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All You Need is … Inclusion

Ryann Kline, Starpoint employee, assists Larry in giving his famous handshake hello to me — our third of the day, Each a little longer and a little better. (Photo by the author.)

WALKING UP TO THE FRONT DOOR of the Starpoint-staffed home in Salida, I immediately reflect on my own life with the disabled population. My dad has managed a group home for disabled adults since I was 7 years old. Living in Salida I’ve savored my small, always positive, interactions with Starpoint consumers. So, I jumped at the chance to write about this underrepresented population. 

I am greeted by an exuberant Lisa Swindle, who requests that I enter through the side door. When I enter, it looks inviting but smells like disinfectant. COVID-19 sanitation requirements are strict.

Both Swindle and I are wearing masks, but from her tone and eyes, I can tell she is passionate about her job and the consumers in her charge. 

Her eyes sparkle and shine when she mentions Larry, Toni and Gail. 

“We try to make this a home environment,” Swindle said. “With COVID, they don’t have friends coming over, most interactions are with staff and not peers. It will be great when the day programs open back up. They’ll be able to get together with friends again. For now, we watch a lot of movies.”

Staffing shortages, as a result of the pandemic, have vastly impacted Starpoint and the vulnerable population they serve in Chaffee, Fremont and Custer counties. 

Starpoint is currently hiring for 22 positions. According to their website, Starpoint provides essential services to children and adults with cognitive and physical challenges. Their mission statement is “Enriching lives. Realizing dreams.” At Starpoint the clients are called “consumers,” (a vernacular that can require some adjusting to) because they essentially buy time from the company. Starpoint first opened in 1977. 

Bryana Marsicano, Starpoint CEO, said, “I think one of the biggest impacts that I see is the incredible isolation of the individuals we serve due to ongoing staffing issues. When COVID-19 first started, we had to close our day program setting. Many individuals went from being active for six hours a day, four days per week to nothing. Their entire routines and social lives have been shattered and are still not back to ‘normal.’” 

Marsicano stated that, without staff support to participate in activities like bowling, shopping and fishing, the consumers have largely been stuck at home for the last two years.

“Not only does this impact their physical health by being less active, but it also impacts their mental health. We have seen an increase in frustrations from many who just want to be supported and to be a part of their communities again,” she said. 

Katy Grether, Starpoint board member said, “The consumers used to be so visible around Salida and integrated in activities — that all had to stop. You don’t see much in the media about the impact on the disabled population. The regulations from the state  — made to protect that population — have just made it harder. The rules are stricter. Their environment has always been more restrictive.”

Katy and her husband, Bob, moved to Salida from California in the early 2000s because of Starpoint. They did some research and discovered Starpoint would be the best program for their late daughter, Molly. 

“Starpoint has programs here for people in all phases of their life, and that really meant everything to us,” Katy said. “(Starpoint staff) want the best for the consumers. They want their lives to be meaningful and they help realize (the consumers’) dreams and goals, like their mission statement says — and it’s true.” 

After Molly graduated from Salida High School, the Grethers started researching possible work for her. Bob polled the downtown business owners and learned that a business need was a kitchenware store, so they opened The Mixing Bowl on F Street.

“It was really a super training opportunity for folks with disabilities to interact with the public, learn how to sell and talk to customers about our products,” Katy explained.

She added that her business model for The Mixing Bowl included having one of the managers also be a Starpoint employee. That person is tasked with a double job: to manage the store and help train the consumers. 

Lisa Swindle held such a position for a few years.

“At first, I was scared to death of the consumers,” Swindle confessed. “It was their lack of facial expressions. But once I got to know them, I realized they are people just like us.” 

Swindle has been with Starpoint for 14 years. 

“I tell these guys, I’ll either become one of you or you’ll have to kick me out,” she joked.

Swindle works at the E Street House in Salida. The home requires 24/7 care for the three consumers that live there. Before COVID, the house was home to five consumers. 

“We had eight people quit working at the group house,” Swindle said. 

Without proper staffing, Starpoint had to relocate two consumers to Cañon City. 

“Are you needing to learn a virtue? These guys will teach it to you. Larry taught me patience. Toni taught me to belly laugh, to let it all out,” Swindle said. “Gail taught me how to read body language. She communicates loudly, even though she doesn’t speak.” 

In Salida, Starpoint provides comprehensive services to 22 consumers. Of those 22, seven are in host homes, five live with family, seven live independently, and three live at the staff home on E Street. 

The preference, Swindle said, is for consumers to live in host homes, so they’re more integrated into the community. Living with a host family increases their potential for activity and possibilities for relationships.

Bonnie Stumph, adult services co-director, said the pandemic created an “obvious negative financial impact; the inability to run all of our programs has created a tremendous hardship and we are just now starting to recover.”  

Marsicano said one of the best ways to support Starpoint, in addition to employment and donations, is through inclusion. 

“The individuals we serve want to be a part of your clubs or activities and part of their communities — they just need support to do so,” she explained. “If you already volunteer in the community or attend a club, fitness class, pool or bowling league, consider becoming a Starpoint staff member and supporting individuals to attend with you.” 

A positive take away from the pandemic, according to Marsicano, is that it forced Starpoint to “re-evaluate our services to determine how we can best change and adapt for the future.”

Swindle said, “People say to me all the time, ‘You must be a saint!’ No, not at all. Oh, I wish people knew the rewards of this job.”

Why has Swindle worked at Starpoint for 14 years? She said its because of the friendships. The consumers hooked her in, back when she worked alongside them at The Mixing Bowl. Swindle said she comes to work to destress. When she’s working, she’s happy. 

“Toni is my boss and she tells me she loves me everyday. How great is that? Everyday when I leave, she says, ‘Merry Christmas, I love you.’ Does your boss tell you that?”

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One Comment

  1. Claire Claire March 22, 2022

    What a beautiful explanation of how wonderful your community is! You have realized a challenge and adapted! Yippee!

    Your friends, Claire and Jason from Fort Myers Florida! Friends of Mary Ortman-Yang ?

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