Next Doors: Stepping Up to Serve Vulnerable Citizens

Copa Health rises to the needs of individuals with disabilities during the pandemic

This whole pandemic thing has been hard on all of us. Everyone has their own version of the same burden we are all carrying. How do we care for our families? How do we have something even approaching a normal life? How do we continue to move forward as individuals when there’s seemingly so much standing in our way?

Most of us are dealing with those questions right now on a “good” day. But it’s valuable to see the world through a different lens now and then. So here’s a thought exercise for you.

Take those same day-to-day challenges you’re experiencing and imagine how difficult they become if you’re an individual with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Or one of their caregivers and loved ones.

I’ve done a fair bit of work in this space through my day job in PR and advertising, so I know there are several great organizations out there serving the developmentally disabled and their families. The best ones focus on engagement and helping individuals achieve their own path to growth and independence. These organizations help ease the challenges that caregivers and families face on an everyday basis in caring for their loved ones while still working, or tending to other children, or enjoying their own lives.

So what happens in the course of a pandemic, when individual engagement and services that help families suddenly become much harder to provide?

Mesa-based Copa Health provides a broad spectrum of services to individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities and their families, everything from holistic healthcare to day-training programs to in-home support. The nonprofit is the only provider in the state with such a large developmental disability program that also provides mental health and clinical services.

The one thing they knew when the pandemic hit was that they couldn’t just run and hide.

“One of the more devastating aspects of COVID-19 is the effect it has had on not only those with developmental disabilities but their families and caregivers,” said Dr. Shar Najafi-Piper, CEO of Copa Health. “Copa Health implemented a robust set of protocols allowing us to keep our day programs and employment-related service programs open.”

During normal times, Copa Health’s approach is one to admire. The organization started in 1957 when nine Mesa families couldn’t find services for their children with developmental disabilities. Their efforts resulted in the creation of Marc Community Resources, an organization that grew to serve adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities and individuals with general or serious mental illness conditions.

Over the past 63 years, the organization created and expanded services to include housing, day programs, in-home supports and the state’s largest employment-related service program. In 2009, it became one of three founders of Partners in Recovery, an organization that grew to service individuals with serious mental illness in Maricopa County. Marc Community Resources eventually took over Partners in Recovery and combined the two entities into Copa Health in 2019.

The overall approach is to combine just about every aspect of the overall health of an individual with developmental or intellectual disabilities and find ways to maximize their quality of life. That includes integrating traditional healthcare with mental health and programs designed to help individuals grow and thrive.

“At Copa Health, we consider the whole person, offering residential services, diverse employment-related services, in-home supports and day programs that focus on the health and wellness of our most vulnerable citizens,” Najafi-Piper said. “This creates an uninterrupted continuum of services that address the needs of those with developmental/intellectual disabilities to those with autism to those with mental health conditions.”

When the pandemic hit, Copa Health’s response was to immediately create a task force to figure out how they could continue to provide services to their clients in as safe a manner as possible — and how to help those in the community that would contract COVID-19.

“Our medical and administrative teams are world-class in that they put member and staff safety at the forefront each and every day while continuing to meet member needs,” Najafi-Piper said. “We accelerated a planned telehealth program and implemented it in less than a week. This created a platform to allow essential services to continue uninterrupted while some other organizations were forced to pause many services while they regrouped. The leaders and staff utilized existing resources to pivot in not only service delivery, but in caring for the whole person.”

The organization also developed the Copa Mask-Making Heroes campaign — where employees and friends of Copa Health sewed masks when PPE was scarce — a Thanksgiving giveaway that served more than 600 members, and an increased focus on virtual programming and ensuring access to technology.

“These programs, along with the implementation of a robust telehealth initiative and an eye on the mental well-being and safety of our employees, are integral in reducing the effects of this pandemic,” Najafi-Piper said. But the simplest need to be addressed is human contact.

“The thing we hear the most is that they miss their friends,” said Linda Torkelson, director of marketing and communications for Copa Health. “Those who are unable to come to our day programs due to COVID have no interaction with the friends and staff at Copa. They are lonely, isolated and depressed on top of other challenges they face.”

So, Copa worked to address human contact like just about everyone else — through Zoom. They have been having Zumba, art and other classes, including cooking, so members can interact, see friends and have some stimulation.

There’s a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel now that vaccines are being deployed, and there’s also been a learning curve. Torkelson said the organization will take what it has learned during the pandemic about telehealth and continue to apply it in the future.

“We have found some members benefit greatly, and participate more actively, with telehealth,” she said. “They introduce their caregivers to their families and their pets and they don’t miss appointments. Going forward, we will offer that as a service choice, not a last resort.”

But overall, the organization’s commitment to treating and serving the whole individual won’t be changing any time soon.

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About Tom Evans

Tom Evans is Contributing Editor of Frontdoors Media and a partner at ON Advertising in Phoenix.
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