We recently sat down with Tony Sanders, Grafton’s Chief Operating Officer for Facility-Based Services, for a candid conversation about how Covid-19 has affected operations at our Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility (PRTF) in Berryville. The entire healthcare industry has been impacted by the pandemic and subsequent staffing shortages—and our Berryville campus is no exception. Drawing upon 37 years of experience at Grafton, Tony shares his insights on what we’ve learned, what we’ve lost, and why he’s optimistic for the future.
Q: What challenges have you seen at Berryville since the onset of the pandemic?
When Covid first arrived in Virginia, back in March of 2020, the initial challenge was keeping everyone safe. We moved quickly to adopt an employee mask policy, limited outside visitors to protect our residential clients, and formed a Covid-19 monitoring committee that continues to meet daily. These precautions ended up paying off—none of our clients tested positive for Covid in 2020.
Unfortunately, the pandemic created secondary challenges that persist to this day. At the start of 2020, we had nearly 70 residential children in our care. As of today, that number is down to 40. The reasons for this are complex, but the biggest factor is a lack of direct support staff, which is an issue across the entire behavioral healthcare industry.
Even before the pandemic, the country had a known shortage of direct support professionals (DSPs), and Covid has only made the problem worse. Caring for children with special needs is incredibly rewarding, but it’s also hard work, especially during a pandemic. People choose this career because they’re passionate about helping others, so it makes sense that DSPs are leaving the workforce to care for their own children and family members during this difficult time.
Q: Is there any good news staffing-wise?
Yes! Our school is fully staffed with teachers and paraprofessionals, and we’re ready to take in additional students. We also have a top-notch medical department. Throughout the pandemic, the vast majority of our doctors, nurses, and other medical staff have remained with us, so we’re well positioned to grow. We also have a full contingency of professionals on our management team and no vacancies on our administrative team.
The people who have stuck with us through Covid are so steadfast and committed, it’s truly inspiring. The staff we have now, many of whom have been with us for over 25 years, are deeply dedicated to our mission. Let me share just one example: I always come to work on Christmas Eve to make sure everything is ready for Christmas morning. This year, staff used Grafton funds to buy presents for the kids, and they triple checked to make sure every child got what was on their list. They made everything special, right down to the wrapping paper. A part of me wondered if people would put in less effort because of Covid, but it was just the opposite. These employees chose to leave their own families on Christmas Eve, in the middle of a pandemic, to make the holiday special for these kids. It really made me smile.
I’m also very excited that Dr. Jacquelynn Hollman and Darryl Funk will be co-leading as Berryville’s Clinical Administrators. We made this change last year, and I know they will do an amazing job building our clinical team. A lot of team building is about presence, and both of these leaders are present, kind people. They are also highly skilled, hands-on therapists. I constantly see them walking the campus with kids who are having a hard time—they don’t just pass that off to a DSP or another clinician or manager. They are in there with those kids, helping to support them. Our Clinical Department is a source of consistent strength for the program.
Q: How has the pandemic changed the way Berryville operates?
We have really doubled down on recruitment and staff appreciation. The job market in Virginia is very tight, so we’re doing everything possible to attract new hires. The moment we get a new applicant, we have people reach out to them and make them feel supported through the process.
We’ve always made a point of rewarding and recognizing the hard work of our team, but now we are really ramping up those efforts. We’re doing our very best to demonstrate kindness, because our team has been through a lot. We’ve had staff lose family members to Covid. We’ve had people whose partners lost their jobs or had their work hours change during the pandemic. This has motivated us to change our scheduling policies to be much more flexible.
We’ve really stepped up as a company to let employees and their families know that we’re there for them. We’ve got a team of administrative specialists who are continuously doing nice things for the staff. Over the holidays, they turned the staff room into a snack room 10 times. I love that our staff can come in and have great snacks and feel valued and appreciated. If I can do something to make their lives better, I’m going to do it.
Q: Have you noticed any other changes?
I’ve really been amazed by how our medical staff works with the administrative team to keep everyone safe in the midst of Covid. We have daily screening questions, testing protocols for kids, and the whole team upgraded to KN-95 masks when omicron hit. Our medical department is simply top notch.
Our corporate departments are playing a bigger role in our operations as well. For example, over the last couple months, staff from different departments came to Berryville to decorate the dorms for the holidays and make cookies with the kids. These were administrative people who normally work on contracts or finances or IT. It really conveyed the message: “We’re all in this together. We’re one Grafton.” It was pretty amazing to witness that, and the kids had a fantastic time.
Q: Are you optimistic that Berryville’s PRTF will bounce back to full capacity?
I love this place, and I’m highly optimistic that we’re going to rebound. We have all the support in place to make it happen. It would only take 18 new residential hires to get our numbers back to where they were before the pandemic, and we have an outstanding training department that’s ready to bring them up to speed. If we work together, I’m confident we can do this.