ST. MARY PARISH, La. (KLFY) The Coronavirus pandemic is still forcing people out of work across the country.
This week, an Acadiana service is finally back open and in person after 16 months.
The Center of Hope is a day program that provides jobs and socialization for individuals with developmental disabilities, and they returned to work Tuesday for the first time since March of 2020.
Cheers accompanied their arrival with an escort by Sheriff Blaise Smith.
“I was excited. I excited,” remembered Byron Wilson, a Center of Hope client.
“I was a celebrity,” added Center of Hope client Sheila Dobbs.
The procession was fit for “superstars”. That’s what the staff of the St. Mary Center of Hope calls each of their returning friends. Director Kristal Hebert said they have not met face to face for over a year due to COVID-19.
“We were scared. We only thought we’d close for a couple weeks, and then a couple weeks multiplied and multiplied,” stated Hebert.
Everyone was laid off except Hebert who took a dollar-a-month salary as she scrambled to get a grant for iPads which arrived in December and allowed them to meet virtually, but many elements were still missing.
As Billy Duhon, a Center of Hope client who also works in their Downtown Franklin thrift store, said, “It was time for us to come back to work because we were ready.”
When not getting social or independence training, every one of their superstars works a part-time job. Some clean churches, others do tasks for the center, and many work at the partner thrift store.
Dobbs said, “I love working, and I like getting my paycheck. I’m getting my first paycheck after a year.”
For some, that’s their favorite part. Others missed their friends most like Mercedes who nervously told News 10 she is now “happy” to be around her friends and Mrs. Hebert. “I’m glad to be with you,” Hebert responded.
The icing on the cake and what they couldn’t believe was their Sheriff’s escort for their first day back.
“That’s for us?’ I said, yes.” recalled Gayle Adams who drove one of the buses for the first day.
“They flipped on those lights, they flipped on the siren, and my bus went crazy. They were screaming, hollering, crying, clapping, all the way to this parking lot. They were home, and that’s what they think this is. It’s home.”
Hebert said, “We had one that their signal to come to work is the bus pulling up, so she thought her bus was lost this whole time, and when the bus got to her house she said, ‘Momma, I found my bus! I found my bus!’ And oh, they are so excited about being here.”
According to Adams, “For a lot, it’s here or it’s nothing. Some didn’t take it well, but they were all ready willing and on the street corner waiting. I didn’t have to wait for a soul. They were ready. They are just as important as we are, and they really should have to struggle to have something.”