Our series ‘Preparing for the Future of Human Services’ asks leaders in the Human Services community what they see as the future of the industry and how they’re harnessing new innovations to get ready for it. This week, we hear from Deirdre Hunter, Senior Vice President at JRI Developing Abilities. Having grown with JRI Developing Abilities since 1991 and now managing a range of residential services, employment supports, day habilitation programs for adults with developmental needs, Deirdre has a world of insights about the industry — and where it’s headed.
Be sure to check out part 1 of our series, featuring an interview with Kathee Jordan, CEO of Seven Hills.
Can you tell me a bit about your role at JRI?
Deirdre Hunter: My role is to oversee and support our services specifically for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As a Senior Vice President, I work with the core executive team of the Justice Resource Institute.
Like many other leaders, my role encompasses many things, from supporting division directors, managing workforce operations, program finances, funding and beyond. With JRI as whole, I support the directors of other divisions, helping with training and mentorship.
I’m also very active in JRI’s Diversity Advisory Group, which is a large group of internal leaders developing a diversity and equity implementation plan. As part of that team, I help turn hundreds of action steps into concrete policies to see that our practices and our organizational culture reflect our diversity and equity goals.
What are some of the biggest challenges brought on by COVID-19 that you and your teams are working to address?
DH: The first challenge was supporting our staff and the people we serve who have been so impacted by the pandemic. There has been a tremendous pace of change coupled with the general uncertainty of the pandemic that we’ve all had to experience. There are many practical things that have changed, like supplies, funding, and resources. But, more critically, we never want to lose sight of the enormous stress that the people we serve, their communities, and our staff have had to face.
“Technology is going to play a vital role in supporting people with disabilities. As I look ahead, I can’t imagine any aspect of what we do not incorporating it.”
Being in a leadership role, it’s essential to look ahead and determine what we should be prepared for as things continue to change. At JRI, we’ve created new day service models that will hopefully be permanent. But there are many other challenges we are seeking to address, particularly in terms of what people and their families need — and what our workforce deserves.
Human Services agencies are adapting their business models not only for COVID-19 but beyond it. How has this year changed the way your organization delivers services?
DH: We have changed any number of things enormously. Within my own divisions, Developing Abilities and Berkshire Meadows, operations have changed significantly. We have centralized and standardized a number of processes.
For example, we’ve transformed how we deliver supplies in our group homes for adults. Previously, those in the home were typically responsible for their own shopping and keeping track of supplies. But In this pandemic, that wasn’t always possible. Staff members couldn’t always retrieve or deliver supplies in the ways they had before. We’ve centralized that. We’ve set up supply centers where we order and distribute supplies, manage logistics, and even coordinate transportation.
“There will always be that intimate, personal care that we provide people, but technology is helping us connect with each other in completely new ways.”
Beyond that, our staff training has changed drastically. We’ve changed curriculums to be done virtually using our Teams platform as well as Zoom. That has meant a learning curve for staff and adding a lot more equipment into the homes.
In terms of services, we’ve tried to keep things as positive as possible and maintain a level of normalcy while at the same time implementing really rigorous infectious control protocols to keep everyone safe.
Our day programs were completely altered in order to provide remote services to people who are nonverbal or have minimal verbal skills. In the past, we might not have imagined how we could connect with these folks in a remote environment. Our day services quickly gathered equipment and developed a curriculum to engage those folks who were stuck at home.
Technology is playing an ever-increasing role in the industry and our lives. What opportunities do you see for using technology, especially in service delivery?
DH: Technology is going to play a vital role in supporting people with disabilities. As I look ahead, I can’t imagine any aspect of what we do not incorporating some element of technology.
There will always be that intimate, personal care that we provide people, but technology is guiding our communications and our ability to help people gain independence. It’s also helping us connect with each other in completely new ways.
We know DDS and MassHealth are working on permanent plans for remote and virtual services to continue. A year ago, the thought that this could happen was almost unimaginable. And, yet, here we are one year later engaging nonverbal people virtually. It’s been an enormous shift.
Technology also plays a huge role with our staff. We’re already automated with several personnel apps and that’s only going to grow. There’s going to be a huge leap in how staff get information and record information.
What are some of the ways JRI is using technology to enhance its services and support its organization?
DH: JRI has been very aggressive about adopting new technologies. I can’t imagine trying to get through this year without them.
This may sound minor, but we were so lucky before the pandemic to roll out the Microsoft SharePoint Platform within JRI. I can’t even imagine how we would have transitioned to remote work without that shared platform between SharePoint and our teams.
Our industry has historically been a late adopter of new technology. I’m sure there are other industries that are always up to date with the latest technology, but for organizations like ours, to be able to have the resources to implement a solution like SharePoint across 2,400 employees is a really big deal.
What opportunities do you see for new types of collaboration and partnerships that could lead to innovative solutions?
DH: I think the pandemic has changed what’s possible. For instance, the idea that alternative day service models will continue is enormous. That’s one of the biggest changes ever. The idea that telehealth would come to day habilitation or even employment day services is very radical. There may be new opportunities for partnerships that lead to real innovation.
Prior to the pandemic, we brought a Tech Trailer into the parking lot at the 2019 Talking Tech Conference hosted by DDS and ADDP. Back then, some of the ideas we were talking about seemed way far out there to some of the attendees. We even had a keynote speaker talking about virtual relationships.
The pandemic seems to have broken that wide open. Suddenly there are new opportunities for partnerships and new relationships we hadn’t thought of before.
What has helped you lead and respond to this incredibly challenging time?
DH: Lately, I’ve witnessed a new level of openness when it comes to helping each other. There’s more flexibility and more kindness than I’ve ever seen before. For me, being thoughtful about what other people need is essential. A lot of that is about taking on other people’s perspectives.
We have to step out of that bureaucratic “blame and judgement” mindset. Instead of asking “how come you didn’t fix this yet?” we should be asking “what are we looking at here? What can we do together to move it in the right direction?”
I’ve worked in social justice and Human Service nonprofits my whole life and I’ve never seen judgment or blame get us anywhere. This is really hard work, and it’s really important work. We’re not going to get anything out of people by yelling at them. You have to listen and put yourself in their shoes.