Sat | Jul 11, 2020

Leap of faith - Special-needs school launches campaign to keep doors open

Published:Saturday | May 30, 2020 | 10:35 PMJamila Litchmore/Special Projects and Engagement Editor
Jodiann McKay speaks about the improvements she has seen in her nine-year-old son, Ajani Thomas, who is a slow learner.
Jodiann McKay speaks about the improvements she has seen in her nine-year-old son, Ajani Thomas, who is a slow learner.

SCHOOLS ACROSS the island are set to physically reopen on September 7, but for the Faith Education Centre in Willodene, Spanish Town, St Catherine, the future hangs in the balance unless the institution is able to raise the funds needed to relocate.

The special-needs school caters to slow learners and students with autism, developmental delays, multiple disabilities, emotional disturbances, and intellectual disabilities.

It first opened its doors on September 9, 2013, at the time, catering to just three students at the Tawes Meadows Benevolent Centre in the parish of St Catherine. In 2014, they moved to their current location, where they now have two classes, 10 students, and three members of staff, including its principal and co-founder, Shervina Small.

Small says the school has always had financial challenges, but its current situation has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. “Things degraded rapidly,” said Small. With no fees, it has been difficult to pay the rent and utilities at their current location, and with every month that they still occupy the space, the cost is growing.

Further, they have been given notice by the property’s owners and must relocate quickly if they are to reopen in September.

“We have been given notice to relocate in light of the condition of the premises. They say they want to fix, so we have to relocate. So we have to focus on clearing what is owed, plus getting some funds to move forward,” Small told The Gleaner.

The problem: “There’s really nothing in the kitty,” Small shared.

A GoFundMe campaign was launched by Small’s sister, Andrea Jones, on May 22. It aims to raise US$3,000.

At press time, it had raised US$1,215 of the US$3,000 goal from 13 donors.

Small has a June deadline to raise the funds needed or face the difficult decision of closing the school’s doors.

“School reopens in September, so we are roughly looking at three months to wrap up - raising the funds, getting the place, relocating, settling in, [getting] ready for school in September,” she said.

For the parents of the students Small has helped, the closure of the Faith Education Centre is unimaginable.

Charmaine Johnson first realised her son, Chaz Mendez, wasn’t developing as he should when he was a toddler.

At 18 months, he moved from saying ‘mama’, ‘dada’, and ‘juice’ to nothing at all. Worried, Johnson, a teacher, had him assessed, and he was diagnosed with autism.

“When he initially got interviewed, was assessed, he was very low, where he couldn’t do anything pretty much, so that was really traumatising for me. Now, I can see where he has improved. He has been doing much better, where he is following more directions,” said Johnson.

She notes the affordability of the school and the passion Small has for teaching as key factors in her decision to place Chaz, now four years old, in the institution in April of 2019.

“He attended another school previously, but once he was evaluated, I was referred to Shervina Small,” said Johnson.


Since then, Chaz has improved significantly. “When he went for that second evaluation, he was able to do the puzzles, do two-three instructions at a time,” said Small. He’s even now saying ‘mama’, completing 48-piece puzzles, singing with nursery rhymes, and placing letters in alphabetical order.

As he continues to develop, Johnson and Small are focused on helping Chaz to express himself. Small has instituted the Picture Exchange Communication System, or PECS, to allow Chaz to express his wants and needs using a small book of images.

Johnson is looking forward to having Chaz resume school in September, noting that if the school were to close, it would send her “back to the drawing board”.

It is the same for cosmetologist Jodiann McKay. Though not officially diagnosed, her nine-year-old son, Ajani Thomas, is a slow learner and was unable to function in a normal classroom. McKay says that from the first day of class at the Faith Education Centre in 2018, she has seen a tremendous improvement in Ajani.

“I can tell you, from I started, I have no regrets. He has improved significantly. When I sent him here, he could hardly spell his name, he wasn’t writing, or anything like that. Now, he is writing. He’s even reading now. So I’ve seen significant improvement since. He’s still not where he’s supposed to be, but he’s not where he was, and [that’s] thanks to Ms Small,” said McKay.

Like Johnson, McKay has a fear of regression. They have seen the value of Small’s methods and hope she will be able to continue to mould and develop the students at the institution.

“Something special is going on here,” said McKay.

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