Isolation caused by COVID-19 restrictions has been tough on everyone, but especially those with special needs.
Monique Fox’s son David, 31, had been going to Stephens House for 10 years after transitioning out of high school. Stephens House, which helps people with special needs, suddenly closed for 1½ years due to the pandemic.
“It left a void,” Fox said. “COVID’s been very difficult for David.” The reopening of Stephens House has filled that void. “It’s the first time he’s seen his friends in a very long time,” Fox said, adding he’s confused why not everyone has returned. “He asks a lot where everybody is,” Fox said. “I don’t know if he fully understands where they’ve all gone.” She said her son doesn’t know how to “use social media well enough to keep in touch.”
Matilda Thulin, the new program director there, said reasons vary for not returning yet. Some have gotten into new routines. Others are still concerned about COVID. Others are “on the fence” about going back to their old routine. She hopes eventually they will return, and that new members will join, too.
She said the Bainbridge Island Special Needs Foundation runs the daily activity program, which has been operating on BI for 20 years. Members with intellectual abilities all over the autism spectrum come from all over Kitsap County.
Activities include bowling, swimming, gardening, exercising, cooking, playing puzzles and games, using arts and crafts, learning life skills and the computer, singalongs, and they also go on field trips to restaurants, parks and beaches, sporting events, movies, the library and museums.
Thulin said her clients really need time together. “Those with special needs need socializing way worse.”
She said employees at Stephens House tried to have weekly face time with clients virtually when it first closed, “But after a while it became too difficult.”
Thulin grew up in Sweden where her father was a social worker. When he was a school counselor she would hang out with him as he would talk to struggling teens on different topics. She liked the idea of “trying to help them become the best versions of themselves even though they have these challenges.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science. She worked in a group home and then did legal work in case management, but she “missed that social connection with clients.”
She and her husband, who is in the Navy, moved to the United States four years ago, first to D.C. and then to Bainbridge Island. She did some research before coming to BI. “It’s similar to my home country,” she said. “They help each other out and take care of each other. They’re friendlier to people they don’t know; more helpful and outgoing.”
As for her first month on the job, she said the most challenging part has been finding activities they all can enjoy because their abilities are all over the spectrum. She encourages them to perform to the best of their ability and not worry about being perfect. “They need to feel accepted and appreciated for who they are,” she said.
Linda Purdom, who has been involved at Stephens House for years, said it got its start in 1999 when some parents whose special-needs children were “aging out” of high school at 21 wondered, “What do we do now? There’s nothing for them.”
At first, it was vocational. They made and sold donuts, candles and lotion. But then it “morphed into more of a social place,” Purdom said, adding it became more of a daytime activity venue.
She said the facility really became popular when the state stepped in and helped pay the cost, so parents of clients could have some respite time of their own.
COVID was a hard time because the facility lost the house it had been in for 20 years. “We couldn’t sustain it,” she said, adding now the group meets in a room at the Eagle Harbor Congregational Church rather than the nearby house.
Purdom got involved at Stephens House while teaching special education at Woodward Middle School. “After coming through my program the support stops,” she said, adding she’s worked with people with special needs for 30 years. “That’s not the way it should be.”
She said she likes the program because clients can choose their hours. “They have too much to offer,” Purdom said. “We can help them get their foot in the door in the Bainbridge community.”
Glad to be back
Fox said Stephens House has been such a big help for her, being a single, working mom. When David first started he had gone from seeing his friends five days a week seven hours a day at school to nothing. But then he started going to Stephens House three days a week and got a job working two days a week. Then COVID hit, and, “he didn’t have either,” she said.
But his job soon put him back to work, making it so he could pack products from home. They would deliver products in bins to his house. David would put the materials on the dining table and package them with a bag sealer. He would then leave the packages out on the sidewalk on a folding table. And they would pick it up. “They were wonderful,” Fox said. “We never saw a person.”
Fox, an eighth-grade math teacher, said it worked great last year because she was able to work from home. But since teachers are back in school this year she had to take a leave of absence.
As for Stephens House, Fox said David enjoyed a recent coffee with some old friends. “He’s not super social,” she said, but he “was so happy just to be back.”
Because of COVID, the group doesn’t go visit people at the Senior Center, and David misses that, Fox said. While going bowling is still his favorite, he’s really gotten into CrossFit – so much so he has a regular membership along with the special adaptive class for Stephens House clients. “He’s really strong,” his mom said of David, and, “they’re attuned to his needs.”
Fox said CrossFit has been great during COVID with online workouts and even lending David equipment. “It’s a nice connection for him. But we learned David should not jump rope indoors,” Fox said with a laugh.
Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
105 Winslow Way W.
8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday