My Turn, Wilson Cherry: Be mindful of mental health issues during pandemic

Published 10:21 pm Wednesday, August 5, 2020

By Wilson Cherry

Many people previously working in various businesses and industries have had their lives disrupted by the effects of the coronavirus. At Rowan Vocational Opportunities, Inc., we have continued to operate as an essential “mental health service,” licensed by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

The licensure and designation as an essential service is a result of the agency providing life skills and vocational training for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Many consumers have more than one diagnosis, which may be developmental, physical, substance abuse or mental illness.

In complying with the most recent order from North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, all of our consumers and staff wear a mask while at our facilities in Salisbury and Concord. This policy has been implemented to minimize the risk of exposure to the virus. Consumers are also required to wear a mask while riding vans to and from the sites.


Strict guidelines pertaining to social distancing and maintaining clean, disinfected and sanitized facilities are being monitored and enforced at both sites. We have stopped allowing visitors for the time being as well as stopping consumer outings. 

Qualified professionals Heather Erwin, Kim Walton and Michael Brooks are working diligently with all staff to emphasize healthy boundaries as well as demonstrating proper hygiene, acceptable workplace behavior and solid work ethics. Additional sings in English and Spanish are displayed prominently throughout both sites as a reminder to follow proper protocol. Hand sanitizing stations are located at the entrances and placed strategically throughout the buildings.

We are constantly receiving inquiries from individuals, parents and legal guardians regarding how they can qualify and be accepted in our life skills and employment training programs. Many of these persons have already been examined and determined eligible to receive services based on the criteria set forth by the State of North Carolina. Opportunities to them to receive educational enhancement, participation in community activities and outside job placement are being missed. Several persons have called and indicated that they have been diagnosed by state licensed psychologists, psychiatrists or medical doctors, but continue to languish on the Cardinal Innovations Healthcare “Registry of Unmet Needs” for substantial periods of time. These long waiting periods and lack of services frequently have a negative impact and cause undue economic hardships for individuals, families, legal guardians and caretakers alike. 

Currently we have a significant volume of work at Rowan Vocational Opportunities and Cabarrus Vocational Opportunities, although we have not had enough consumers or funding approved to fill positions that could be made available for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities who qualify. We have excelled in fulfilling our mission and purpose for over 50 years.

Rowan Vocational Opportunities Executive Director Gary Yelton and Cabarrus Vocational Opportunities Operations Manager Skip Kraft as well as numerous staff have made phone calls and written letters to local and state government officials to help alleviate this issue.

Rowan Vocational Opportunities and Cabarrus Vocational Opportunities have proven track records of collaborating and developing positive relationships with businesses in both the public and private sectors throughout North Carolina and spanning through South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. Quality control methods that are put in place assure that work is done in an efficient, quality, timely and cost effective manner. Our consumers, staff and administration have been actively involved as volunteers and supporters of many community activities, fundraising projects and civic affairs. 

I am very much aware of many of the issues that plague our communities such as unemployment, racial unrest, poverty, crime and education concerns as well as opioid and substance abuse problems. At this juncture, it appears to me that Rowan Vocational Opportunities and Cabarrus Vocational Opportunities are being neglected because of our efforts to be good stewards of both public and private funding while accomplishing our mission with limited resources.

I personally believe that it is imperative that we do not forget to support some of our most fragile and vulnerable citizens. It is not just the thrust to expand Medicaid and Medicare. It’s about caring, sharing and respecting the dignity and rights of our citizens with disabilities. After all, our consumers and staff are eligible to vote, but many may not have the ability to properly advocate and voice their various concerns.

As I conclude, I reflect on a passage found in the King James Version of the Bible in Matthew 25:40, “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it to me.”

Please be mindful of the many mental health issues that have been triggered and multiplied by the effects of the pandemic. Let’s work together, pray together and bless one another as we go forth.

Wilson R. Cherry is director of community affairs at Rowan Vocational Opportunities Inc. He is an advocate for individuals with developmental disabilities as well as Rowan County United Way.