Kimberly Sonafelt

Harry Funk/The Almanac

Kimberly Sonafelt with former Mainstay Life Services chief executive officer James Kirk

As is the case with practically everyone, Cindy Grimm has had to make adjustments to what COVID-19 has wrought in the past month and a half.

“Whatever is needed,” she said. “I’ve changed my shifts a couple of times. Other people have been sick for other reasons, or they’ve needed help with other houses. I’ve stayed longer. Actually, I’m here longer today.”

The Bethel Park resident has worked for 25 years with Mainstay Life Services, a Scott Township-based nonprofit that supports people with developmental disabilities who live independently.

As a direct support professional, Grimm spends her time on site with clients, something she was not about to abandon during a period of such uncertainty for everyone involved.

“The residents we work with, they are very dedicated. They’re dedicated to the jobs that they have, their work programs that they have,” she said. “And I can tell you, with this COVID-19, they’re out of sorts. It’s hard for a lot of them. It’s really hard.”

Barb Jenkins of Mt. Lebanon, another Mainstay direct support professional, has encountered a similar situation among the folks with whom she works.

“I think one of the most difficult things with them right now is that they’re not understanding,” she said. “They want to go out somewhere. Why aren’t they going to their programs? Are they in trouble? Is this good or bad?”

According to Mainstay chief executive officer Kimberly Sonafelt, more than 400 employees provided support to 372 people in 2019 as part of the nonprofit organization’s mission to help them “live within a community that sustains them and benefits from their participation.”

The direct support professionals, many of whom are older adults, want to make sure the mission continues.

“Everyone has said, ‘No, I’m not staying home.’ Even sometimes we’ll say, ‘You really should talk to your doctor, and you may want to reconsider.’ But it’s more than a job, and that’s been really evident,” Sonafelt said. “Not only are they taking care of people’s physical needs, there also are the emotional needs of people at this point.”

With most of the residents unable to leave their homes these days, the direct support professionals are coming up with ways to help relieve some of the resulting stress, anxiety and, at times, boredom.

“You just kind of have to create your fun,” Grimm said. “We’ve done some baking, where everybody helps a little bit of putting ingredients in the bowl and mixing them up. We’ve had some fabulous peanut butter cookies.”

Jenkins cited another widespread concern during the stay-at-home order, at Mainstay homes and beyond.

“One girl was due for a haircut, and of course, you can’t do that,” she said. “I had taken some cosmetology courses when I was younger, and so I brought my scissors in. We cut her hair and we colored it, and colored the other girl’s hair. I have great co-workers, and one lady did their nails one day, a little salon day.

“These are unprecedented times,” she continued, “so you have to pretty much call on skills you didn’t know you had or you hadn’t used in a while, and get a little creative and think outside the box.”

And so the professionals are coming up with plenty of games, arts and crafts, and other activities to help keep everyone engaged.

“It’s a great thing if you really enjoy caring for people,” Jenkins said. “At the end of the day, you know that you did something well and you’re rewarded with a big smile, and that it makes a difference in their world.”

She has been with Mainstay Life Services for four years after moving back to the Pittsburgh area from Texas, where she had done similar work for decades.

“You can do all the training in the world,” she said. “The one thing you cannot train someone to do is actually care.”

Grimm joined Mainstay after becoming familiar with the organization, its mission and the people it serves while she working at a long-departed Raceway Plaza restaurant.

“There would be a group of five or six people who would come in every week. A lot of times, people don’t want to wait on this population,” she said, citing concerns, among others, that tips would be low or nonexistent. “Well, it didn’t bother me. I loved waiting on them. It didn’t matter to me whether I got money or not.”

When she went to work for Mainstay, she recognized one of the residents as a former co-worker at the restaurant.

“People would pick on her all the time, and that really bothered me. I would stick up for her and be behind her 100%,” Grimm said. “You have to get to know the person. You have to get to know the whole person, the good and the bad, to really figure out what they’re about.”

She spoke further about what her job entails:

“We do more than take care of the individuals. We’re also like a plumber. We go shopping. We’re like an electrician. We build things, whatever needs to be done. And I’ll tell you what, the medical knowledge that you learn doing this job is very beneficial in your own life.”

For those seeking employment, Mainstay has adjusted to the COVID-19 situation by conducting interviews and orientations by virtual means.

“We’re hoping that people who maybe are doing this temporarily will find out that they do really love the work,” Sonafelt said. “We have had some real success within the last month of hiring new people.”

She extended compliments to the organization’s direct support professionals, in general.

“They’re essential workers who are going to work each and every day, who cannot do their jobs at home and are working with people who don’t understand,” she said. “So I’ll be forever grateful.”

For more information, visit mainstaylifeservices.org.

Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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