Back in April 2020 when I had been interning as a photojournalist for the Lincoln County News for only a couple of weeks, one of my first assignments was to use my newly minted photographic skills to illustrate a story by Evan Houk. He had written a piece about how COVID-19 was impacting the direct support professionals at Mobius Inc., a nonprofit organization in Damariscotta that serves individuals with disabilities.
Direct support professionals are the staff members who work one-on-one with Mobius clients, often spending whole days with them, seeing to both their practical and emotional needs. They are essential in the most foundational sense to their charges.
I went to one of the group homes with Executive Director Rebecca “Becca” Emmons and, working from a 6-foot distance, I tried to capture something of the emotional upheaval that the organization’s staff and clients were experiencing. There were no family visits, limited opportunities to leave the premises of the homes where they lived, and, most heartbreaking to see, no hugs from the people who had always greeted them with warmth, no physical manifestation (outside that provided by their individual direct support professional) of the affection that had previously sustained them.
I took one picture that day that has stayed with me. It’s of resident Vicki L’Heureux, her arms outstretched as she reached out for the hug she always got whenever Emmons visited. But Emmons stepped back.
She had to. So little was known about COVID-19 then and the staff at Mobius was in such a precarious position, charged with protecting their clients, many of whom did not understand why they could no longer give and receive the hugs that gave them comfort in times of stress and sadness in such an unprecedented time of stress and sadness.
I remember the catch in Emmons’ voice as she tried to describe the difficulties that impacted not only Mobius clients, but also the staff who wore multiple layers of clothing so they could protect both their clients and their families, who worked in close contact with their clients because they had no choice — they were too needed. And I remember the wash of emotion that hit me as it all sunk in.
Last Friday, June 25, I was on hand when Mobius staff and clients set up a canopy and balloons in their parking lot and had a dance party. Classic songs of the ‘70s played over a couple of speakers and everyone was dancing while I moved around the perimeter trying to find a moment that would capture the experience.
There was the couple dancing together, alternating ballroom spins. The solo woman doing the three-step, turn and clap and then rolling her arms while executing a near-perfect hustle. The staff and clients on the perimeter, whether seated or standing, all bopping or swaying. Many singing along. And the direct support professionals breaking out into an exuberant swirl of spins and toe and heel touches when “Cotton-Eye Joe” came on.
And there in the middle of it all the moment happened. Vicki L’Heureux, who had been moving to the music since the music started, stopped. She reached out her arms to a staff member for a hug. This time it was returned. Instantly, unthinkingly, with joy.
I missed it. I don’t have the picture to show you. It’s as if I was frozen by my own emotion. The camera shutter went unpressed as a vast sense of relief overwhelmed me. There are hugs again. There is joy again. COVID-19 may not be over yet, but in that uncaptured moment the strangling grip of the virus loosened. And I took in a deep, full breath of the exuberant air.
(“After Deadline” provides The Lincoln County News reporters a space to reflect on the community they cover.)