LAWRENCE — Just after noontime this past Tuesday, Caitlin Torrisi, 22, was hard at work in redeveloped mill space in the city's Riverwalk complex off Interstate 495.
Wearing a mask, gloves and noise-cancelling headphones, Torrisi rolled three pieces of plastic silverware into a napkin and then placed the set into a glassine baggy.
She happily hummed as she completed the task, over and over. She aims to finish 100 sets each workday.
In the next room, several other young men folded letters from a local dentist, placed them in envelopes and affixed stamps. They all took a very short break to greet visitors.
Three dozen adults with autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities go to the Cancro Center at 280 Merrimack St. every weekday, many of them enrolled in vocational programs.
Managed by the Andover-based Melmark New England, the center and its staffers worked diligently during the past year to overcome challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Melmark is considered a leader in educational, clinical and residential services for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Those with disabilities can be more susceptible to severe COVID-19 infection and death, noted Rita Gardner, Melmark president and CEO.
Gardner and Stacey Williams, the Cancro Center's program director, offered a tour of the facility recently, during Autism Awareness Month.
Gardner described the staff's work — which could not be done remotely and involved some of the most vulnerable people in the community — as nothing short of heroic. As she talked about Melmark workers and their efforts, tears welled up in Gardner's eyes.
"Suddenly our staff were frontline workers. They were heroes but they have been doing this kind of work for decades," she said.
Staff worked throughout the pandemic in a manner that was both "invisible" to many and "invincible" for their clients, Gardner said.
Roughly 30% of Melmark's 400 staffers developed COVID-19, were involved in contact tracing, or lost their own children's educational or childcare services while Melmark's residential programs remained open.
In March 2020, the Cancro Center closed due to pandemic shutdowns.
Then, in August 2020, as state guidelines relaxed and permitted, the site was reopened. By March 2021, all 36 clients had returned, staffers said.
These days, the adults are grouped in different rooms at the center, largely due to their residential settings. Plexiglass barriers have been installed, mask wearing is required at all times and the adults are all socially distanced as they perform a variety of tasks.
At one point, Gardner said a Melmark student, 14, and a staff member, 29, were both on ventilators at the same time due to the disease. As they recovered, Gardner closely monitored their care, including that of the staff member whose family does not live in the area.
Gardner stressed that staff members were not only careful on the job, but also vigilant outside of work so they would not contract and spread infection, she said.
Melmark clients and staff were eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations early on, in phase 1A, as they either work in or are enrolled in congregate care.
Gardner herself lead "Town Hall" style virtual meetings on Zoom to discuss vaccines, their efficacy and "all the fallacies." The result was a 98% vaccination rate, she said.
The adult services center at the Riverwalk was dedicated in 2017 to the Cancro family of Andover, who first brought their daughter, Lisa, to Melmark in 2001.
The family was searching for a solution as other public and private educational programs had failed to help Lisa. She became a happy and engaged member of the school's student and adult communities.
Gardner noted that Melmark serves a population with severe needs. And for many families, the "road to Melmark is paved with failures."
But once they arrive, they find success.
"We celebrate the progress of individuals who work really hard to learn," Gardner said.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.