Amy Armstrong

Water ran for nearly eight hours through the FOCUS offices soaking everything in its path.

Eight hours of unstopping water flowing from a main line broken by the shaking and swaying of the Nov. 30 earthquake.

Eight hours of water creating a massive waterfall cascading down the stairwell from the second floor of the building on Business Blvd in Eagle River’s downtown district.

Very cold water that FOCUS staffers were forced to walk through and under as they fled the building.

FOCUS is the Family Outreach Center for Understanding Special needs. It is the lead social services agency in the Chugiak-Eagle River also serving parts of the Mat-Su Valley providing support and therapy for children and adults with cognitive, emotional, physical and mental disabilities.

“Fortunately, none of our clients were in the building when the earthquake struck,” Diane Poage said of the 8:29 a.m. seismic event with a bright smile on her face.“That would have been much worse.”

As the agency’s executive director, Poage intentionally spends a fair amount of her energy and time on finding and securing every cloud’s silver lining.

She chose the positive last week while showing the Anchorage Press an endless stream of damage photos that she and her staff have already individually labelled and forwarded to the agency’s insurance company.

She quietly said that initial estimates indicate at least $150,000 of assessment testing supplies, electronics, and office equipment including books, computers and desks as well as the therapy tools and toys used to work with clients are destroyed.

She awaits a response from the agency’s insurance company knowing that in all likelihood not everything will be covered.

It is a huge hit for an agency with a budget that is continual strained to meet the increasingly expensive price tag of caring for people with special needs at the same time when funding sources for such aren’t flowing nearly as freely as the flood in the FOCUS office did.

In just one room alone – where the After School Program is housed – nearly $11,000 worth of equipment and supplies was destroyed by the pouring water.

“It has been heart-breaking to see all of the damage, but we also have experienced incredible generosity from the community,” Poage said as she greeted FOCUS office staff that now work at make-shift portable tables in the sanctuary of the Community Covenant Church. “I have the best staff. They have gone above and beyond to make this work and to continue serving the needs of our clients.”

Not that doing so is an easy task.

Luckily, a lot of the agency’s record-keeping is the Cloud and some staff members use laptops versus desktops that were retrieved by a few brave staffers that went back in the building after the shaking stopped.

CPUs situated on the floor in staff offices were drenched. Back-up systems sitting on the floor also were drenched.

Things such as business cards, copy machines, paper clips, printer paper and staples – items vital in day-to-day operations – were gone. Written assessment forms – a mainstay in social service even in this digital age – were gone. Book shelves and desks – mostly constructed with particle board and soaking up the flowing water – were gone.

Decimated was the word used to describe the condition of the FOCUS office.

The “how” and “where” to set up operations was initially answered in staffer’s vehicles for the next few days as the building’s landlord, Anchorage-based Hickel Investments, sent moving crews to help remove anything that could be salvaged.

The folks at CCC – where the FOCUS preschool for special needs is situated – opened its Sunday School classrooms, foyer and sanctuary for Monday through Friday office space.

Some FOCUS staff work from home. Some are now housed at the Chugiak Children’s Services building on the Old Glenn Highway in Chugiak.

It is a necessary Hodge podge, Poage concedes, but the separation of staff members from one another is taxing.

“We are a highly collaborative organization,” she said. “We meet together regularly and brainstorm and talk through problems we face. That is much more difficult now that we are all spread across so many locations.”

Just accomplishing some of the most basic tasks is a challenge now, she said.

For instance, mail delivery is a serious hit or miss – a situation not so conducive to social work that requires a great deal of written information to be exchanged between the federal and state officials and the agency.

Currently, FOCUS mail sent to its Business Blvd office is being forwarded to the church on Artillery Road. However, forwarded mail in Eagle River is sent back to Anchorage to be resorted and redelivered. Some days, FOCUS receives a lot of mail at CCC; some days none. Poage said mailings sometimes take up to two weeks to be delivered instead of the few days the agency is accustomed to.

“It is frustrating,” she said, again with a smile.

But then a staffer hands her an envelope. Poage opens it to find a $100 donation from a local community member who chose to celebrate her birthday by doing an online fundraiser.

That previous smile – one somewhat pasted because she knows her entire staff looks to her for encouragement – becomes a wide, genuine grin. Her eyes light up as she mentions the connection the community member has to FOCUS followed up with instructions on how to get the check over to the finance folks.

Fortunately, Jenna Morales, the agency’s office manager and lead fundraiser, kept her wits about her enough during the earthquake to grab the agency’s credit card processor and set of master keys.

The weeks after the quake found Morales traveling between the agency’s new office destinations on a mission to get whatever supplies were needed.

“It’s been a bit crazy,” she said. “But our people were determined to keep services going for our clients.”

The agency’s speech and occupational therapy clinic was down for a week after the quake.

That too is a big hit for a social services non-profit agency such as FOCUS that bases its budget on that billable time.

Poage again quietly admits that loss is “problematic,” but she was more concerned with making sure services were available as soon as possible to help clients resume normal schedules.

“Our services folks didn’t miss a beat,” Morales said of the small army of folks known with social service as “LSI’s” or “life skills instructors” who work with clients with cognitive differences.

It took a couple days to get the agency’s Infant Learning program running. Ditto for the ABA program – Applied Behavior Analysis.

But as Pam Shackelford, a board certified behavior analyst, along with Cheree Rainey and Emily Williams – both registered behavior technicians – huddle around a portable table in one of the corners of the church sanctuary, they discuss creative ways to deliver ABA services until the tools they used are replaced.

Last Friday, Williams came to work with an essential office product: a coffee pot.

“Hey, things are looking up,” Poage said.

Author’s Note:  The “Get FOCUSed” Speed Networking and Silent Auction Earthquake Recovery Fundraising event is scheduled for Thurs., Feb. 7, 2019, at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center. Tickets are available online at: Doors open at 6:15 p.m.

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