyprus every year — for 37 years now,” Kirk said of a connection the organization made long ago with the Mediterranean island. “We’ll see 300 kids in four days of the clinic, and over the course of a year, 10 to 20 will come to Springfield and stay in the Ronald McDonald House here while they receive care — typically surgical care.

“We’ve had an ancient telehealth connection with Cyprus, and we’re now updating that to the latest technology, so we can have telehealth clinics with Cyprus four to six times a year in addition to going over there,” he went on. So we’re going to focus on taking care of more kids.”

That is, after all, the core of the Shriners mission.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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