Teacher sets sights on students

Like many other Grand Cayman residents, you have probably never met Calum, Cody, Carl, Joshua or Finita. They don’t really know each other either. But one thing they do have in common is their teacher, friend, and mentor Gloria Powery.

Joshua and Miss Gloria

Joshua and Miss Gloria play games that help him hone his hearing and depth perception. Photo: Basia Pioro

An enthusiastic whirlwind of energy, Mrs. Powery has set her sights on making a difference in the lives of the visually impaired in Grand Cayman.

‘I call my students my little stars, that is what they are to me,’ she says.

To be more precise, they are little stars in a sizeable constellation who keep Mrs. Powery on the road all week, driving from school to school across the Island.

Trained in special needs in her native Panama, unlike many of her peers elsewhere, Mrs. Powery is also multi-trained, skilled in different aspects of the field: from visual stimulation, orientation and mobility, to Braille instruction.

These skills allow her to tackle the wide range of vision problems and needs participants in the Cayman Islands Education Department’s Programme for the Visually Impaired need help with.

Early intervention

When it comes to early childhood development, vision is critical. Experts estimate the 80 to 90 per cent of early learning takes place through vision, placing visually impaired youngsters at risk of experiencing significant developmental delays.

That’s because a person’s visual system involves much more than the eyes; it interacts with the body’s muscles to develop reaching, crawling, grabbing and walking skills in infants and children. In fact, two-thirds of the functions of the brain are associated with vision.

‘The development of neural pathways requires patterned targets to allow the visual cells of the brain to develop,’ says Mrs. Powery.

‘Without patterned stimulation, these areas of the brain do not develop the ability to process visual information – meaning that part of the brain will eventually lose its function, and the connection will be cut forever.’

Making it her mission to make sure children retain as much vision as possible, regardless of their impairment, Mrs. Powery roams the Island armed for battle.

Bright and loud

Donning an eye-popping polka-dot robe and a jangly charm bracelet, she is hard to miss as she carries a bag full of brightly coloured learning tools to the day’s first lesson.

Retinopathy of prematurity, a condition that affects the eyes of premature babies, makes it difficult for the day’s first student, three-year-old Calum, to see things at a distance. But the ROP’s not stopping this active youngster from racing to greet his teacher once the bracelet gives away her presence. Pressing his face close to her robe for polka-dot confirmation, he grabs her hand and commands: “Let’s go work!”

Calum is enthusiastically learning numbers and letters along with his classmates, though his might be supersized and extra-colourful.

By introducing brightly coloured objects and features into everyday situations, Mrs. Powery is working with Calum’s teachers to ensure he gets a mega dose of visual stimulation to help his growing brain remember what, for example, red looks like.

Since starting the programme, he’s become an avid reader, and is tackling his elementary math with gusto. When he successfully counts out and glues three red hearts into his workbook, his sense of accomplishment is well in evidence.

‘The sooner these children receive developmental intervention tailored to their blindness, the sooner they can begin to catch up and achieve optimal functioning,’ says Mrs. Powery.

‘And those that have some other challenges as well need even more time and more stimulation.’

Mrs. Powery was inspired to address these additional needs when she met another young man named Carl. He suffers from rubella syndrome, which he contracted from his mother while in the womb. Watching him play with his Lighthouse school classmates at the pool, it’s surprising to learn that not only is he almost completely blind, he’s also deaf.

Adaptability and teamwork

Faced with an additional challenge, Mrs. Powery was inspired to enrol in a two-year Master’s programme focusing on therapy for the deaf-blind, with proven results. When Mrs. Powery makes the ‘C’ sign for his name, Carl eagerly swims over to greet her.

Watching Mrs. Powery work, it’s quickly clear that not only is she helping her students learn, she’s also a one-woman band who plays teacher, advocate, administrator, social worker – and then some.

That’s why on a typical day not only is Mrs. Powery visiting four or five of her 40 or so students, she’s also scheduling medical appointments, wrangling funds from donors, arranging for free eyeglasses, corralling parents, and training teachers.

Mrs. Powery says that children from needy families face an even greater challenge if their parents are less able to support their needs both financially and in the home, but that’s not standing in her way.

‘When you see children in this kind of need, I must do what needs to be done, even if it means taking matters into my own hands,’ she says matter-of-factly.

But she says she really couldn’t get anything done without all of her partners, both official and unofficial.

‘The government has been very helpful in arranging for surgeries and medical appointments and pushing them through,’ she says.

‘If it wasn’t for Dr. Pandit, the George Town hospital ophthalmologist, as well as Diane and Nikisha who work there, and Optical Outlook, who make up eyeglasses for free for my patients, along with Dina from Cayman Lenscafters, I don’t know what I’d do,’ says Mrs. Powery.

‘And I also can’t fail to mention private sponsors, and the Lions, and Social Services, and Dr. Foley who is also an ophthalmologist.’

She says the teamwork is how the surgery, glasses and therapy all fall in place for her charges.

One recent beneficiary of Mrs. Powery’s efforts is Cody, born with ptosis, otherwise known as a droopy eyelid. Affecting this handsome seven-year old’s looks, if left untreated, ptosis can also cause severe problems by forcing the unaffected eye to do all the work while the affected eye degenerates. Untreated, the eye’s neural connection to the brain will usually be severed permanently by age ten.

‘We needed him to have the surgery as soon as possible, because if the connection is permanently cut, the only thing that can be done is a cosmetic procedure to lift the lid and straighten the eye to make it appear normal,’ says Mrs. Powery.

Two surgeries later, Cody is looking great. He wears a patch over his good eye so his rescued eye can catch up.

Next stop is another ROP-afflicted student, three-year-old Joshua. Born extremely premature, his little body has already been subjected to a number of major surgeries. For years to come, he’ll require expensive medical treatments to keep him as healthy as possible as his body grows.

Thanks to the timely intervention of the Health Services Authority in paying for his overseas medical treatments, today Joshua is a far cry from the sickly boy he once was. Having impatiently finished lunch, he gleefully pulls on his shoes and dashes outside for his lesson.

It’s his first time in preschool: his health has been so fragile even a mild cold posed a major threat. Still, it’s better for his development to be around other children, who learn by watching their peers.

Joshua still needs to learn to orient himself to his surroundings using his hearing. He and his teacher play a game where he points to where various sounds are coming from, a skill that will prove invaluable as he grows.

Mrs. Powery credits the people she calls her ‘special friends’ for the reassurance that they will be able to make many of Joshua’s future needs possible.

Kids and beyond

But it’s not only children who are benefiting from ‘Team Powery’. The day’s final stop takes her out to West Bay’s Sunrise Adult Training Centre. It’s where Finita Ebanks now spends most days, whether it’s working out in the gym, taking music and craft classes or practicing her Braille typing.

Although the Centre normally caters to developmentally challenged adults, Cayman lacks a specialty centre for the blind so Finita’s options for skills and training are limited. But finding herself there is, nonetheless, quite an accomplishment for someone who, until recently, was going down a rocky road in life.

When Finita was pregnant with her son, now 24, she contracted an eye infection. But her pregnancy prevented her from receiving the aggressive treatment she needed in case it harmed the baby. Sadly, she lost her vision. Isolated by her blindness, she spent many years quietly caring for her kids, and then later for her grandchildren.

But nearly two decades later, Mrs. Powery was going to meet another patient when she spotted Finita, walking down the road holding on to a friend’s shoulder for guidance.

‘I said to her, you must be the lady I’m supposed to be meeting, but she didn’t know what I was talking about!’ laughs Mrs. Powery.

‘But I invited her to come along and that’s how Finita became such an integral part of the programme.’

From that day on, Mrs. Powery has taken Finita under her wing, instructing her in orientation and mobility including mastering use of the long cane, and bringing her along to visit other students. She’s been able to make all sorts of new friends along the way, and now realizes she’s not entirely alone in her situation.

Thanks to these new doors that have been opened for her, Finita is taking advantage of such diversions as exercising at Curves gym a few days a week with a friend.

And there has been another most welcome breakthrough for her. She used to love writing, but it was near impossible until she began lessons on the Braille typewriter.

Last year, Finita was also able to attend a conference for the disabled in Philadelphia.

‘That was a really good experience, and I met some very nice people from all over, and I am looking forward to going again,’ she says.

That kind of positive outlook is music to Mrs. Powery’s ears.

‘I do this so my students can have a better life, and by just trying as hard as I can, I think I am able to help at least a few people,’ she says.

But on her own, and on a strict time budget, it’s hard to do everything she’d like for her students.

‘There are only so many hours in a day, and until I get some help, things will just have to go on like this,’ she says.

But for at least 40 students on Grand Cayman, nobody’s really complaining: life for them is only going to change for the better.

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