How has COVID-19 impacted Canopy Children’s Solutions? Is fund-raising down? Have services been put on hold? John Damon, chief executive officer, spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about the virus and its impact on the nonprofit.

Damon holds degrees from Mississippi College, Reformed Theological Seminary and Jackson State University, and completed his residency in child psychology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

Just as a refresher, what services does Canopy provide children and families?

“We were founded in 1912, as an adoption agency, and we have done over 7,000 adoptions. As complexities of society have grown, so has our service array. Today, we provide a full range of innovative solutions. From a program perspective, we provide intervention services to keep kids out of the foster care system and to divert their need for more intense mental health services. On the other end of the continuum, we have a psychiatric residential treatment facility that provides 24-hour care, which is for the most behaviorally challenged children. And we have everything in between, from schools that serve children unable to function in public schools, to outpatient clinics around the state to provide mental health services for children.

We also have children’s advocacy centers that provide forensic interviews for children abused or neglected, and intensive in-home services, where we go into homes to provide solutions. We also have autism solutions and the state’s only autism Center of Excellence, which serves children 18 months old to eight years. We have two different schools, one in Jackson and one in Hattiesburg, that serve children with autism. We still do adoption services as well.”

How have in-home services been impacted by COVID?

“We’ve been able to successfully convert over 90 percent of our in-home services to a digital format. That’s telehealth services, including delivery of mental health services and online instruction for students. We’ve been very fortunate to partner with our division of Medicaid, Blue Cross Blue Shield to reflexively respond to our children’s needs during this crisis.

Are there any services that cannot be delivered electronically?

“There are some. Our autism service solutions, for example, require face-to-face and hands-on therapy intervention. We’ve had to discontinue that direct work with children and are just doing family education training through our telehealth services.”

What is family education training?

“Families, when they have a child diagnosed with being on the autism spectrum, need significant training to come alongside the intervention children receive in therapy. Children with autism can’t receive just in-office therapy but need therapy at home. We’re doing a lot of intense training for families, so they can be equipped to respond appropriately to their children, even if they’re not coming to the office for intervention. It is very effective, but it does not take the place of a trained, licensed clinician. So, we’re anxious to get our kids back to face-to-face services.”

How many children are not able to get this autism intervention right now?

“Last year, we provided almost 8,000 hours of applied behavior analysis early intervention for children on the autism spectrum. That’s a lot of hours.”

Are you still accepting children into on-campus housing?

“Yes; our residential treatment facility in Jackson and our shelter in Warren County have remained in continuous operation.”

How do you keep those kids and staff members safe?

“In the residential setting, we have very intense screening procedures for employees and children. We do temperature checks every day, where they are logged multiple times. Our employees practicing social distancing inside and outside of work; we’re hand-washing constantly; there’s hand sanitizer everywhere. We are avoiding in-person meetings as much as possible and are avoiding person-to-person contact. In all of the direct care-client facing facilities, we wear masks. We’ve also reduced non-essential travel and have limited visitors.”

How many kids live on your campuses?

“We have a 60-bed treatment facility in Jackson and a 12-bed diagnostic evaluation shelter in Vicksburg.”

You mention that Canopy has two schools as well. Was in-person school canceled this year?

“Yes. We’ve been doing online education with our students, as well as online visits with the families. The children in our Jackson and Hattiesburg schools have special education needs. We work very closely with the local public schools to make sure students stay on track. We’re collaborating with 13 districts in the Jackson area and 19 in the Hattiesburg area to make sure students stay on track not only with their educational needs, but their mental health and behavioral health needs as well.”

So how does this work? Students come to Canopy schools part-time, or what?

“Our students were enrolled in their local school districts, but their behavioral health challenges were significant enough that the district could no longer support them. They recommended that these children come to our schools, work with the district to craft individualized educational plans for them. Our goal is to keep these students in our schools as short a time as we need to and transfer them back to their public schools.”

Are you worried those kids will lose ground?

“We certainly know children need routine. Children need social skills that are developed through the time they have at school. We are very worried about isolation, which exacerbates depression, and are worried about the anxiety that COVID … brings, and how it compounds underlying and existing anxieties.”

Have adoptions stopped?

“We still have adoptions. We do very few. That is a small part of our business, but a historic and critical part. We still want to see every kid thrive in a loving home.”

I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier. You said that Canopy was founded in 1912. Have you read any documents from the organization on how it handled the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920? And are you still using any of those practices today?

“One thing they talked about early on with the Spanish Flu was to make sure that children weren’t indoors. I think that there were some life lessons learned, in that by staying outside, the children were not confined in the same room together. Where we can with our kids, we try to stay outside.”

Did anyone at Canopy get Spanish Flu when the pandemic hit?

“I’m not sure. That’s a great question.”

It’s awesome that y’all can still learn lessons from that pandemic today, more than 100 years later.

“It’s awesome to be an organization that can innovate over the years and be responsive and relevant. I’ve worked here for 25 years and I’m still in awe. We’re a 100-plus-year-old company, and we act as a startup. We’re constantly innovating and thinking about how we can do better the things that we do.”

What’s an example of some of the innovation going on now?

“We are trying to find innovative solutions to reimagine how we can provide more therapy hours to our autistic students. We are partnering with Microsoft on innovations that could transform how interventions could be delivered. We have been working with them … to try to solve that problem in Mississippi. But the solutions would have applications around the world.”

Let’s switch gears and talk about fundraising. Has fundraising dropped for Canopy as a result of the virus?

“Our fundraising has been significantly impacted due to COVID, with us seeing about a 50 percent decrease. And because of our concern for the physical and mental health of our supporters, we decided to cancel our biggest fundraiser, the Butterfly Ball, which was scheduled for October. All of this when our solutions are needed more than ever.”

How do make up for those losses?

“It’s been very difficult. We have been fortunate to take advantage of the PPP, or Paycheck Protection Program, and we’ve been able to make sure we’re staying within budget. We’ve been cutting every area we possibly can. In the autism space, we’ve had to have layoffs. We’ve been fortunate to have federal programs, which have helped sustain us during this time.

How much does fundraising account for, budget-wise?

“To put it in context, the fundraising efforts to our organization account for about four percent of our budget. So it’s significant, when you have close to a $40 million budget. When you lose two percent, that’s a lot.”

How are you funded?

“We’re about 90 percent funded from fees and grants from government agencies. That would be state and federal.”

ABOUT CANOPY CHILDREN’S SOLUTIONS: Canopy Children’s Solutions is Mississippi’s largest and most comprehensive nonprofit provider of children’s behavioral health, educational and social service solutions. Founded in 1912, Canopy offers a full array of integrated, community-based services in all 82 counties as well as intensive campus-based and educational programming.  For more information, please contact 800-388-6247 or visit us on the web at mycanopy.org.