By Emily Williams
It has been a tumultuous year for many nonprofit organizations throughout the greater Birmingham area and the nation.
Mitchell’s Place is no different. Regardless, it has made its way through the pandemic doing what it always does – helping kids.
This year marks the organization’s 15th anniversary, and it has been a crucial one.
Things have not slowed down at Mitchell’s Place during the pandemic.
“Our waitlist has gotten longer, if anything, during this time,” said Lauren Graham, director of the Applied Behavioral Analysis Program at Mitchell’s Place, which she surmises is because of psychologists’ ability to hold appointments via video call and continue to diagnose children.
Meanwhile, fundraising efforts have taken a hit.
“One of our biggest fundraisers of the year, our Dragon Boat Race that takes place in August, had to be canceled,” Graham said.
Luckily, the organization’s community supporters have been there to lighten the load.
One of the latest efforts is the new Backyard Music Series at the Grand River Drive-In, benefiting Mitchell’s Place and Children’s of Alabama.
The first installment will take place Nov. 15 at 6 p.m. and will feature the North Mississippi Allstars. For more information, visit the Grand River Drive-In Alabama Facebook page.
“It has been amazing to see our community finding ways to support us in such a difficult time,” Graham said, and that support has helped the staff in its efforts to persevere.
Keeping Services Going
Before the pandemic, Graham’s day-to-day work involved expanding Mitchell’s Place services and over seeing the facility’s ABA treatment program.
Her work during the pandemic has greatly shifted toward keeping the organization’s services running in a safe and healthy way.
“As a behavior analyst, we have an ethical obligation to make efforts to avoid any interruption of services and that’s because it can lead to regression in skills for clients,” Graham said. “So, my main goal was to see how we could get the doors open to provide services for our clients.”
Her efforts to support the entire Mitchell’s Place community included her own daughter, who attends preschool at Mitchell’s Place.
“She’s a typical kid in our preschool,” Graham said.
She said it was difficult for herself and her husband when it came time for her to make the decision to keep working during the COVID-19 threat.
“But we knew that was the right decision for us, because without me working, a lot of this wouldn’t have happened,” she said.
Mitchell’s Place Development Coordinator Lizzy Hubbard said Graham has been essential in keeping the doors of the facility open during the pandemic.
“In our mission, we’re trying to help improve the quality of life, and the only way we can do that is with services that aren’t interrupted,” Graham said.
When children with disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder experience gaps in their treatment, Graham said, there is plenty of research that proves there is a tendency to regress.
“For our kids, that regression is in communication or social skills, any of those big characteristics of autism, and an increase in problem behaviors, too,” she said. “If they’re not receiving therapy here, they are at home in a stressful environment because COVID is effecting us all and their parents may have to work, as well.”
The services also are something parents cannot recreate in the home.
“ABA therapy is not something that just any parent can pick up and do,” Graham said.
“I’m sure a lot of our parents were in survival mode and, as soon as we reopened our doors, the positive response from our families let us know that it was the right decision.”
To keep the facility open, things had to change. Luckily, many parents of children with autism are equipped with the ability to go with the flow, according to Graham.
“We used to have an open-door policy, and that has been the hardest thing for our parents and for us, because a big part of what we do is parent training, parent buy-in and trying to teach them how to use some of these techniques in a home setting,” Graham said.
Regardless, the community has established a sense of normalcy amid the chaos of COVID.
“Our clients are still making progress and we are still able to offer a highly effective treatment,” she said, though it has all taken a toll on the staff.
“They have turned into front-line workers through all of this, and that is not what they signed up for,” she said. “The changes we have had to make have also limited their social interactions.”