For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety, but for the 800 alumni of Lesley’s Threshold Program, it has been an extraordinary challenge.
The Threshold Program offers young adults with neurodiverse learning styles an opportunity to leave home, navigate dorm living and develop strong work habits and independent living skills. Along the way, they create life-long relationships with classmates, faculty, staff and other alumni. After graduation most alumni choose to reside locally, working and thriving in their independent lives.
With the onset of the pandemic, the tightknit, fiercely independent community of Threshold alumni were suddenly isolated, scared and uncertain. After years of developing the skills needed to thrive in the independent world, many alumni suddenly found themselves out of work and returning to their parent’s homes. Others were working essential jobs and traveling on public transportation. Unable to see family and friends regularly, many felt increasingly alone and anxious.
In ordinary times, the Threshold Alumni Center offers a source of ongoing support. Alumni frequently contact staff to ask employment advice, find connections to resources, learn new skills or participate in activities. As the pandemic developed, Alumni Center staff members Krista DiGregorio and Justin Chapman quickly realized that they needed to pivot and find new ways to support alumni virtually.
Working with Alumni Center interns Natalie Seggertz and Kaylin Massar, staff quickly began to offer instructions on joining Zoom and scheduled their first meetings. Between 30 and 40 alumni joined the first virtual group chats, eager to reconnect and to share their stories of layoffs, isolation, scary workplace situations and more. In the face of countless job losses, Alumni Center staff helped alumni apply for unemployment and navigate the already overwhelmed system.
But as time went on, the mood of the virtual meetings began to shift. Staff offered fun videos on COVID cooking, resources for virtual museum tours and celebrated the early release of "Frozen 2." They added fitness classes, game nights and even hosted a virtual semi-formal with a DJ. As the weeks led to months, staff saw a need for alumni to exert their independence and suggested that alumni lead some of these groups themselves.
Suddenly the silver lining of the COVID cloud began to appear. An initially introverted alumnus, Clay Robin, who had always been hesitant to join large groups, mentioned his love for music. Staff suggested he create a Music Hour and supplied a Zoom link and support. It started with three or four other alumni discussing favorite songs and listening to music. Clay quickly took charge, choosing songs and thoughtfully introducing them, asking others for their opinions and input. Each week he selects a theme and recently focused on Black artists and protest songs. His passion and preparation have been rewarded with a constantly growing group of listeners.
Another alumnus, Jon Bernstein, who had recently retired, was a quiet and supportive presence during the group Zoom calls. Recently he mentioned that he had begun to take photos during his daily walks as a form of escape and relaxation. With encouragement from staff and fellow Threshold graduates, Bernstein decided to create his first blog and post his observations. Using new skills he acquired during quarantine, he has found a way to fill his time and offer others a much-needed respite. He plans to continue blogging once things return to their new normal.
Jon also offered to assist another alum, Jimmy Ice, who was hoping to start offering online personal training classes. Alumni Center staff proposed that Ice and Bernstein collaborate on an alumni-run weekly fitness class to begin to try out Ice’s newly acquired training skills in a safe supportive environment. Now, a regular group of alumni start each week off with J & J Fitness.
Jessie Fire, an alumna who has been making hooked rugs for years with her mom, offered to host a Hobby Hour where alumni could chat while working on a craft activity of their choice. Many alumni join the group and work on their knitting or coloring; some chat, others hardly glance toward the screen. Often the group extends well past their planned hour.
Several alumni have started new online Instagram or YouTube shows. One alum, Nicole Hilon, currently living in Israel, posts beauty tutorials on YouTube where her many followers learn new makeup application tricks and special techniques. Two classmates and friends, Brandon Mager and Jack Savas, have created an Instagram Live Sports talk show, sharing their opinions and sports takes.
“We have received almost daily feedback from parents and alumni thanking us for our daily schedule of activities and support,” says DiGregorio. “It's been incredible to witness and support the leadership and independence of our alumni.”
She is optimistic that once the pandemic subsides, Threshold graduates will continue to develop these new online social skills even as they return to a full slate of brunch clubs, baseball games and international trips together. In the meantime, Threshold alumni continue to demonstrate impressive resiliency and independent spirit.