CHESTERFIELD -- The closure of a Chesterfield day program for adults living with disabilities has highlighted a greater need in the community.
The organization that ran the program is called Branches of Life. It was founded by former high school special education teachers, and for the last seven years, they ran a successful educational hub in Chester off Whitepine Rd.
"Nothing compared to this. It was really over the top," said Susan Berberich.
From yoga in the park, karaoke, trips to the James River and more, Berberich said it gave her 40-year-old son, Doug Hardy, a wonderful place to go five days a week.
"Were you happy there?" asked Berberich, as she and her son reminisced over photos of Hardy at the River Walk and surrounded by his peers.
"Yeah," said Hardy.
"Yeah I know, you were really, really happy," said Berberick
"Happy," said Hardy.
Berberich said Hardy was a premature baby and had mental delays and a hearing impairment as a result. But she said he had a good experience all the way through grade school in Henrico, graduating from Tucker High School in their Special Education program.
"But the problem comes is that once special kids graduate through the school system -- that's it," said Berberich.
She said there are very few options for adults with disabilities.
"We found Branches of Life, it was like, wow! I mean they are doing some really cool things with these young people," said Berberich. "It gets them out. It gets them out doing things."
Wendi Strickland, director and co-founder, said they started program after seeing the need in the community.
"Graduations became this sort of tragic experience for people where, what do we do now?" said Strickland. "We started because we wanted to answer that question."
And the demand was there. Strickland said they served about 50 clients just in their day program, with close to 75 on the waitlist. But all that changed when COVID hit in the spring.
"When schools closed down, we closed down," said Strickland.
As days turned to weeks Strickland said they realized they couldn’t reopen.
"A lot of folks that we support have multiple disabilities and are at a very high risk," said Strickland. "It sort of hit us that like, I don't think we can come back from this. I don't see a world in the next year where people can be super close to each other."
Strickland said what was even more difficult to see was how devastating this was for their clients.
"We have a lot of people that we love and care about very much saying, 'where do we go and what do we do?'"
She said now, Branches of Life plans to move in a different direction, reopening in June as a support outlet for other programs and to better integrate special needs adults with their communities.
"So that if there is something like this again, the gap that we left behind isn't so significant," said Strickland. "Our goal is to connect with people in our community to enhance what can be offered in the community. To, you know, help people go bowling and have a friendly face there -- or a place to go practicing. And so, we are reaching out, instead of trying to rebuild what we used to have, which was rad, but it was limited to only a few people that we can help."
Strickland said the goal for Branches of Life is to eventually become a nonprofit. The organization hopes the community can learn to embrace those with disabilities and are asking for support from whoever is willing to help in that mission.
"We'd be happy to work with businesses that are interested in maybe, making sure that their business practices are inclusive, making sure that you can get in the door, if you use a wheelchair and get through the aisles. Making sure that, you know, there's a way to order if you're not a reader, and all kinds of stuff like that," said Strickland. "We're really intent on problem solving and reducing barriers for people with significant developmental disabilities so that they can stay in our community and thrive."
While Berberich and Hardy were hopeful for new opportunities, they still felt the loss of their beloved day program. Berberich said she hoped more community awareness and education would shed light on the need for this underserved community.
"It's a small population, and it just doesn't get a whole lot of focus," said Berberich.
You can help support the Branches of Life mission by contacting them through their website: branchesva.org.