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Harlem woman helps developmentally disabled adults through coronavirus life changes

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Not all heroes wear capes, though some do wear masks and gloves.

Meet Mark, 59, and Heriberto, 50, two intellectually and developmentally disabled Bronx men who were left feeling lost and confused when the coronavirus pandemic erupted.

“[They] live independently in supportive housing and did not understand why so many people were dying when they watched TV. Their limitations left them grappling with social distancing and how to wear protective equipment like masks and gloves, and why they were even important,” the New York Post reported Saturday.

Now enter Jannette Pinilla, the non-profit worker who’s spent nearly a decade taking daily care of the two. When the pandemic erupted, her family urged her to effectively turn her back on Mark and Heriberto by just remaining home.

“No, don’t go because you’ll put yourself and you’ll put us at risk,” they reportedly told her.

But Pinilla, who shares a Harlem home with her 38-year-old daughter, 17-year-old niece, 40-year-old brother and 5-year-old grandson, couldn’t just leave the two be.

So Pinilla donned a mask and gloves, hopped on the train and never stopped making the 50-minute commute to Mark and Heriberto’s East Bronx apartment so she can guide them through the pandemic,” the Post reported.

“I’m preparing them, explaining to them everyday … how to clean their mask … having them wear gloves, explaining to them why they have to wear the mask and gloves everyday, explaining to them about how to keep social distancing, showing them the distance they have to keep between them and someone else,” she said to the Post.

“At the beginning, they got scared. So that’s why I had to sit down and explain to them that it’s not only you that’s going through this, everybody in the United States, it’s the same.”

These lessons have been particularly important for Mark, who works as an essential worker at a local Stop & Shop supermarket.

“Pinilla equipped him with hand sanitizer, a mask and gloves so he could safely do his job and taught him how to frequently wash his hands and make sure he cleaned his mask when he got home so it’d be ready for him the next day,” the Post noted.

When not busy preparing Mark and Heriberto for the ongoing pandemic, Pinilla can be found cooking their meals (14 total a week), taking them on errands (to the grocery store, the laundromat, the doctor) and just being their friend by playing games, dancing, etc.

Her job title is reportedly that of a direct support professional for Rising Ground, which is funded in part by the state’s Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.

The non-profit provides children/family services, education services, intellectual/development disability services and more.

“We’re here to support children and adults so they can lead a full and meaningful life regardless of their intellectual or developmental ability,” the section on its official website pertaining to disabilities reads.

“We provide habilitation and recreational services, job training for meaningful work, and supported housing for those who can’t live on their own. Our goal is to help people pursue their dreams, so they can thrive and grow.”

But it’s no easy task taking care of grown men with disabilities. Even just the act of standing together with them in a line requires that Pinilla think outside the box.

“It’s scary for them. I can tell when something is bothering them, so I make a game out of waiting a long time on a supermarket line so they don’t panic. The one who keeps their distance gets a prize, and the prize is $5 they get to spend whatever way they want to spend it,” she said to the Post.

And FYI, that $5 comes out of her own pockets, though she doesn’t appear to mind.

“Without me, it would be a totally different story, because who would help them?” she said. “If they didn’t have me, they wouldn’t be able to do everything for themselves because they need help.

“It would be different if they were able to do everything for themself like cooking but the real cooking, I do it, so if I’m not there to do it, they will starve. It’s not an easy job but I want to do it. You have to have it in you. I’ve always worked in caregiving. It’s what I do.”

And that’s why you, Miss Pinilla, are a hero.

Vivek Saxena

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