As Chattanooga area businesses shift, pivot and change, trying to adapt to a new normal, many are tapping into the passion that led them to open their business in the first place. Over the course of the next number of weeks, The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce will profile some of these owners and share their inspirational stories on how they are doing it.
“Four months ago, our focus shifted entirely to keeping people safe from the coronavirus,” says Tera Roberts, new CEO of the Orange Grove Center. The local nonprofit, with its largest campus in East Chattanooga, has served people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for nearly 70 years.
“We restructured or suspended every service we provide, and now we are very gradually returning to normalcy, but those programs that supported people in groups won’t be fully reinstated until we have a treatment or a vaccine. We serve many people who have significant disabilities, and many of those have additional medical conditions that increase their health risks, and they live in congregate group homes. These risk factors can be a recipe for a potential tragedy in a pandemic. We are doing everything we can to mitigate the spread of this virus so we do not suffer tragedy.”
With 65 group homes, 140 residents working in community jobs, another 180 in volunteer opportunities, plus over 700 full-time staff across Hamilton County and North Georgia, staying safe is a huge undertaking. Orange Grove’s first round of full COVID testing took about three months. Now with additional testing resources, they are gearing up for monthly testing with a focus on shift staff.
“We have created sick and well bays for when people need to be quarantined and it has gone remarkably well,” says Ms. Roberts. “We have had a few people that had to be hospitalized including one employee. But given our size, we have done very well so far. I am pleased we have had no loss of life from this pandemic.”
While large group services are still not happening, Orange Grove is now allowing up to seven people to gather for school programs as well as some small training programs. Additionally, some individuals have been able to return to their jobs in the community. Even with the safe progress, most visitors including families are still not allowed into most of the group homes.
“We do have some essential visitors that are allowed in homes like for hospice patients, that must continue, but for the most part visitors are not allowed in the homes,” says Ms. Roberts. ”It has been months since family members have been allowed to see their loved ones except for Zoom calls and Facetime. We do now allow outdoor visitors.”
No more than two family members, with masks, social distancing and no exchanging of any items.
“Our primary goal is safety,” says Ms. Roberts.
Like all workplaces these days, decision-makers have learned to be nimble and adaptive.
“We had to hold graduation during the pandemic, so we held a beautiful, outdoor drive-through ceremony where we had bubbles, balloons, diplomas and gifts, and administrators from the Hamilton County School system were on hand."
And when residents couldn’t be at their annual golf tournament, Orange Grove found a way to remind golfers of why they play.
“We made life-sized cut-outs of them, we wanted our donors and people who play golf to still hang out with the people we support, they were a big hit.”
“We can’t lose sight of the human factor we are dealing with. Even though people are largely having to stay at home right now, we are doing our best to give them music classes on Zoom, virtual things to do, calls from case managers, drive-by signs in their yards, special deliveries, rides to the park, anything we can do, that is what Orange Grove is about, our people.”
Right now, they need even more people to make it all happen.
“Before COVID, we were already in a hiring crisis. Because we are one of the companies that provides essential services, and sometimes we are going to care for people who are sick or exposed to COVID-19, it’s even harder for us to retain employees.”
Currently, there are 100 job openings for the Orange Grove Center.
“We will get through this crisis and my hope is we will come out better with so many important lessons learned,” Ms. Roberts says. “I have learned so much through this. We are using technology in ways that we have never used before. It seems we were so hung up on employees needing to punch a clock Monday through Friday. With training, payroll and HR, we now know we can largely do those jobs remotely. So many lessons learned. I want everyone to know that in the midst of all of these changes, we are committed to upholding our mission 1000%. We are not going anywhere. We want more employees to join our team and help us. We will continue to be here for decades to come, taking care of this population. This is one of the most vulnerable populations that exist and it is our privilege to provide these services.”
It’s a passion that has fed Ms. Roberts over the course of her 25-year career at Orange Grove. She is the very first internal candidate ever selected by the board to be the CEO and out of 80 qualified candidates across the nation.
“I took over as CEO in mid-November, exactly four months later, COVID happened,” she says. “I came in with all of this passion and all of these written out planned goals that I wanted to accomplish. Coming up through the ranks, I saw things I loved about Orange Grove and things I wanted to do a little differently. The pandemic has only strengthened my passion. Even though we have in some ways, temporarily replaced operational strategic planning for COVID-19 response planning, I am blessed to be in this role. And, I assure you, I have gotten more out of this than I have given.”
Ms. Roberts began her career at Orange Grove at age 22. After graduating from the University of Georgia, with a degree in social work, she was hired as a supervisor to manage five group homes. As she grew in her field, so did her roles at Orange Grove. She was a job developer, a coordinator over employment, and recycling services. Later she was promoted as director of adult services where she made her mark on the agency for 17 years.
“The number of departments put under me continued to grow. When I left that position, I was responsible for day services, transportation services, the personal assistance program, day nursing services and Georgia services. I was over about a third of the agency before taking this position.”
“What really kept me here was: I had a lot of position changes and I was always given the freedom to create. ‘Why don't we create a work program that does this? Or why don’t we contract with this company to employ people? Or why don’t we grow this volunteer program?’ And, the administration fully supported our growth and community involvement. I have enjoyed my personal and professional growth at Orange Grove. And, I want to continue to foster the type of environment where employees feel supported to be creative and to do anything and everything to make Orange Grove a better place.”
It was a summer job before coming to Orange Grove that would shape Robert’s future in the field of serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Trying to find summer work, she stopped into Open Arms Care, a nonprofit with a mission similar to Orange Grove Center's. It was right by her house and she needed work.
“I was looking for a job and I wandered into a place that serves people with significant disabilities, and they said, ‘Do you know what we do here?’ And, I said, ‘I had no idea.’ And they said, ‘Are you still interested?’ And, I said, ‘Yes, I think so.’ I fell in love that summer. I had never seen anyone have a seizure before. I had never ridden in an ambulance. I had never witnessed some of the peculiar behaviors I was seeing. I was enamored by the diversity of responsibility I had as a caregiver and by the beautiful and sometimes complex diagnoses I began learning about.”
After that summer, her job path was pretty clear. She took on many similar roles and also explored the mental health field before landing at Orange Grove.
“I would sit with these individuals with disabilities and watch them sleep at night and I would think about how amazing ... what God had created and how they teach me to be a more understanding and better human being, not just a human doing. They have as much value as I have or more, and to be able to learn from them, and appreciate the beauty and diversity of creation is phenomenal for me.”
Ms. Roberts, who now holds a Master’s in public administration with a nonprofit emphasis, wishes more people would look at this field for their careers.
“We have on-staff doctors, nurses, special ed teachers, non-special ed teachers, job developers, bus drivers,” Ms. Roberts says. “Maybe you have a passion to be an occupational therapist or to be a dentist ... I would hope that more people would look to this field to develop their passions.”
If anyone can help fill the job vacancies at the Orange Grove Center, it’s probably Tera Roberts. No doubt, there are lots of challenges right now.
“It’s a tough time. I spend the majority of my time trying to stay ahead of this virus and trying to find new streams of revenue because of how depleting this pandemic has been to our funding. There will be better days ahead. I miss our celebrations. ‘Recognize, support, and celebrate’ is part of our mission. We like to celebrate as an organization, as the Orange Grove family.”
One reason to celebrate? The fact that some of the people with disabilities that Orange Grove supports have been able to serve as essential employees during the pandemic.
“We usually think of people that receive services from Orange Grove as needing essential workers to take care of them, and many do. But, we also have individuals that are filling important jobs in our community, such as workers that have not missed a day in Memorial Hospital's kitchen washing pots and pans and providing invaluable services. This is just a small example of the people we serve making terrific community contributions and I am super proud to witness their dedication.”
“At Orange Grove, we always have something to celebrate, but I do miss the hugs, and the dances, and the parties…in the future, I won’t take those for granted again.”