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Inclusion Matters

Advances in the education of children with special needs in the TCI.

By Norah Machia ~ Photos by Anthony Machia

Many positive things are happening for children with special needs in the Turks & Caicos Islands as the result of a partnership between the TCI Government, a nonprofit organization of American and Canadian volunteers and a private business foundation in Providenciales. Children with challenges such as autism, learning disabilities and developmental delays “need special care and attention at a very young age” in order to reach their full potential, said the Honourable Edwin Astwood, Minister of Health, Agriculture, Sport and Human Services.

The SNAP Centre is the only government-funded special needs facility in Providenciales.

The TCI Government currently funds the Special Needs Association of Providenciales (SNAP) Centre, a special education facility with 13 students operated under the Ministry of Health. The centre provides both intellectual and life skills training for children and young adults ages 4 to 24 years old, and typically has a waiting list for new students. “We have just the one centre now, but there are many other children in need of assistance,” said Minister Astwood. More families are coming forward for help as the government has been working on educating people about tolerance, acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities. 

This year, the TCI Government is planning to open a second special education facility on Grand Turk, according to Minister Astwood. Officials have been looking at several options to determine if it would be more cost effective to renovate existing space or build a new structure. A total of six children would be enrolled in the new centre during its first phase, with the possibility of future expansion.  

Opening the second centre in Grand Turk will help families on both the western and eastern portions of the Turks & Caicos Islands. In the past, some families with special needs children have faced tough decisions about changing jobs and moving closer to the centre in Providenciales.

There are plans to expand classroom space and hire additional special needs teachers for the SNAP Centre as well, with a combination of government and private funding. The TCI Government has been working diligently to recruit additional special needs teachers. Competitive salaries and benefits are being offered, but the recruitment process has still been a challenge, Minister Astwood stated.

Depending on their condition, children with special needs require different types of services, and things that come easily to other children are often greater challenges to them. But teachers at the SNAP Centre marvel at the tenacity of their students, and recognize they possess a remarkable resilience and strong determination to learn.  

 

Teache Paulette Simmons encourages a SNAP Centre student.

    The special education teachers at the SNAP Centre have created a positive learning environment, offering both small group and individualized attention. They present educational material in a variety of ways to meet the learning styles of each student, while working with all the children and young adults to reach their highest level possible of independence.

     “The attitudes regarding people with disabilities have been changing,” Minister Astwood noted. “In the past, you may have never known about a child with a special need unless it was someone in your own family. Now there is more public awareness, and more acceptance.”

    The Turks & Caicos Islands Government has been working with the 1 World Foundation for several years to help conduct assessments and develop treatment plans for special needs children. The nonprofit organization sends volunteer health care professionals from the United States and Canada to meet with children and their parents at the SNAP Centre, and at clinics and hospitals throughout the Islands.

     Since 1994, the 1 World Foundation has coordinated occupational therapy, speech pathology, audiology and clinical psychology assessments for children in TCI, said Howard Ganter, foundation president, New York State. These volunteers have worked with both the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education in sharing their experience and offering additional training.

Hon. Edwin Astwood meets with Joseph Rich of the 1 World Foundation.

     The 1 World Foundation volunteers worked with the Ministry of Health’s Special Needs Unit to develop a registry of children needing services, which totals nearly 200 children to date. The nonprofit organization has also shipped adaptive equipment and program supplies to the Islands and their work has been supported by Rotary Clubs in New York State, Ontario, Canada, and Providenciales.       

     For six years, Dr. Jeanne Ryan, a neuropsychologist, and her husband, G. Terrence Ryan, a licensed mental health counselor from New York State, have traveled to TCI to provide assessments and create individualized treatment plans for many special needs children, including those with autism. 

      Autism is often referred to as a “spectrum disorder” because it covers a broad range of conditions and is typically characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, according to the Autism Speaks organization. Each child with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges in the way they think, learn and solve problems, and their conditions range from severely-challenged to highly-skilled.

     The Ryans said they’ve seen more acceptance among families of children with special needs in TCI, although some stigma still exists. “The acceptance by parents is becoming much better, and we are getting more referrals,” Dr. Ryan said. “Although there are still parents who prefer to keep their children at home, because they have concerns about what others might think of them,” she added. “But we certainly have seen improvement firsthand. I recall one parent who just a few years ago did not want to take her special needs child out in public, but that slowly started to change, and she began by taking her child on trips to the grocery store.”

     In recent years, the Ministry of Health, along with volunteers from the 1 World Foundation, has sought input from parents with special needs children through a series of public meetings for residents of Providenciales, Grand Turk, Middle, South and North Caicos. 

      In 2018, the Ministry of Education adopted a Special Education Policy that has resulted in additional services for special needs children, along with an enhanced referral and intervention system, and professional development opportunities for staff and administrators. “The Turks & Caicos Islands Government has appreciated the long-term commitment of the 1 World Foundation in helping us to ‘fill the gaps’ in creating services for people with disabilities,” said Minister Astwood. “They know what the system should look like and have helped guide us in developing our own system. We’re looking forward to future collaborations on all projects assisting families with special needs children.”

     One project being proposed by the nonprofit organization is a new public awareness campaign, said Joseph Rich, a founder of the 1 World Foundation from New York State. Mr. Rich recently met with Minister Astwood in TCI to propose a media campaign that would continue spreading the message of acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities throughout the Islands. “People with disabilities have many of the same dreams as others, including being part of their communities, receiving special services, being respected and even having a job,” said Mr. Rich. The proposed campaign would emphasize the message that “all people are important, all people are valued, all people contribute to the community and this includes people with disabilities,” he added. 

  

Seven Stars Resort Foundation sponsors the SNAP Centre garden.

  The staff at the SNAP Centre has been working to spread that message by taking their students on field trips throughout the Islands. Participation in the community has helped the special needs children build self-confidence and independence, and they have often surprised people with their accomplishments, said Betty-Ann Been, Director of the Special Needs Unit, Ministry of Health. “Our motto is inclusion matters. We focus on independence, early intervention, development of life skills and potential employment opportunities.”

     The staff encourage parents to accompany them on field trips, because it gives them the opportunity to see how well their children can handle themselves in public, Ms. Been said. Bringing children to different locations throughout the Islands also helps people to start thinking differently about those with disabilities and what they can accomplish with their lives. 

     The centre has been successful in having some children transition into the regular school system a couple of days a week with additional teacher support. Officials with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education have a strong working relationship and share information that is critical to identify, diagnose and help children with special needs, said Ms. Been.

Some young adults who have completed their education and life skills training at the SNAP Centre program have found employment, including in the child care and landscaping fields. That effort was helped by the centre’s on-site gardening program, where children have been learning how to grow and market produce. 

      The success of that program can be attributed in large part to the Seven Stars Community Foundation, which “adopted” the SNAP Centre as its main cause, providing continual support for the teachers and students “that has been critical to our operation,” said Ms. Been.  The Community Foundation was started six years ago and considers the SNAP Centre as its main area of focus on Providenciales, said Paul Jobling, Seven Stars Resort, Grace Bay. “The foundation has raised over $150,000 to help the centre.”

      Their support has included transportation for the children and the provision of 10 personal computers and additional iPads to assist children with classroom learning. The Seven Stars Community Foundation also donated a large screen television connected to the internet to enable remote specialized teaching from North America.

Additional support has included monthly landscaping services by Seven Stars personnel, the coordination of regular termite control provided at no cost by Parkway Solutions, and the updating of the air conditioning systems by the resort’s maintenance department. The Community Foundation has also provided the centre with hurricane-proof doors and completed an interior remodeling project with updated bathrooms and repainting of the entire building.

“Every summer before the re-opening of the school, our team of engineers ensure that any renovations needed are completed before the students return,” Mr. Jobling said. “The Seven Stars Team continues to host an annual Christmas party for the students, which allows members of the committee to interact with them through activities such as decorating cookie and cupcakes.”

     When the SNAP Centre suffered considerable damage after Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the Islands in 2017, the employees of Seven Stars completely restored the building within 30 days so the students could return to the centre, Mr. Jobling said. “This was a major achievement given that many of the staff had significant damage to their own properties and the fact that power was not fully restored to Providenciales for many months following the hurricanes,” he noted. “At Seven Stars, we are very proud of our association with the SNAP Centre and intend to remain involved for many years to come.”

For parents with special needs children, there are two phone numbers to call for more information. The number for the Ministry of Health’s Special Needs Unit is (649) 338-2171 and the SNAP Centre is (649) 941-3187.



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