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Group of people stand in front of bunting flags on wall and a table with food and a purple table cloth

The Queens Crisis Intervention Support Group, a longstanding bilingual program at YAI in Queens through the Community and Family Services division, has reinvented itself to better serve families of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) in need during the COVID-19 crisis. The program caters to native Spanish speakers, providing instruction on the use of English-based resources such as OPWDD online portals or immigration documents.

“Our bilingual support group has been going on for about 10 years,” said Jennifer Corcino, Bilingual Assistant Social Worker at Kew Gardens. “We want to support our community in any way we can.”

In a time when uncertainty is high and many people are seeking familiarity, the Bilingual Support Group has comforted a population that has never really found it outside of its own community. Led by YAI’s leading Latino Expert and Senior Coordinator Rocio Ruiz, the program is one of the many initiatives YAI has put together over the years to ensure that the Latino I/DD community’s needs are being met.

“YAI is committed to ensuring that Spanish-speaking communities throughout the region are also supported year-round,” Ruiz said. “We do this weekly through programs like this and yearly through opportunities like the Conferencia Latina, taking place in early June.”

Elida Campos was one of the first to enroll in 2000. The program was instrumental in helping her better understand her child, whose disability made for some unique parenting challenges. She continues to attend in order to provide insight to her fellow participants.

“There weren’t many groups available to people, but YAI changed that,” Campos said. “Now, through the program, I can tell the others about my experiences when my son Daniel was 10, and help them understand the differences in services that are available.”

Because the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected both non-native speakers and people with I/DD, participation has skyrocketed. Earlier in 2020, the group consisted of seven parents with children ranging from 8-38 years old, all on the autism spectrum. But once COVID-19 started to change daily routines, Corcino and her supervisors shifted to Zoom. With a higher recorded attendance and a greater sense of appreciation, the Kew Gardens team decided it could meet twice as often and accommodate as many as 15 people, doubling participation overnight.

“We started out talking about things like how are you implementing CDC guidelines on social distancing, how to do laundry, and other ‘normal’ things that many of us just expected to be easy to take care of outside of a pandemic,” Corcino said. “We also have our participants considering things like how to create a safe space in your home when there is all this negative stuff happening outside.”

Areas with a greater density of immigrant populations like Queens have seen a higher infection rate than other parts of the city. As a result, many families in this region are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. This additional risk adds to the stress of not fully understanding what is happening around them, Corcino shared.

“We were direct from the beginning, telling them this will last longer than three or four weeks,” Corcino said. “We aren’t providing a band aid for this crisis, but rather we are providing the families we support with the necessary tools to make sense of their situations and grow during this crisis.”

Some solutions that Corcino suggests participants consider include implementing schedules for children focused on education, play time, and keeping kids occupied to provide breaks for the parents. Time decompressing while making morning coffee or taking a shower are treasured moments that give parents with much-needed processing time.

“I try to provide them with skillsets that will help them maintain and strengthen their experience,” Corcino said. “It comes down to being purposeful, taking our time, and being mindful so that we can replenish our own selves before taking care of others.”

Adapting the support group to this new environment was an easy decision, Corcino concluded. While she does miss seeing the family members at Kew Gardens, her main priority is providing different alternatives to support mental health during this chaos.

“If they want to continue doing this both in-person and remotely post-COVID, then that’s okay,” Corcino said. “Whatever is most effective for them is what matters most.”