Before Harmony Learning Centre was founded in March 2011, there was no place in Cayman Brac where disabled adults could go to learn life skills – or even just participate in fun activities.
Since then, the center has helped adults with disabilities who were previously stuck at home and socially isolated, providing them with educational and vocational programming designed to help them achieve their full potential.
The program, which is not subsidized by the government, relies on donations to maintain its operations and help a segment of society that is often forgotten. But now the non-profit organization founded and run entirely by volunteers needs help; by the end of December it will run out of funds needed to keep the center going.
“The people with disabilities in the Brac deserve the same as anyone else out of life,” Harmony volunteer teacher Jocelyn St Pierre said. “There has to be more out of life than just being home … people want more from life than that, they want to be a contributing member of society and their community. These people need a place where they can continue to learn and grow.”
After a 2002 survey found that 27 learning-disabled adults living in Cayman Brac could benefit from a facility similar what Grand Cayman’s Sunrise Adult Training Centre offered, government decided to start a branch of Sunrise on the smaller island. But those plans were derailed after Hurricane Ivan devastated Grand Cayman in 2004.
Harmony Learning Centre
In 2009, one family began exploring the idea again.
Paula Malone, who is learning disabled, had retired from her job in Canada, where she had worked in a school cafeteria for 20 years. She moved to Cayman Brac to live with her mother, Barbara Malone. She loved the peaceful, sunny island, but was bored – there were few activities tailored for people with her abilities.
So Paula’s sister, Angie Fawkes, and their mother, began meeting with the Education Department to see if plans to start a branch of Sunrise on the Brac could be revisited.
“They loved the idea,” Ms. Fawkes said. “They love everything about it, but there is no funding for us.”
Ms. Fawkes and her family and friends took matters into their own hands.
They founded the Harmony Learning Centre in March 2011, and initially operated a monthly Saturday social program at the Heritage House, since the program did not yet have a teacher, or the funding to hire one.
Eventually, one of Paula’s former teachers, Ms. St Pierre, who had come for a visit to the Brac, volunteered to run a day program eight months out of the year.
“Since my retirement I have wanted to do something that would help people,” Ms. St Pierre said. “There was nothing in place for persons with a disability and [Paula] asked me to come and work here. I thought I could give her and others a chance at becoming more independent and to be more involved in their community. I felt like I had another purpose in life.”
The center’s day program, which began in October 2014, runs five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. from October to April. The program provides assistance to five adults with learning disabilities between 18 and 58 years old.
Learning life skills
The Harmony Learning Centre teaches life skills like cooking, cleaning, personal grooming and gardening, and social skills through outings, teas and visiting the elderly. Program participants engage in daily physical exercise such as aerobics and dancing, and there is an academic component, tailored for each individual’s needs. They also make arts and crafts, many of which they sell to support the center.
Since the day program began, Ms. Fawkes said that participants have made progress, with many proving that they are capable of doing things that no one ever expected of them. Ms. Fawkes’s sister, for example, recently learned how to do her own grocery shopping.
“That’s a big ‘wow’,” Ms. Fawkes said. “Just one day a month, three hours, the families were noticing progress, so now can you imagine a day program, five days a week?”
Ms. St Pierre said that some program participants have learned to spell their names, solve basic math skills, and pick up life skills required to be independent.
She sees how participants “take pride in what they accomplish independently or as a group.”
“I have seen one person become much more independent in a very short time. This person would do nothing at first without her personal attendant to assist her,” Ms. St Pierre said. “She is now able to give directions to others and assist them when she can.”
In the spring, the center hosted a fish fry fundraiser that each adult assisted with in some way. They also create Christmas crafts, some of which are sold at Pure Art in Grand Cayman.
“One of our goals is to become self-sufficient,” Ms. Fawkes said. “So whatever we make, we sell to keep our program going.”
Recently, thanks to a $3,500 donation from Walkers, the center launched a gardening project. Program participants have wheelchair accessible garden beds. Ms. Fawkes said they plan to use or sell all of what they grow. The vegetables can either go into their own lunches, or into the lunches that program participants make once a week, which they sell to the public.
Despite the donations, keeping the program going has been a struggle.
The center organizes fundraisers, like walkathons, fish fries and Christmas cookie sales, and occasional corporate sponsorships help keep the program going, too. Despite these efforts, the center is about to reach the bottom of its purse.
It needs about $4,000 a month to run. Although Ms. St Pierre and other teachers volunteer their time, the center covers their living and travel expenses. Funds are also required to rent the house where the program is run, and to cover utilities and supplies.
The center received a one-time $5,000 donation from the government about six months ago, but Ms. Fawkes said regular funding from government is unavailable until such time as the center is serving at least 15 people.
The center could easily support that many people, but recruiting participants has been a challenge. Some families of learning disabled adults have been hesitant.
“A lot of them don’t want to admit that their kids need anything,” said Laura Montoya, a friend of Ms. Fawkes who helps with the center.
“They won’t try it out,” she said. “They have to experiment … It happens from seeing it happen, from the word of mouth, so this has to continue in order to even get one more or two more. The mentality is not going to change overnight.”
Ms. Fawkes said that caregivers and parents of adults with disabilities sometimes do not realize that they need support, too, and that a place like Harmony helps them as well as their children. She said that many parents are elderly, which makes it even more necessary to teach life skills and foster the independence of adults with disabilities.
Ms. St Pierre said she hopes that the government will commit to funding the center, and that more parents of adults with disabilities become more involved in lobbying the government. She also hopes that the program can be a fully accessible site so that all participants are able to participate.
“What we do at the center is try to help people reach their full potential, whatever this may be for them,” Ms. St Pierre said. “I am hoping that people will get a better understanding of disabilities and start to focus on each person’s abilities instead.”
The teacher said she wants people to understand that each participant has “hopes and dreams,” the same as anyone else, and that the center can help them achieve those goals.
“We just need to keep going,” Ms. Fawkes said. “Even if it’s just fo
r one, we need to keep going.”