Lafayette’s Las Trampas adapts to, surviving pandemic closures
By Lou Fancher
Never underestimate the resilient spirit of an adult with physical or developmental disabilities at longstanding nonprofit Las Trampas or the community that supports it.
During the coronavirus pandemic that has halted many aspects of daily life, the center that began as a residential school in 1958 has continued to operate its daily adult development programs, residential facilities and independent living support services. But even that achievement is a dim shadow of the monolithic construction project underway on the main campus tucked away in a mini-forest of old oaks and pines near the urban creek in the city’s downtown that it’s named after.
Construction takes place in Lafayette on the $12.9 million facilities upgrade at Las Trampas, which has served those with developmental disabilities since 1958. During COVID-19 closures that have stopped much of daily life, the center has continued to operate its daily adult development programs, residential facilities and independent living support services.
The $12.9 million construction project broke ground in April and will replace aging facilities that were built with a 1960s aesthetic and only met codes now considered obsolete for serving the safety, health and capabilities of its 21st century participants. Rallying around Las Trampas staff, board, participants and volunteers, a robust community response has brought them within $850,000 of the funds needed to complete the project compliant with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Part of that total $12.9 million amount is a $4 million loan we’d like to reduce,” said Executive Director Daniel Hogue. “It would be lovely to reduce that debt by raising another $4.85 million. We can afford the loan, but why pay it if we have generous donors who help us pay that down? That would leave more money for the people that we serve.”
Hogue’s positive, can-do tone is matched by Mike Collier, the president of Las Trampas’ Board of Directors.
“Since turning our focus back to the capital campaign in early July, we have seen tremendous community response in terms of donations,” Collier said.
An appeal for staff personal protective equipment resulted in $10,060 from 77 donors, just one of many examples of local community support. The new facilities and updated landscaping represent far more than a vanity project. With autism — and the sensory, social and learning challenges therein — now the fastest-growing category for adults with developmental disabilities, the primary administration/classroom building will feature specialized acoustics, lighting and interior design.
“It will be like no other in the East Bay in that it has designs built in that suit people with autism,” Hogue says. “There are sensory overloads or deficits (with autism), so we have lighting that removes the flicker rate of lighting. It’s full-spectral lighting that can be adjusted in brightness and in tone. We can go more or less blue to suit the needs, for example.”
Acoustics in some spaces will muffle distracting noises from the outside or from nearby classrooms.
“For people with autism, those acoustics can come in all at the same level, instead of filtered as they do in people with typical hearing development,” he says.
Landscaping at the main entry will eliminate the elaborate multipoint turnaround that buses once made when transporting participants. Instead of one bus at a time, five buses will be able to load and unload simultaneously. ADA-compliant walkways and ramps will provide safety for physically or visually disabled people while, indoors, oversized restrooms and shower stalls, wide hallways with handrails and an elevator to the second floor will be among features increasing accessibility.
For staff, critical additions such as keyless code entry, alarmed areas for participants at risk of wandering, hydraulic lift equipment and other upgrades will ensure workplace safety. Of course, during these days of COVID-19 and despite the charge Hogue gets from seeing the walls of the new building “finally go vertical after six years of planning,” he says Las Trampas faces tremendous challenges.
From his office in the temporary space in Martinez from which Las Trampas’s now-socially distanced, virtual services are provided, Hogue says, “The impacts of COVID have been immense. We haven’t been able to serve people in person since March. We’ve had to pivot. That has taken us into technologies we’ve not typically used, like Zoom classes. The content my team has developed is engaging but also real learning sessions that aren’t just chat sessions. We do them a minimum of four times a day.”
There are exercise classes and courses on current events, the presidential election, the Black Lives Matter movement, local and world news and (virtual) exploration of the outdoors.
“For those who can’t do Zoom, we’re developing individual learning packets that we deliver to their homes, or their families come and pick them up. These are physical materials; audio-sensory materials like music CDs and objects that involve touch, smell, taste and other sensory input. We have 100% participation by the 59 individuals in our day program,” Hogue says.
The independent and residential programs suffer extreme challenges related to staffing shortages — not just locally, but nationwide, Hogue says. A study by the National Association of Direct Service Professionals, of which Las Trampas is a member, found that prior to the pandemic more than 50% of direct support workers left their positions in 2018. One-third left in the first six months of employment, and vacancy rates were near 15% for full-time and 18% for part-time positions as of 2019. The study goes on to state that among the 9,000 respondents included in a survey during the pandemic, 34% worked more hours and 29% worked in different settings.
Collier says that “Governmental budgets are being hit hard by the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Reimbursement rates for the services we provide are very minimal, although California is probably among the top states in the nation to support programs like ours. This year the budget allowed for some pickup increases in reimbursement rates that frankly hadn’t changed much in almost two decades.”
Hogue said support services are underfunded by $1.8 billion.
“These are jobs that paid well above minimum wage when I started in 1993. Now they pay minimum wage or just barely above. In the Bay Area, it just doesn’t cut it.”
What does cut it, Hogue said, are the loyal and new donors who have “really stepped up” to support the construction project.
“We’ve been nimble and moved with the times. With the new building, we’re shooting to be way ahead of the times. Las Trampas is a gem right in Lafayette’s backyard, and I’m so grateful to this community for their support during this COVID pandemic.”