Team players in a pandemic

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit New York City, Odyssey House staff and clients alike have been stepping up, taking on new responsibilities to keep their colleagues and fellow clients safe and healthy.

Essential workers stepping up and taking on new roles to keep services running safely are heroes to all New Yorkers. The staff at the Odyssey House Harbor in East Harlem are our heroes.

Andrea Jones, Senior Resident Assistant

The Harbor houses 60 individuals who are dealing with mental health issues, and staff like Andrea Jones, Senior Resident Assistant (SRA), and her coworker Brenda Kearse, resident assistant (RA), have been critical to running the program amid the pandemic. Neither Andrea nor Brenda has missed a single day of work since COVID-19 hit NYC. In the early days, as people called out sick, leaving the Harbor short-staffed, Andrea and Brenda stepped up.

“We had to hold down the fort!” said Andrea. “You do what you have to do. The residents depend on us for everything and we can’t let them down. We have to make it work, no matter what. It doesn’t matter what your job title is, we do what needs doing.”

Above and beyond

Their dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed. One of their supervisors, Val Major, Senior Director for Community Housing, said “during this crisis, Andrea and Brenda continued to show up for work, working through their fears and apprehension. They continue to go far above what is expected of them and they have been the epitome of team players.”

Resident assistants at the Harbor develop a close working relationship with the tenants. They dispense medications, listen when residents need to talk, offer advice, and help residents tackle their day-to-day tasks like laundry and cleaning. RAs run groups, help residents manage their finances and spend one-on-one time with those who need a little extra attention or guidance on a particular day. They’re essential workers at any time, not just during a pandemic.

Implementing safety protocols like wearing masks and encouraging social distancing can be particularly challenging in a transitional mental health housing setting.  According to Andrea, “Some of the residents don’t understand the seriousness of the virus  – so we continually remind them to wear masks, show them how to wear them properly, encourage social distancing, wash their hands, and let us know immediately if they start to feel unwell.”

‘Our goal is 100% safety’

Brenda Kearse, Resident Assistant

Despite the challenges to keep everyone safe during this unprecedented health crisis, the staff focus on keeping things as normal as possible and engage residents in in-house activities that minimize time outside. Brenda said, “We’re always talking about safety, safety, safety. Most get it, but some struggle. I don’t care how many times I have to remind them to wear masks, I want them to be safe. Our goal is 100% safety.”

It’s demanding, essential work during a time when many people are understandably fearful for the health of themselves and their loved ones. But Andrea and Brenda aren’t worried because they take all the necessary steps to reduce risk and have each other’s backs.  “We work as a team here. It takes a team to do what we do,” said Brenda.

And they know they’re fully supported by their supervisors. “They don’t ask you to do anything they aren’t willing to do themselves. It keeps you going and it makes whatever you’re faced with easier. It makes a difference,” said Andrea. “When you know you’re completely supported, it’s awesome.”

“In a way, nothing much has changed,” Andrea continued. “I still come to work every day. Now I just wear gloves and a mask!”