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Running Toward The Crisis
Solnit North Staff Across Disciplines and Shifts Emerged As Leaders During the Pandemic

Solnit North Staff

The Albert J. Solnit Children's Center North in East Windsor provides residential, clinical, rehabilitation, and education services to adolescent boys with significant mental health treatment needs. Dr. Brett Rayford is the facility superintendent who has been at the helm during the worst health crisis Connecticut and the nation has faced in anyone's memory.

With a staff of over 150, we “witnessed leadership from every corner of the facility to protect these boys."  He stressed that facilities that operate 24 hours a day and seven days a week are unique settings. With three shifts of staff coming and going around the clock, "there is a rhythm to it," he said. "COVID interrupted that rhythm and severely disrupted our patterns.” 

"Despite being confronted with an uncertain and existential threat, leadership emanated from every discipline and every shift," Dr. Rayford said.

Facilities staff learned how to maintain the physical safety of boys and workers alike. Kitchen staff found a way to feed the boys in their cottages. Children's services workers maintained a therapeutic environment during the crisis. Clinical staff still delivered individual, group and family counseling, and assured families who could not come to the facility during the pandemic that their boys were safe and well, using frequent telehealth visits and phone contacts.

"No matter what discipline, our staff stepped up," Dr. Rayford said.

Dr. Rayford said two primary lessons were learned during the past five months. 

The first was about the commitment and cohesion of the staff, about the “tenacity of the human spirit in the face of this tremendous threat," he said. "The culture of Solnit North is not like anywhere else. People here have worked together for many years; in some cases, for decades. There is this a protective quality that says, "we are going to keep everyone safe, no matter what."

The galvanizing - but hardly surprising -- event occurred early in the crisis in April when a third- shift staff person who was unaware they contracted the virus hugged another staff member during shift change. That quick encounter resulted in the second staff member also getting the coronavirus. That created the possibility that other staff and the boys in the same cottage could also have gotten infected.

The entire cottage had to be put under quarantine, and all the staff who worked there were sent home to isolate and get tested. Boys who had met their treatment goals and were close to being discharged were sent home if their parents agreed.

The immediate reaction of the remaining staff was to rally around the boys. Staff volunteered to be assigned to the cottage. They pledged to "do what was needed to entertain and manage the boys during the 14-day period" that was required to make sure they had not gotten the virus.

The children's services workers offered to quarantine with the boys in the cottage and not go home for 14 days. That proved not to be necessary, although staff assigned to the cottage did quarantine from their own families when they went home. Some slept in their basements to protect their families and the Solnit family as well, Dr. Rayford said.

Many other changes were made to protect boys and staff.  "We changed the entire rhythm of the campus.” "We had to say ‘no’ to any movement on campus." 

The necessary changes clearly disrupted the norms at the facility, but they worked. Everyone on campus - boys and staff - was tested.

"No one else tested positively," Dr. Rayford said with relief and satisfaction. "We had no more outbreaks and no more positive tests." 

The strong results so far are a result of "people naturally stepping up," he said. "We made room for people to step up by saying 'here is the challenge and that we have to manage this crisis together.'"

Building a culture of cohesion and collectivity was the key. "There is more wisdom in the crowd than in the few," Dr. Rayford said. He recalled one meeting when 18 staffers met outside -- socially distanced of course -- on the basketball court.

"We asked for their best thinking and brought in everybody's wisdom," he said. "We brought people into the conversation."

Every worker at the facility wanted to go the extra mile to contribute toward solutions in the crisis.

"What I learned on a personal level is that everyone was determined and committed to step forward to create this healing environment," he said. "And what I learned professionally is to never underestimate people in the health care field. They are supremely dedicated to taking care of other people."

Dr. Rayford said the crisis "demonstrated our natural leaders. That's why the culture is so important. People here run toward each other in a crisis, and they run toward the crisis, not away from it.

"That's who these people are. That's how facilities work,” Dr. Rayford commented.  “Everyone does the job together. For this place to thrive, it requires sophisticated and polished teamwork."