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Local Young Adults Play Critical Role During Pandemic

July 7, 2020

In her rare moments of free time, Odalis Ascencio plugs in her headphones and laces up her shoes. Propelled by determination and the rhythms of reggaeton – her hype music – her feet pound the trails of the St. Olaf College Natural Lands, or the track at Carleton College. Each step brings her closer to achieving her short-term goal: completing a four-mile run.

Odalis took up running in early June as a way to relieve stress. Since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Minnesota, the 19-year-old has worked about 45 hours a week at Three Links Care Center and 20 hours a week at Laura Baker Services Association, while also taking two online classes through Riverland Community College, supported by the Northfield Community College Collaborative (NCCC).

A 2019 alumna of Northfield High School and of the Tackling Obstacles and Raising Hopes (TORCH) program, Odalis started her job at Three Links in March 2019, as a personal care assistant for patients with memory loss. She took on the second job at Laura Baker more recently, to save money for a house and for additional schooling. She plans to transfer to Normandale Community College in Bloomington this fall, a step that brings her closer to her long-term goal of becoming a registered nurse.

Although working during the pandemic has posed new challenges, like getting used to wearing personal protective equipment, Odalis said it’s also given her a different perspective on life.

“It has taught me that we only live once. We should live to the max, and be appreciative of what we have. We won’t be here forever, and we should help those who need it,” Odalis said.

Odalis is one of many young adults in Northfield who have continued to work during the pandemic. This workforce includes current students and alumni of TORCH and the NCCC, two flagship Northfield Promise initiatives. The jobs they hold are considered essential, not just by declaration of the governor, but by the people who depend on the services those workers provide.

Sandi Gerdes, executive director at Laura Baker, said the organization depends greatly on its younger employees; about 50 percent of its direct support staff are under age 30.

Direct support staff work in the community or on the Laura Baker campus, helping people with developmental disabilities complete daily tasks like bathing, dressing, and toileting.

“Staff members who do well here are people who have experienced challenge in their own lives and tend to be compassionate,” Sandi said. “For younger people, it’s sometimes easier for them to be able to access that. They are able to be personal and warm and create those relationships. They feel passionate about people being supported the way they need to be supported.”

COVID-19 regulations have limited the outside activities of Laura Baker clients, and visits with family and friends have been curtailed to virtual-only. Sandi said many clients don’t understand these changes, or why their caregivers are wearing masks and other protective gear. Staff members and clients alike have had to adjust to the changes and the additional stress.

“As a society, we don’t tend to value the people who are in these positions; our reimbursement through Medicaid reflects that. But they are essential. The work they do is so important,” Sandi said. “I’d love to see society place a better value on it, so we can pay them better.”

Learning how to intervene in a crisis and remain calm, how to prioritize work, and how to balance being professional and personal are skills that employees develop on the job, Sandi said. Because of their experience at Laura Baker, some employees decide to pursue degrees in fields like nursing or social work.

Arturo Gomez, 17, is one of those employees. He has worked part-time at Laura Baker since October 2018, and he moved up to full-time when COVID hit.

“It’s helped me become more mature, more professional. It’s not just a job where I come to get paid. I enjoy this job, and I like coming here,” he said.

Arturo graduated from Northfield High School in June and plans to attend Riverland Community College in Austin this fall to study social work. He also plans to pick up shifts at Laura Baker when he’s home on break.

“This job definitely isn’t for everybody. But if you like helping people – obviously, these are vulnerable adults – this is a really fulfilling job.”

Iris Reyes Mijares started working at Laura Baker during the pandemic because they needed workers, and because she wanted a second job. Since graduating from Northfield High School in June, the 18-year-old has worked 30 hours every two weeks at Laura Baker, and 12 hours a week at Judy’s Floral Design. The two jobs are helping her save money for college; she plans to study law enforcement in the fall at Riverland Community College, with the goal of becoming a homicide detective or narcotics officer.

In both her jobs, Iris has learned to adapt to changing rules related to COVID. She hasn’t worried about getting sick, herself, but she takes the risks seriously, especially when it comes to caring for her clients at Laura Baker.

“I follow the rules and take care of myself. I know they can’t be off campus, and if they end up getting sick it will be on me,” she said.

As a cashier at Kwik Trip, 17-year-old Jennifer Boudreau has also learned to adapt to changing rules during the pandemic. When Minnesota was under a stay-at-home order, she expected business to slow down, but it remained busy, and she often worked 30 to 34 hours a week. She said it was challenging to juggle her junior year of high school, PSEO classes and work this spring, while also experiencing the sadness of not having prom. But she recently saved enough money to put a big down payment on a car. She plans to keep working this fall, and she’ll also take classes through the Northfield Community College Collaborative.

“It’s stressful enough as it is; some customers are rude and leave big messes for us to clean up,” she said. “But some customers have said, ‘you guys must be tired, we’re glad you guys are here.’”

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