“Of course I volunteered…it’s more than a job.”
The quiet dedication of Charlene Champagne

Would you put your life on hold to help someone you care about? What if it was four people? What if it was every minute night and day—for two weeks? Well, consider this story about a group home in Wilbraham. For the past eight years, four men with developmental disabilities have lived there together, with care and support from MHA staff including Program Supervisor, Charlene Champagne.

“They are just like a family and Charlene is as much a part of the house as they are,” according to Fred Destromp, Integration & Community Living Program Director for MHA. “She started as a direct care staff and worked her way up to Supervisor. Charlene has been the constant for these men ever since they moved in together. She is very dedicated to them.”

Charlene exemplifies how dedication can be expressed in demanding circumstances. COVID-19 has placed unprecedented demands on society, particularly in the case of congregate care settings such as group homes. “Recently, two of the four gentlemen developed COVID symptoms and all four tested positive,” Fred explained. “Charlene, who tested negative, volunteered to shelter in place throughout the recommended 14-day isolation period. The guys have some understanding of the virus and they’re scared of it. Charlene put her own life on hold to help them get through it.”

“Yes, of course I volunteered,” Charlene said. “It’s more than a job. I’ve been with them going back 14 years and I truly care for their health and wellbeing. I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing this.”

Here’s another way to gauge the depth of Charlene’s dedication: she sheltered in staying in the program for 2 weeks over the holidays. “The first few days were a bit stressful,” she recalled. “oxygen levels had to be monitored regularly. There was cooking and cleaning to do and sanitation was obviously a big thing. The two guys who were sick slept a lot and rested while they were awake. It turns out they did really well. The two who were asymptomatic understood about precautions and staying in their rooms, so they had zoom meetings or talked on phone with their family and friends. Everybody is fully recovered, up and about, and back to their usual routine.”

It’s worth noting that Charlene did all this over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. “The kind of people who choose this work understand it’s about people,” she said. “I don’t think of it as going above and beyond, either. It’s just what it takes. I knew I would have to be away from my own family for those two weeks, so I asked them, ‘What do you think?’ They supported me, no hesitation, no question. And it really was good for my soul. I was able to give to people who needed me, which was much more important than anything I could have done selfishly.”

Charlene shared how rewarded she felt by an expression of gratitude offered by one the gentlemen. “It was Christmas Day and I spent time with each of the guys while they opened presents. One of the guys just randomly said to me, ‘Hey Charlene, you do a really good job taking care of me!’ It was absolutely heartwarming! It’s one thing to think you’re giving good care, and quite another when a person you provide care for tells you, randomly, with so much enthusiasm. Who could want more for a Christmas present?”