Interview by Jan Osborn. Photos by Jan Osborn and courtesy of Bryan’s House
Bryan’s House was founded in 1988 to care for HIV-infected children at the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Little Bryan Allen, whose mother contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion, was the inspiration for the name, Bryan’s House. In 1985, at only 8 months old, Bryan became one of the first Dallas-area child to die from AIDS. Later, his mother Lydia and older brother Matthew also succumbed to AIDS. Bryan’s House expanded in 2006 to care for children with special health and developmental needs. Bryan’s House not only provides medically managed child care, the team also leads child development programs, support groups, and a robust therapy program to provide daily physical, speech, eating and play therapies onsite and in eight counties in partnership with The University of Texas Dallas, Center for Children and Families.
One of Bryan’s House pivotal programs is called Family Supportive Services. The Social Services Department’s case managers swoop in to holistically help families negate homelessness upon intake if required—access basic living needs, medicine, create budgets and help families get back on their feet with a good job and a livable wage. They also listen, coach and care. So many family members have been abused, abandoned or have lived through trauma. They also ensure that every child in their program has school supplies and clothes, birthday and holiday gifts, access to summer camp, and most importantly, hugs and understanding!
We recently visited with Abigail Erickson-Torres, Chief Executive Officer at Bryan’s House to see how her team is staying strong throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
As nonprofits across North Texas quickly respond to COVID19, what does it look like for the staff at Bryan’s House to continue serving children with medical or developmental needs and their families?
Bryan’s House is still providing all our programming to at-risk parents and their one or more children with special health & education needs, however the agency moved everything to virtual or online initiatives in each department.
The teachers are using the “HiMama App,” and setting their own lesson plans, using the HighScope curriculum. Parents love the continued connection—the teachers miss their children and are using Zoom to connect with their kids to keep in touch with their little buddies in class, from anywhere.
As an agency, Bryan’s House is especially focused on those kids with special needs—as we know that population well, and it might not be a main focus of larger nonprofit group efforts or their supporters (that fund early childhood or medical programs), especially in the 0-3 age range.
Our staff is providing parent trainings so they don’t lose important milestones in their children’s progress. The agency is also here for other nonprofit agencies if they come across a family that fits the mission. Teams can help with case management and advocacy to access opportunities when they are available, to test for COVID-19 if there is a need, or if they require other medical assistance due to the child’s diagnosis.
The leadership at Bryan’s House made the decision to pull bilingual case managers from the road the Monday before the first decree by Judge Clay Jenkins. The team of four visits with families in eight counties around the North Texas area at any given time. If they are a new potential client intake, they would normally meet with members of each department for education, medical and other assessments in person. So that has been a challenge. The agency is not taking new clients at this time for onsite care at the West Dallas campus, but we will be revisiting this decision after eight weeks.
From a leadership perspective, how are you maintaining a hopeful environment for your team while providing specialized childcare during social isolation?
Communication is absolutely key at this unusual time. We are focused on making sure that our department leaders feel supported, so that they can in turn support their teams. That is very important. We are close like a family of 23 people, all with different homes, lives and situations. Some have small children themselves or are single parents that have a child at home, so providing lessons to their students is challenging and case managing the many needs of our clients is like a juggling act. Talking and sharing about that challenge with them, and conveying that we understand has been very meaningful.
As a team we talk twice a week (Monday and Friday via Zoom) about mental health, physical health, and through our benefits package our team members have access to online health and mental health services.
On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday we all do a thirty minute virtual team exercise provided by our Clinical Manager, Emily Pulin R.N.
How has your own experience in the nonprofit world helped you during an uncertain time in our culture?
The golden rule of teamwork, collaboration and checking your ego at the door, have guided the way. I’ve seen remarkable partnerships on the job in the past twenty-two years in this generous city—helping us find a good path forward. Living through Katrina, the 2008-2010 recession, and other global or nationwide emergencies as a professional fundraiser, has also helped. As things unfold, learning how to adapt humbly is essential. Listening and learning from others about how they convey needs to the public, the government and our constituents calmly—with a sense urgency—has been a focus. We want to ensure no family we serve loses a home or services. We’ve been able to tell the story authentically because we are so passionate to help our families—we are a team. On a personal note, I have incredible and kind personal mentors including Carol Seay, Sarah Losinger, and Linda Hall.
Who is someone in Dallas that is inspiring you right now?
Judge Clay Jenkins has been remarkable.
In addition, I’m inspired by the leaders who are forming collaborative initiatives through CFT, United Way, Texas Women’s Foundation, SVP, the Dallas Foundation, Moozie and Moody and Rees-Jones Foundations; these groups have the ability to make a huge impact and they started to work together immediately and quickly to get funds to those on the front lines.
How has Bryan’s House been working with other nonprofits in the specialized childcare space to ensure you have the most needed resources?
Teams have been referring clients to the North Texas Food Bank for family food shortages and to also help families find jobs; we robustly partner with Hope Supply Co., to provide diapers, wipes, baby food and more to families. We have and will continue hosting “diaper drive thru’s,” every two weeks for families in a controlled environment.We have a unique partnership with Dallas ISD. We have two pre-K classrooms (2) and are the ONLY PPCD (preschool program for children with disabilities) offsite in the city, and in fact, their history. Teachers from those classes are conducting virtual lessons to children, who are about to graduate. KidLinks are conducting virtual therapeutic music and entertainment for our children using a virtual format, no matter what the age.
What is the best way for the North Texas community to support Bryan’s House right now?
We are trying to raise $97k to keep our special education teachers who are paid hourly and need wages/health benefits employed. We ask the community to can give at www.bryanshouse.org, using the code COVID-19. All gifts will be directed to fund teachers and provide emergency assistance to client families. I know we are not a big agency, but our families have such unique needs. We are the stop-gap for these very fragile children in this age group.
If this story has inspired you to support the North Texas nonprofit community, visit our How to Support Nonprofits During Social Isolation page to learn how you can get involved!