Sunrise Centre gives classroom reopening a test run

Shutdown created extra burden for special needs community

As Cayman’s active COVID-19 cases continue a downward trend, the Sunrise Adult Training Centre in West Bay is trialling a return to in-person classes and support services.

The facility for special needs adults shut its doors in March, when educational institutions were ordered closed by government as a coronavirus-control measure.

Now, with public schools still shut for summer, the Sunrise Centre is one of Cayman’s first educational facilities to test a return to semi-normal operations.

While operating an in-person summer programme has required extensive planning to ensure social distancing and proper hygiene, staff and clients have developed a renewed appreciation for the centre, explained Sunrise director Kimberly Voaden.

“One of the best things that we can help with, in addition to the training that we offer and the vocational services that we offer, is just a safe and structured programme that our clients can come to, that families feel safe to send their family members to,” Voaden said.

Services during shutdown

For many Sunrise clients, the shutdown and abrupt change to routine was particularly challenging to process, Voaden said. Attending the centre allows clients to socialise, eat a meal, and access needed support services.

While the centre was closed, providing such services remotely became complicated.

A long list of community partners, including Mise en Place, Cayman National Bank, Meals on Wheels and the Christian Association for Civics Education, stepped up to provide free meals for clients. Meanwhile, staff helped connect families with the Needs Assessment Unit, coordinated at-home activities and circulated the facility’s two tablet devices among families to keep them connected, explained Sunrise employee Daniel John.

Throughout the crisis, the staff’s priorities have been the “health, wealth and happiness” of clients, he said.

But explaining the crisis and easing anxieties proved difficult.

Despite distribution of easy-read materials, virtual activities and regular staff check-ins with clients, the three months of isolation were tough for many to understand.

“We had some who were reporting our clients were sitting at home with their uniforms on, for example, waiting for the bus on a Monday because they’re so used to coming to the centre and it was such a break in routine,” Voaden said.

“We also had some clients whose families said that they thought they were at home because they had done something wrong and that they had caused the pandemic.”

The distress brought out increased behavioural concerns in some clients, Voaden added, as many families simultaneously struggled with the added stresses of unemployment and financial uncertainty. The combination of concerns created an unprecedented challenge for a facility whose staff is already accustomed to complex problem solving.

For 17 years, the Sunrise Centre has made do with operating out of a retrofitted duplex meant to serve as a temporary location. Plans to establish a fit-for-purpose centre are part of ongoing government discussions.

Operating without a centre, however, highlighted the importance of consistent, in-person services for adults with special needs.

“I think that during this period of lockdown, the sense of being isolated or separated has really unfortunately been a reality for a lot of us,” Voaden said.

“For any vulnerable population within society, something like this is extra challenging, but certainly for the adult special needs population or special needs population in general.”

Back to Sunrise

Returning to the centre for a modified summer programme marks a small return to normalcy, but in many ways, the reopened Sunrise facility has changed.

Tape marks the tile floor, indicating walkways and denoting social distancing measurements with an ‘X’ placed every six feet.

Cardboard cut-outs of Queen Elizabeth II and Mr. Bean also demonstrate social distancing and proper use of face masks.

Sanitation stations for cleaning hands are accessible throughout the centre. Plastic partitions, donated by Phoenix Construction, separate work and activity stations.

Outside, picnic tables, painted by Public Works Department employees, provide extra seating for outdoor lunches.

Staff wear face masks throughout the day and prepare individual activity packs for clients, to avoid cross contamination.

“Staff are really stepping up to do activities they don’t normally do,” Voaden said.

Clients and staff have been broken up in two groups to reduce the numbers at the facility at any time and to provide an extra layer of protection against spreading disease. Every morning, staff call each client’s family for a health check and to screen any potential virus symptoms. Those who don’t pass the check, or who do not answer the morning’s phone call, cannot attend the centre that day.

A top priority when reopening was also checking in on the emotional wellness of clients. On the first days back, staff guided conversations on the experiences lived during lockdown and helped clients process what they had gone through.

“We talked a lot about what we’ve experienced as people during coronavirus and asked about feelings, asked how they were doing, talked a lot about being OK with feeling afraid, feeling uncertain, feeling anxious, feeling all those things that each one of us has had to manage,” Voaden said.

At the end of the day, staff do another check-in with clients and ask how they would rate the experience.

“One of our clients said, you know, on a scale of one out of 10, this is 100,” Voaden said. “That just made me feel like that’s exactly why we need to be in here, if we can make that sort of positive difference in the lives of our clients.”

Not all clients have been able to return, however. The need for social distancing and increased sanitation measures has meant the centre does not have the space or capacity to serve its full list of clients. Some adults with the greatest needs have not yet been able to return due to space and staffing constraints.

“We make the best of the space that we have and we’re going to make a success out of this because we have that ‘can-do’ attitude here at the centre, but I wish that we were able to have the space to bring everybody in,” Voaden said.

In the meantime, the summer programme provides a test-run for the centre before resuming life-skills and classroom lessons in September.

Clients in the summer session are now preparing for some of their first community outings in months, including a trip to the Parrot Sanctuary in East End and a day at the cinema.

Voaden’s goal is for each client to have an in-centre day, a field trip and a big group activity every week.

“You come and have an easy day, a happy day, a day with meaning and purpose,” she said.

For those who would like to support Sunrise Centre clients, John said staff are always looking for ways to help get them out in the community. Sponsoring a meal for a day’s outing, he said, is one way to help make such activities possible.

To read more about the Sunrise Centre, visit http://www.sunrise.gov.ky/.

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