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For those with disabilities, a way to keep connected

Judith Doherty, program director of Bridgewell Family Support Center in Lynn, participates along with nearly 100 other "Zoommates" during the virtual family dance fitness class led by Harbor Fitness owner Kim Crowley.John G. Doherty

With the threat of COVID-19 escalating in mid-March, Patty McLaughlin was confronted with a decision: either move her 28-year-old daughter, Kara, back with the family in Peabody, or suspend visits to Kara’s Topsfield group home for adults with developmental disabilities.

Three days later, McLaughlin returned for her daughter. Little did anyone know at the time that the residential home operated by Bridgewell, a nonprofit based in Peabody, would remain completely off-limits to visitors until mid-June. Bridgewell’s day program for adults with disabilities remains closed more than four months later.

McLaughlin says that she and her husband, Michael – both of whom work for public schools – would be struggling to keep Kara stimulated and engaged without the virtual programming provided through a partnership between the family support centers of Bridgewell, Riverside Community Care in Woburn, and LifeLinks CLASS in Chelmsford.

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“Kara and I log onto their Zoom classes seven days a week. I don’t know what we’d do without them,” said McLaughlin. Virtually connecting with friends became even more crucial while the malls were closed, thereby eliminating Kara’s favorite pastime of shopping, her mother said.

“The Zoom classes really break up the day. And they’re free, which is even more wonderful,” McLaughlin said. “It’s just a huge relief to have something to occupy our time.”

Judith Doherty, program director of Bridgewell Family Support Center in Lynn and a board member of Advocates for Autism of Massachusetts, said she is proud to help provide a resource for families.

“This is a hard time for a lot of people, when we’re all going 24/7 with no end in sight. The virtual programming gives people something they can plan for, something they can count on,” said Doherty, noting that the classes are open to individuals and families affected by a developmental disability. “For those who are isolated and struggling, it’s a lifeline.”

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The 30- to 45-minute classes, which are designed to help maintain structure and routine while managing behavioral issues, include dance, fitness, singing, story time, music, art, crafts, yoga, and show and tell.

In addition, there is a virtual support group for families of adults who usually attend a day program. MMM: Moving, Mindfulness, Me is held three nights a week to offer caregivers a respite through calming music, meditation, and light stretching.

Doherty, who has two adult children with autism, said the experience of providing virtual programming has been rewarding – and surprisingly emotional at times.

For example, Harbor Fitness owner Kim Crowley – who had offered in-person classes to Bridgewell clients at her Marblehead studio and Rosewood Day Services programs prior to the pandemic – ends each virtual class with a group song. The participants who choose to enable their video option inevitably lean into their screens, wave warmly, give virtual hugs, and make heart hand gestures.

For a time, according to Doherty, family members joined Zoom classes just to see their children who were living in residential settings when COVID-related policies prevented in-person visits. Virtual programming will continue throughout the summer to meet ongoing need.

“When you watch people connecting in all these different ways,” she said, “it’s very heartwarming.”

View Bridgewell’s online calendar of classes at bridgewell.org/disability-services/autism-services/family-support-center. For more information, e=mail jdoherty@bridgewell.org.

Cindy Cantrell can be reached at cindycantrell20@gmail.com.

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