RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – Watching the way Kathey Cooper, Evelyn Reid and Cassandra Perry interact with one another, it’s easy to understand why the three women consider themselves part of a ‘family.’
Their arms hang naturally around each other’s shoulders. Their laughs come out organically, not forced, through many years of shared experiences. And they look at each other frequently for support and comfort.
All three have worked at the Northern Virginia Training Center in Fairfax County, known as NVTC, for at least 23 years.
Now, it appears that tenure could be coming to an end.
“I was planning on retiring here,” said Perry, echoing the sentiments of her friends. “Now, I’m just sad.”
In January, the Virginia government announced a deal with the Department of Justice, unprecedented in scope, that will ramp up services available to people living with disabilities in the community.
The deal, predicated largely on providing more ‘Medicaid waivers’ to desperate families, also includes a goal of closing four of the state’s five institutions, including NVTC, in the next eight years.
There are approximately 3,000 employees that work at those four institutions, including Cooper, Reid and Perry.
“Five people [out of work] is a lot,” said Cooper, shaking her head. “But 3,000? Oh, that’s overwhelming. That’s too many.”
Cooper has spent 23 years at NVTC, and calls the training center its own ‘community.’ She describes a feeling of sadness, but also disorientation, as she tries to figure out where the residents and her co-workers will go when NVTC shuts down.
“Where are they going to be, who’s going to take care of them,” asks Cooper, again shaking her head. “I know I’m good at my job and everything, and somebody out there may be better. But who? Where? When? How? Those are the questions I have.”
Virginia’s Secretary of Health and Human Resources, Dr. Bill Hazel, told CBS 6 immediately after the deal was announced that there would be “disruptions” and “dislocations,” both for the employees at state institutions as well as for the residents and their families.
But Hazel wanted to assure those involved that no transition will be made without a “quality assurance” in place- that the infrastructure, oversight, management and services required for some of the state’s most profoundly disabled residents will be established.
Hazel also told CBS 6 that the state will help many of the 3,000 employees slated to lose their jobs find work in the community, which will now have a demand for their services.
The state’s promise of support does little to ease the mind of Heather Ewan, however, who joined NVTC two years ago after graduating from East Carolina University.
“There are just so many components that go into taking care of the residents that it feels like they’re basically having their lives flipped upside down,” said Ewan, who like her colleagues told CBS 6 her primary concern is the well-being of those who currently live at NVTC.
But the Northern Virginia native also acknowledged she fears not being able to replace the relationships she’s formed at NVTC, even if she does find similar work in a community setting.
“It’s a very, very small population,” said Ewan, referring to the residents at NVTC. “I want to stay and continue with that because, I don’t know, they’ve grown very close to my heart.”
Ewan’s time at NVTC totals two years. For Cooper, Reid and Perry it’s a minimum of 23 years each.
They all say the prospect of losing their connection to NVTC is akin to losing a closely-knit family, and that’s a feeling that can’t be replaced with a job elsewhere.
“Being with the guys, it just makes me feel good,” said Reid. “We have one [resident] who makes me laugh every day I come here, no matter how I’m feeling.”
After trying, unsuccessfully, to suppress a smile, Reid added, “I will miss ‘em, I will miss ‘em all.”