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New Empower Simcoe approach 'not enough,' clients lament

'Although Jamie's autism does not define him... he deserves a place to call his own,' says family member frustrated by agency's program changes
Lindsay Hoover is shown with her brother, Jamie, who attended Empower Simcoe's day programs for more than 20 years. Hoover said Jamie has had difficulties with the move away from building-based programming.

While a number of institutions have reopened their doors as pandemic restrictions lifted, Empower Simcoe has announced it is fundamentally changing the way it offers its services.

Empower Simcoe, an agency that provides support for adults with intellectual disabilities, will keep its King Street building in Orillia closed to its clients in lieu of offering activities around the community. In a recent news release, Empower Simcoe also announced its Barrie building, located at 39 Fraser Court, would remain closed.

The agency previously operated day programs for its clients within its buildings, but COVID-19 forced it to adapt and shift to outdoor and virtual programming.

On March 17, it announced it would permanently move away from building-based services, opting instead to form small cohorts with its staff and clients to participate in activities — such as heading to the gym or going bowling — based on their interests.

Empower Simcoe representatives argue the support its clients receive is more important than where it happens.

“A building is not a program or a support,” said Maxine Johnson, the agency’s director of programs and services. “(Our clients are) supported directly in an activity, and supported by staff based on the availability of that activity, and the hours of that activity, and it’s based on the interest of that person and the other people that would be participating with that.”

Under the new model, cohorts for activities will be formed in mornings and afternoons.

Johnson conceded that the change may be difficult for families, but said the new model can provide better service to its clients.

Families have previously expressed frustration at the changes Empower Simcoe underwent through the pandemic.

“I hear people’s frustration,” Johnson said. “Change is not easy for people and I understand that, but I think it’s really important to understand that our business is with the adults with intellectual disabilities, and the quality of supports and (making it) meaningful for them.

“You’ve got people waiting around in the building, so you could have had, at that time, anywhere between 45 and 60 people in a building waiting to go out,” she said. “The family sees benefits where they just drop them off and pick them up, but we’re here to support the interest of that person and not just kind of have them congregate in a building.”

Empower Simcoe CEO Claudine Cousins says this shift in services was planned prior to the pandemic, adding families were consulted on the change.

Some families, however, are not on board with the plan.

Lindsay Hoover’s 43-year-old brother, Jamie, has attended Empower Simcoe’s programming since he finished high school. 

Jamie, who has autism, previously attended the day program four days a week from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., and would participate in educational and recreational activities at the building, on top of getting out into the community to volunteer.

These days, Jamie is only participating in roughly six hours of programs per week through Empower Simcoe, said Lindsay, noting he has had issues with online programming offered through the pandemic.

“It took quite a long time for virtual activities to start happening online,” she said. “He’s not capable of receiving an email and opening a link, so he needed some supervision to get set up with that.”

“He’s been a lot more emotional,” Hoover said regarding changes to the programming. “He has difficulty understanding why he’s not seeing some of his best friends.”

Losing access to the building, Hoover said, was akin to Jamie losing much of his connection to his community.

“Every group of people has a place — a place that is meaningful, perhaps culturally significant — where they feel connection, identity, they attach personal significance, they build relationships in this place,” she said.

“If you’re an actor or a musician, you go to a rehearsal space. If you’re a teenager, you go to your drop-in centre,” Hoover explained.

“Although Jamie’s autism does not define him, it is a part of his identity, and he is allowed and he deserves a place to call his own,” she said. “They had a library, computers. All of those resources that are helpful, (including) sensory rooms, are gone. He has no access to that.”

Hoover, a teacher with Simcoe County District School Board, also said the new programs can create challenges for families.

She pointed out that the only reason she is able to take Jamie to the cohort programs is because she is currently battling cancer and is unable to work.

“If I were working, I couldn’t take him three or four days a week at 11 o’clock to the bowling alley or the rec centre.”

Christine Strang’s daughter, Jennifer, has attended Empower Simcoe’s programming for more than 20 years.

Strang said Jennifer likes to attend the new cohort programming, but she is missing the social interaction she had with the numerous friends she’s made over the years.

“She likes to go because this is the only socialization she has with those people that were her friends for 20-plus years,” she said. “I would drop her off at 8:45 in the morning and pick her up at 3:30, and she went four days a week, so this is not enough for her. She misses her (friends).”

Jennifer is now participating in roughly four hours per week of programming, Strang said, whereas the former day program provided a variety of opportunities for her daughter.

“Jennifer had an amazing program. Every day of the week, she was doing two things,” Strang said. “She’d do cooking in the morning, and then maybe bowling in the afternoon and then the next day she would do an exercise class in the morning, and then maybe swimming in the afternoon.”

Strang, who is retired, said the day program offered her the support she needed with Jennifer’s care, as well, and that the situation has become more difficult since losing it.

“Basically, it’s her and I. As far as looking after her and everything, I don't get any help,” she said. “I’ve had people in my life say she should go to a home and stuff, and I always said no, because I have the program four days a week.

“For me to try to get a doctor’s appointment or a hair appointment or a dental appointment is like a nightmare.”

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Greg McGrath-Goudie

About the Author: Greg McGrath-Goudie

Greg has been with Village Media since 2021, where he has worked as an LJI reporter for CollingwoodToday, and now as a city hall/general assignment reporter for OrilliaMatters
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