CHICAGO (CBS) — Tough money choices caused by the pandemic are having real impacts on real people. One woman reached out to CBS 2 about a shuttered service that helped her brother, who is blind.

Morning Insider Lauren Victory shares what’s behind the loss of a beloved, one-of-a-kind program.

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Michael Thomas is content sorting beads, but you can find his true happiness at Chicago Lighthouse where he’s participated in an adult day program for the legally blind and developmentally disabled since 1996.

“We like to write things down, hang with each other,” said Michael of the friends he’s made there.

He also enjoys his job as a janitor.

“I do garbage. Sometimes my friends, like Tommy, ain’t there; and my mom don’t know, but I take the elevator by myself to go upstairs to do that garbage,” said Michael, who is 46 years old.

Michael Thomas (center) seen laughing with his friends (Photo supplied to CBS)

The program gives him purpose and gives mom Gladys Thomas, rest.

“I’ll be 73 years old in July. I enjoy that free time,” said Gladys, who has filled the last 14 months with walks and other attempts to entertain her adult son.

The pandemic forced the Chicago Lighthouse adult day program to temporarily shut down for safety.

“Here we’re thinking, once most of them get vaccinated, they’re gonna open back up, and here we get this letter,” Gladys said.

The letter announced her son’s favorite daytime activity is cancelled for good “due to unanticipated outcomes.”

We asked Chicago Lighthouse for specific reasons why the program needed to close and President and CEO Janet Szlyk laid out several.

She explained Chicago Lighthouse supports 40 different programs, but that the adult day program especially struggled with money during the pandemic.

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“The families at that point where not willing to send their loved ones back in-person,” said Szlyk.

That affected government reimbursement, since going remote or hybrid would only bring in 60 percent of the normal rate.

The Illinois Department of Human Services confirmed the virtual day service rate provides a lower amount of funding per person than in-person ($5.46 vs. $15.10). In-person rates increased by 15 percent to cover additional COVID-19 needs.

“While the in-person reimbursement rate has been increased to accommodate additional COVID-19 related needs, a number of our participant families remain reluctant to enroll in in-person programming. This is understandable because many of these adults, who have both physical and developmental disabilities, are high-risk. As a result, we would have to propose a hybrid program, which is not financially viable when virtual reimbursement rates remain at these low levels. To continue providing a high-quality program, our staff will have to be paid at the same rates, regardless of whether they are virtual or in-person,” Szlyk said.

Michael Thomas, seen playing the guitar, has participated in an adult day program for the legally blind and developmentally disabled at Chicago Lighthouse since 1996. Now that program is being canceled. (Photo supplied to CBS)

Why not bring the program back in-person, especially if the pay is higher than normal?

Szlyk said participant vaccinations weren’t as high as expected when they were considering the program’s fate earlier this year. She also cited a staffing issue.

“Our staff members who had supported the program, they had gone on to other ventures,” she said.

But Szlyk is optimistic. She said she’s had conversations with lawmakers that could lead to funding to create another program like the one cancelled.

The question is: when? For now, it’s a one-of-a-kind loss.

“Even if they go to other centers, most of them can’t, because they’re not used to dealing with the totally blind,” Gladys said.

“Candidly, there’s just not any like that [program] in the state,” said David Ogunbode, whose case workers at Community Service Options, Inc. might struggle to find Michael a new placement.

“It will be challenging,” Ogunbode said.

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And there could be a waiting list, which means more time Michael spends with his beads instead of his buddies.

Michael Thomas seen with his friends at the Chicago Lighthouse adult day prorgram. (Photo supplied to CBS)

Lauren Victory