Archdiocesan staff who work with at-risk youth are relying on faith, hope and hygiene to reassure teens amid the uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I want them to feel safe, and to feel that they have some control in this situation,” said Colette Wade, a group home manager at St. Francis-St. Joseph and St. Vincent Homes (SFSV) in Bensalem.
Operated by archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS), the homes offer residential and educational programs, as well as case management and outpatient clinical services, for more than 100 dependent and delinquent teens aged 12 to 18.
Wade says she “tries to be as real as possible” about the coronavirus with the dozen boys she directly supervises.
“I talk to them on their level, and explain what we have to do to protect ourselves,” she said.
Face masks and continuous social distancing, even within the group home, are part of that strategy, said Wade.
“If I hear a sneeze, I need everybody to wash their hands,” she said.
Rigorous cleaning is essential, said Joanne Granato, a manager at St. Gabriel’s Hall, another CSS residential treatment program for adjudicated youth located in Audubon.
“We’re sanitizing everything twice a day, and in between uses as well,” Granato said, adding that cafeteria-style meals at the facility have been replaced by prepackaged portions.
Granato and Wade said that teens at both sites have been accepting of the protective measures, but their grasp of the crisis varies according to their age.
“Some of the older guys are asking insightful questions, and they’re open to the information about the coronavirus,” said Granato. “But they’re boys, and they can feel they’re invincible and have a sense of ‘this can’t happen to me.’”
For some youth, the pandemic has exacerbated “the personal trauma they’ve already experienced” earlier in their lives, she said.
With family visits to both sites suspended, both Granato and Wade are working to calm the anxiety among their teens.
“We’re letting them know that we’re here to help, and to provide support as we learn to do things differently,” said Granato.
Group therapy sessions continue at the sites, along with art and music therapy activities.
Wade has enlisted her youth in caring for houseplants and in building a small flower garden.
“We’re praying that something grows, since they weren’t afraid to get down and dirty with it,” she laughed. “I want them to see that life is still going on, that things are producing and not everything is doom and gloom.”
Exercise also relieves pent-up stress, she said, admitting that the workouts “might be a little exhausting to them,” but that she tries “to make it fun” by developing a routine corresponding to each teen’s name.
With classes suspended due to state orders, a sense of structure has become even more vital to the teens. Both Wade and Granato credited their staff for fostering stability in the residences.
“I’m blessed with a wonderful team,” said Granato. “They adapt quickly, and they really sacrifice themselves to be there for the kids.”
Granato likened her staff’s dedication “to Mary’s ‘yes’ at the Annunciation.”
“Nobody says no; if you ask them to do something, they figure it out and get back to you,” she said.
That same commitment has marked the careers of Granato and Wade, who have been on site for 37 and 20 years respectively.
“I love what I do,” said Wade. “The kids keep me going, and I truly believe they are our future.”
Granato said she relies on her faith to sustain her work, reciting the rosary during her commute and spending time in St. Gabriel’s chapel for prayer and reflection.
“This is a vocation and a mission, not a job,” she said.
Both women remain optimistic about the teens’ ability to navigate the coronavirus crisis.
“I was talking with one of the kids, and I asked where he saw himself in 12 years,” said Wade. “And he replied that he envisioned himself in the NBA, coming back here and giving very specific amounts of money to all the staff. He’d really thought it through, and I know these kids are still hoping and dreaming.”
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