Cathy Wolfe-Heberle, executive director of Blue Ridge Opportunities in Front Royal, paused for a moment when asked how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted her agency. “Boy, is that complicated,” she replied before delving into the finer details of what has been a turbulent year from the perspective of a nonprofit agency dedicated to serving individuals with disabilities.
On March 13, 2020, just as the virus was establishing a foothold across the nation and forcing sweeping shutdowns, Wolfe-Heberle said Blue Ridge Opportunities shuttered its doors.
Those doors remained closed for nearly eight months as the agency, staffed for most of that time only by Wolfe-Heberle, she said, went into “survival mode.” Blue Ridge Opportunities finally reopened on Nov. 2, she said, and even now, the agency is inching forward “little by little.”
Clients are still coming back in waves, Wolfe-Heberle said, because of the safety aspect and because some individuals the agency serves suffer from certain “behavioral challenges” that require a reacclimation process. Staff size is half of what it was pre-COVID-19, Blue Ridge Opportunities’ budget is down 58% and Wolfe-Heberle conceded that the “way things were doesn’t exist anymore.”
But as challenging as the last year has been, Wolfe-Heberle said increased financial contributions from community donors, paired with funding from local, state and federal avenues, allowed Blue Ridge Opportunities to survive and likened the agency’s situation to that of getting the chance to rewrite a book.
“At this point, we’re dreaming and we’re moving forward,” Wolfe-Heberle said. “It’s been devastating. We’ve had loss of life, loss of staff. Basically, our whole core identity disappeared on March 13. And we’ve cried and screamed, yelled and we’ve grieved for those losses, but even in all that suffering, we know that we’re resilient and we’ve been able to embrace that change and right now we’re presented with a huge opportunity to tap into and really evaluate who we are and what … really needs to be met, especially with the individuals that we serve and what’s important.”
Gone, Wolfe-Heberle said, is all of the “fluff” in the agency’s program, which has had to instead shift its sights to finding the core of “what’s really meaningful” and discover creative ways to generate new opportunities for the individuals the agency serves. That’s going to take time, she said, particularly since the long time away has resulted in lost social skills in clients with intellectual disabilities.
Before the pandemic, Wolfe-Heberle said Blue Ridge Opportunities served 59 individuals with 18 full-time staff members. On March 25, the agency was serving 11 individuals with nine full-time staff, and Wolfe-Heberle said she expected the number of clients to increase to 18 by April 12.
While the agency’s pre-pandemic budget sat around $1.2 million, Wolfe-Heberle said, “I may not even hit ($500,000) this year.”
Most of Blue Ridge Opportunities’ annual funding comes through Medicaid waivers for service provision, said Wolfe-Heberle, who added that it will take about 18 months to “climb back out of this.”
She expressed appreciation for the agency’s regular donors who have been “even more faithful” during the pandemic (donations are up 410%, she said), and commended Warren County and First Bank for making funds available through the federal CARES Act and the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, respectively.
Wolfe-Heberle added that Blue Ridge Opportunities was also able to obtain money through federal health and human services grants that allowed the agency to “keep the lights on.”
“We’re just grateful at this point,” Wolfe-Heberle said. “We’re looking at it as an opportunity and we know we’re resilient and I think we’re gonna be able to do good things coming up out of it. If you don’t look at it that way, you’re not gonna make it.”