Jovay Sweeney, a 21-year-old Hyattsville, Md., resident with cerebral palsy, had been making good progress toward someday living on her own. She had practiced answering questions for a job interview, and learned how to dress for a job, too.
But when the coronavirus pandemic forced the D.C. region to shut down in-person schooling, Sweeney’s learning nearly stopped, said her mother, Karen Sweeney.
More than two years later, the family is hoping a local nonprofit’s program can help make up for lost time. Boosted by a $325,000 grant, the Arc of Prince George’s County this summer will provide Jovay Sweeney and others who have disabilities with independent-living and job training, occupational and speech therapy, mental health counseling, and academic tutoring. The Arc is one of six groups nationwide that received such a grant from TD Bank, from among 300 nonprofit applicants.
Leaders at the Arc, located in Upper Marlboro, said the grant is key to closing the major learning-loss gap for their students, who faced even steeper pandemic challenges than the average student. Many received limited or no special education services during distance learning.
“This is the largest private grant we’ve ever received from a corporation, and we want to use it to help our young people get their footing and skills back in this post-pandemic life,” said Rob Malone, executive director for the Arc. Without the TD Bank grant, he said, his organization wouldn’t have been able to restart and expand some of its programs.
Jovay Sweeney, with a big smile and an outgoing personality, enjoys telling jokes with her family. She’s excited now, she said, to get into more programs that would allow her to engage with her friends at the Arc.
The pandemic’s forced shutdown of schools increased stress for Sweeney and the family.
“She went from having a normal life and routine she liked, where her day started with the bus picking her up and taking her to school, to completely being shut down,” Karen Sweeney said of her daughter. “She didn’t understand why everything had stopped. She’d wake up, get ready and then ask ‘Where’s the bus?’ We had to tell her it wasn’t coming, and she got so frustrated.”
When her school’s classes went to online, her family said, it took Sweeney a month or two to get used to watching the teacher on the screen and stay engaged. Her mom had to juggle working from home as a paralegal, and her sister, D’Aira, who had been a medical technician, left her job and moved back into their apartment to help care for her sister.
They came up with ways to keep Sweeney busy, teaching her to play dominoes and card games like Uno. She learned to cook in an online class with her sister’s help, and she’s done online classes for Zumba dancing and drumming and played bingo games with friends.
“She was used to going outside, being with her friends,” said D’Aira Sweeney, 25. “That all ceased. That was a big transition from seeing her friends to having to tell her, ‘You can’t go and hang out at all.’ ”
Pamela Leach, who lives in Upper Marlboro, knows those pandemic difficulties, too. She’s hoping the Arc can help her son, Tyrone, a 17-year-old with Down syndrome who similarly struggled when his school shut down and his routine was interrupted.
“He has a dedicated aide at school who can model the instruction for him when he’s in person, at school,” Leach said. “But all of that stopped in the beginning of the pandemic. He would come and get me and say, ‘Mommy, mommy, mommy.’
“I had to sit with him and also do my work,” she said. “It was a very hard and very stressful time. He missed the interaction of other kids and being together. Virtual couldn’t replace that.”
By the summer, leaders at the Arc said, they’re aiming to launch in-person programs with the TD Bank grant on job-interviewing skills, cooking classes and more for about 100 area residents ages 14 to 21.
The bank’s grant program, called the TD Ready Challenge, is designed to help nonprofit community groups “developing innovative, impactful and measurable solutions for a changing world.” The grant to the Arc will be given over a two-year period.
Shelley Sylva, head of TD Bank’s U.S. corporate citizenship unit, said the reviewers for the grant program “knew kids with disabilities were especially hard-hit” when schools were closed. The Arc’s “focus on those students made their application stand out,” Sylva said. “We hope they’ll be able to bridge that gap and bring students back to where they could have been but for the pandemic.”
For some area families, it’s not a moment too soon.
Tyrone Leach is back in school and getting out more, his mom said, but she’s worried about his learning loss and his need to catch up — both academically and in independent-living skills.
“I’m looking forward to seeing that grant in action and hope he can get some additional support for learning more daily-life tasks,” Leach said. “All these things the rest of us take for granted, he has to be trained and needs the help.”