This story is reported by Queens Daily Eagle, a Spectrum News partner.
For nearly eight months, Ronell Culbengan took the train from Morris Park to his job at an H&M near Herald Square. The work enabled Culbengan to earn a steady income, while bonding with colleagues and forging the sort of social connections that can elude him.
But then COVID-19 hit New York City, shutting down the store and disrupting Ronell’s daily routine.
“The main thing is not being able to get paid, but the challenging part is not being able to see my coworkers because they helped me change my life around ever since I started to work,” said Culbengan.
The sudden and prolonged disruption to regular life can be particularly challenging for individuals with autism and developmental disabilities, like Culbengan.
To bridge the uncertainty, the organization Birch Family Services has stepped up to provide remote activities that continue connecting individuals for whom socialization can be a challenge.
Birch’s New Frontier program provides career training, job placement and consistent support for about 50 people with autism and developmental disabilities. Since the COVID-19 shutdown, Birch and New Frontier staff has increased counseling, outreach and group sessions via video conference.
“A change in routine for people with autism can sometimes seem insurmountable,” said New Frontier Employment Specialist Manager Ludovica Alcorn. “That kind of shift can be really challenging so it was important for the New Frontier team to continue with our regularly scheduled meetings, with no disruptions.”
Before the pandemic, people with disabilities were nearly twice as likely to be unemployed than people without a disability. The public health crisis only made things worse. The jobless rate for people with disabilities was nearly 19 percent, compared to 12.8 percent for people without disabilities, according to the federal government’s July jobs report.
New Frontier staff has helped participants tackle new challenges during the COVID crisis, like completing paperwork to qualify for unemployment benefits.
It’s another shift from their typical work, which includes linking employers with individuals who can solve specific needs. New Frontier staff helped a participant with a library science degree land a job archiving the extensive records at Riverside Church in Manhattan, for example.
“It’s carving out a position that suits the strengths of the individual and the needs of a corporation. We’re offering them the concept of customized employment,” said Lisa Sterrantino, the director of community services and New Frontier. “There are usually untapped needs in the company.”
Not all participants lost their jobs during the COVID-19 crisis.
For months, Harlem resident Dakota Gentry has continued transporting packages for RDS Delivery Services, arriving each morning at a warehouse in Long Island City to perform the essential job. Gentry said he is heartened by the support from grateful New Yorkers.
“I have been getting a little more recognition which is truly appreciated,” Gentry said. “This isn’t to say I have the same type of job as a frontline nurse, but we do keep the super important things going in spite of a rampaging killer virus.”
Culbengan, who is still furloughed, celebrated a year with H&M this month. He had hoped to mark the anniversary during a shift at the retail store, where he said he has grown and developed friendships. He is eager to board the train and return to the job.
“They basically helped me improve my social skills,” he said. “I’m hoping to go back.”
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