Rodney Pelota

Mille Lacs Area Developmental Achievement Center (DAC) Executive Director Rodney Pelota addresses the county board at their last regular meeting on Aug. 4.

Since 1970, the Mille Lacs Area Developmental Achievement Center (DAC) has worked to provide vocational opportunities in the local community for those with disabilities. However, as is the case for many organizations, the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic has made that mission more difficult. At a Mille Lacs County Board meeting earlier this month, executive director Rodney Peltoma spoke on the financial situation currently faced by his centers in Milaca and Princeton amid COVID-19. After this meeting, Peltoma spoke with the Messenger on what options the DAC is pursuing to continue to provide its services to those who need them.

The work of the DAC

Explaining the work the DAC does, Peltoma stated that the Mille Lacs County DAC is licensed as a day training and habilitation program for those with disabilities. “We work with folks,” he said, “and provide them a person-centered program … we’re training people for vocational opportunities as well as community engagement opportunities that we contract with.” This includes in-center types of work to develop job skills, such as staying on task, following directions, paying attention to details of the job and doing quality control. The DAC also sends crews out to do contracted work with a number of local agencies, in what Peltoma referred to as “job enclaves.” DAC participants are accompanied by a job coach who works with them to train them and help them succeed.

Coping with COVID

When pandemic conditions first arrived in March of this year, the DAC closed their in-center operations and their community enclaves temporarily. It took until June for the program to partially re-open and reinstitute its job enclaves. “We’ve been slowly increasing our capacity in the community,” Peltoma said.

“Obviously,” Peltoma said, “we have a COVID preparedness plan.” He overviewed the DAC’s guidelines for training staff on mask-wearing, handwashing, social distancing, and other sanitization measures. He further noted that the DAC was also teaching people how to work in a COVID environment. “Most of our folks are getting good practice in mask wearing and social distancing,” Peltoma said.

The biggest problem, Peltoma explained, was that guidance from the Department of Human Services only allowed the DAC to operate at less than 50% capacity. While the DAC has traditionally offered six-hour instructional sessions each day, they currently are only able to offer for three hours. Staff are also included among the 50% capacity. Giving an example, he said that a building with a normal capacity of 60 persons would now be down to 30. If 10 of those individuals are staff, the DAC is only assisting 20 individuals. Even accounting for a morning and afternoon session of 20 people each, this meant the DAC was effectively functioning at less than 25% capacity.

Another huge barrier the DAC faced was the logistics for transportation. The program normally provided transportation to and from the center for training and to and from work opportunities and could fit 12-13 individuals on their busses. Under COVID-19 restrictions, however, the center’s vehicles were limited to three individuals or, in some cases, four. “It’s been a struggle getting folks back in,” Peltoma said, “and we do transport folks some fair distances. Some are 45 to 50 minutes away.”

The DAC’s funding, Peltoma explained, was calculated on a basis of each individual. The money typically draws from Medicaid funding through a State-written waiver to use such federal funds.

“There are programs like us all over the state,” Peltoma said, noting that some have closed already and others are making plans to close. Without additional relief or support, Peltoma said that the Mille Lacs County Area DAC would be facing financial hardship. “We can’t continue to operate at 25% capacity,” he added. While he hesitated to estimate how long the DAC was able to continue to fund itself in pandemic conditions, Peltoma stated that the DAC could see closure in the coming winter season, if no changes or additional support came.

Peltoma added that the DAC was aware of the possibility that pandemic conditions could worsen in the coming months. He emphasized that the program would continue to screen its employees and participants before they entered the buildings, and the DAC would remain diligent in monitoring its safety procedures. “We talk about our responsibility for the people we serve as well as each other,” he said. If another outbreak occurs, he stated the facilities would possibly have to close, and they would work with the State’s Department of Health and Department of Human Services on the length of that closure, whether it was two weeks or more.

How the DAC adapts

“We are constantly looking at different models and different ways to do things,” Peltoma said. The DAC’s hope was for guidance that would allow them to incorporate additional community integration activities to expand the opportunities available to DAC participants.

When it came to determining which individuals returned to the DAC’s programming, Peltoma emphasized that it was an informed choice made by individuals and their teams. But, with limited capacity, that choice still could only be offered to a small number of people. Underlying health conditions, like diabetes and high blood pressure, are also taken into consideration, and the DAC is working to adhere as closely as possible to CDC, MDH and DHS guidelines. Peltoma stated that individuals with such conditions would likely be the last to come back.

Even factoring both an individual’s choice and health conditions, Peltoma stated the program was still unable to accommodate all its interested clients. By the same virtue, there were also individuals who didn’t want to participate because they were worried about working in the coronavirus environment.

Peltoma said the DAC is actively looking into virtual means of offering their training. A challenge with moving to virtual, however, was that not everyone had access to the technology to participate remotely. In some cases, it also didn’t make logistical sense to attempt virtual training because of the hands-on nature of the work. Beyond pursuing virtual training options, the DAC is also looking into helping individuals isolated by the pandemic to connect and socialize with their colleagues.

At the special session of the Minnesota legislature held Wednesday, Aug. 12, Peltoma noted a bill had been passed that could potentially get relief funding to the DAC. Gov. Tim Walz signed the relief bill on Aug. 14, which Peltoma noted “will certainly help as the DAC operates at a limited capacity. We are very appreciative of our legislators who supported this bill.”

As of Aug. 14, Peltoma also noted that the DAC had received notice from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, allowing them to now provide four hours of center services along with two hours of service outside of the building. Their capacity remains at 50%, including staff. “We are working to see what we can do with the new guidelines,” Peltoma said. “Transportation remains a problem for us.”

The DAC had been fortunate to have received support from the community. Peltoma noted that the DAC’s personal protective equipment budget has tripled under COVID, and individuals have donated masks and other supplies to assist the organization. He also pointed to local businesses who have been able to offer work opportunities for DAC participants. These opportunities could be as short as one hour a day. If businesses had such opportunities they could provide the DAC, Peltoma recommended they reach out to him directly: by phone at (763) 220-8700, ext. 115, or via email at rodp@mlcdac.org.

If individuals want to donate directly to DAC, a donations page is available on the DAC website (www.mlcdac.org/give-now.html). Peltoma noted that the DAC has accepted volunteer work in the past, but under COVID-19, it would not be utilizing the volunteer work they’d used in the past. With the building at their reduced capacity, he did not expect to bring in volunteers, but he added it could be possible if restrictions loosened.

“Our intention,” Peltoma said, “is that we are going to be here and continue to provide our services. The only thing that could prohibit us from doing that is if, financially, it was no longer possible due to our reduced capacity. We can only shrink our programs so far before it is not financially feasible to operate.”

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