It was an idyllic Wednesday morning when staff at the Sunrise Adult Training Centre took their special-needs adults on the “daily mile,” a walk aimed at keeping them in good physical shape.
As they strolled along Premiere Drive, a puppy bounded by, drawing giggles from the group. Down the road, a farmer waved in greeting as the sounds of roosters and cows echoed through the grassy fields of the surrounding West Bay area.
But upon finishing the walk, the class returned to a less-than ideal setting: a decades-old, four-bedroom duplex on a half-acre parcel of land that has served as the Sunrise Centre’s campus for the last 15 years.
There, 20 teachers, occupational therapists and other employees tend to about 35 people – some of them high-functioning adults with potential for employment and a degree of independence, others severely limited by physical and mental handicaps.
Training adults to be functioning members of society requires functional facilities. To that end, the residential duplex has undergone a raft of modifications, including temporary ramps fashioned throughout the compound, walls erected to form makeshift administrative offices, a tub removed from one of the bathrooms to make room for a hydraulic lift, and a portable trailer added on the land to serve as an occupational therapy room.
Compared to when Sunrise operated out of a tiny cottage in the parking lot of Sir John A. Cumber Primary School from 1986 to 2003, the current property is in many ways an improvement.
Still, Sunrise director Kim Voaden said the aging and cramped quarters impose severe restrictions on how well she and her staff can serve their “clients” – the term the center uses for its special-needs adults.
And the limitations impact far more than Sunrise’s current employees and clients. Due to a lack of space, Ms. Voaden said she has a waiting list of some 60 people who cannot be served.
Within the next five to 10 years, that list is projected to balloon to 150, according to Ms. Voaden, who has a special-needs child of her own.
Government officials have discussed building a new center for years, but little tangible progress has been made outside of studies being commissioned – even though Sunrise staffers said they were told in 2003 that the duplex would be a “temporary place” for them.
Ms. Voaden said she holds out hope that the government will shift its focus from other capital project priorities to constructing new facilities for Sunrise in the near future.
“What do I have if I don’t have hope?” she said.
After Wednesday morning’s walk, Sunrise clients dispersed to all areas of the property to begin their daily training activities.
In one of the kitchens, an instructor worked with several students to make snacks for everyone. The food preppers included Chalice Smith and Tessa Terry, who will likely represent Cayman as athletes in the Special Olympics next summer in Abu Dhabi. While the building’s two residential kitchens are adequate for making snacks, they are not on par with an industrial kitchen needed for making lunch for 30-plus people, Ms. Voaden said.
Near the kitchen is the garage, which has been turned into the center’s arts-and-crafts room. Paintings and other artwork cover the walls and garage door, making it difficult to tell that the room was meant to store vehicles.
Down one of the hallways is a room used as an office by three staffers who work with Sunrise Centre’s 23 employed clients – nearly independent adults with jobs, who do not attend the center unless there is special training or another specific reason for them to go there.
Attached to that office is the food pantry and the building’s only handicap-accessible restroom, which was made by tearing out the shower facilities so a hydraulic lift could fit in the room. When Ms. Voaden worked out of that office, clients going to the bathroom or pantry would often stop to chat with her. She said it came to the point where she could hardly get any work done, so she put up a giant cardboard partition for privacy, decorated with Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night” that a client painted for her.
“I was getting nothing done because I had constant flow through the room,” she said. “I said, ‘I need a barrier to remove the visual distractions, because all the clients coming through wanted to come in and stop and chat.’”
Now, Ms. Voaden’s office is in a corner area of the building, with windows that look out over the front yard. This helps her watch for any clients who exit the duplex without permission – something that has happened in the past.
“We don’t have push-buttons for the doors. We don’t really have a secure compound,” Ms. Voaden said. “I worry a lot. We have clients that have absconded because of emotional dysregulation or a variety of reasons. Luckily, my office sees outside, but it’s a reactive situation.”
Another office, used by the transportation staff, will soon be turned into a classroom when a Caymanian who recently completed a master’s degree in education joins the center, Ms. Voaden said. While the director said she’s excited to have the new instructor and another classroom for teaching clients, the lack of space for administrative work affects employee morale.
Throughout much of the building, water stains mar the ceilings. Though Sunrise’s air quality has been declared as clean by health inspectors, multiple people there complain about sickness they think could be related to mold.
“We get tested every year and are told we are a sterling example of fantastic air quality,” Ms. Voaden said. “And yet, I have people that are sick.”
Most rooms have windows, allowing for natural sunlight to pour in the building. However, those windows also have steel-barred frames that would make escape during a fire nearly impossible in the rooms with no emergency exits.
“Maybe I could get through here, but how could I get a client?” said workshop supervisor Brigitte Conolly, showing the Compass one of the barred windows.
Walking out of the duplex, a Sunrise client held the front door open for Ms. Conolly and this reporter. The client tried to latch the door open with a hook, but the weight of the door pulled the hook right out of the wall.
“It’s been like that,” Ms. Conolly muttered.
Behind the duplex, the backyard teems with mint, basil and other plants, as well as fowl in a recently constructed chicken coop. A client filled a bucket to water the beds, many of which were still dormant from the summer break. Sunrise sells the produce to fund these types of activities.
Next to the duplex is a portable trailer that serves as Sunrise Centre’s occupational therapy room. Inside, a therapist worked with a client with cerebral palsy-like symptoms, rolling a medicine ball over his body to stimulate neurological input in his skin, muscles and joints. At a nearby table, other clients worked on a counting exercise, while another client walked on a treadmill – located right next to a puzzle and other mind games.
Across the compound is a yard that employees use to park their vehicles, since the campus has no parking lot to speak of. The yard is owned by an individual who allows Sunrise staff to park there.
Philanthropic people, companies and community organizations help the center to function, and also provide the times of “real delight,” Ms. Voaden said.
Past charitable acts include the Caribbean Utilities Company taking the clients to the cinema, Rotaract members visiting the center for a “crafts day,” and Digicel donating a television and a wheelchair-accessible table.
“Learning is funded by government, but the times that make everybody really happy are because of donations from the community,” Ms. Voaden said.
Back inside the duplex, life skills instructor William Delgaty showed a video on how to make an omelet to a group of students in one of the bedrooms. Later that day, the group was scheduled to travel to Foster’s to pick up ingredients for their own breakfast food.
However, that trip was canceled at the last minute due to issues with busing, which has been another major challenge facing Sunrise.
While the center has five buses, they are not all in service at any given time – Ms. Voaden described them as all running in “different capacities.” On Wednesday, two of them were at the mechanic to fix roofs that sprung leaks after the most recent torrential rainfall.
The road-worthy buses run two routes: one in West Bay and George Town, and the other from south of the airport to as far east as the Northward area. Sunrise has a client that lives across the island in North Side. To get to the center, he must wake up early to travel to a Northward pickup point, where the bus will take him and other clients the rest of the way.
Ms. Voaden explained that even if her drivers could start earlier, there would be issues with carrying a large busload of special-needs adults for such a long distance, facing the usual traffic delays on the way.
Ideally, the Sunrise Adult Training Centre would be located in central George Town to mitigate these and other issues that come with having Sunrise tucked away in the far corner of West Bay, Ms. Voaden said. Other problems with the center’s remoteness include the time it takes for emergency responders to travel there.
“I love our EMTs, but I have had instances of people having seizures and it taking the ambulance 40 minutes to get here,” Ms. Voaden said.
Relocating Sunrise in George Town would align with a 2010 consultancy report by Deloitte, which recommends the new center be located somewhere between George Town and Prospect. The report was commissioned after then-Premier McKeeva Bush promised in 2009 to set aside money in government’s budget for Sunrise to get “a much-needed new permanent home.” Deloitte analyzed the country’s disability provision in 2010 as part of the research into the possibility of building a new center. At the time, funding was not available to implement the recommendations and the report was not released.
About four years later, the report’s findings were discussed in Finance Committee hearings. Premier Alden McLaughlin announced in November 2014 that $8.5 million would be budgeted for the center.
At the time, then-Sunrise director Shari Smith said construction on the purpose-built facility would begin in 2016 and should be open by 2018.
But more planning was apparently needed, and in May 2016 government announced that an outline business case – a study legally required for major capital projects – would be formed for the project.
In January 2017, government announced that it would move forward with the project through local development company Rider Levett Bucknall. The company was to complete a business plan outlining the costs of creating a more central location, program expansion and increased client enrollment, and then submit that plan within 90 days.
No public announcements have been made about building a new center since then. In response to a records request for the business case, government told the Compass that it is still in progress and therefore cannot be released.
Ms. Voaden said Sunrise is making a presentation to caucus “soon,” and that she’s praying the project can move into its final business case phase shortly thereafter, and then on to the actual construction.
Given the strides government has made in catering to the territory’s special-needs adults, Ms. Voaden said she’s confident that this administration will be the one to finally provide Sunrise with the desperately needed facilities.
“I would say that this particular premier and administration have been the ones that pushed through the disability legislation and championed the disability policy,” she said. “Our minister has visited to see our limitations.”
However, a new special-needs adult center is not mentioned in government’s 2017 strategic policy statement, which lists the cruise pier, airport development, John Gray High School, George Town landfill, and the Long-Term Mental Health Facility as priority projects.
As long as Sunrise remains in its current building, it will be limited to serving a maximum of about 35 clients, which already strains the aging property to its limits. With a continuous stream of graduates coming from the Lighthouse School – Cayman’s school that trains youth with disabilities – the demand for Sunrise is constantly growing. The Lighthouse School has 110 students, with six of them in Year 12 and 10 in Year 11.
Many Lighthouse graduates have to wait years before there is room for them at Sunrise. At that point, they have forgotten what they were taught, and much of their training must start from scratch, Ms. Voaden said.
Later that Wednesday, Ms. Voaden was scheduled to call the families of five of those long-waiting clients about their admission to the training center.
However, admitting five new adults means having to say goodbye to some of the center’s elderly clients, who mostly use the center to watch television and participate in recreational activities rather than learn life skills, she said.
What happens to those elderly clients who age out of the center?
“They go home,” Ms. Voaden said after a pause. “It would then be up to the families to find what to do with them. …
“We need to get out. We need a new building.”