For 21 years, Melissa Hankins struggled to find consistent, quality care for her special needs daughter, Alexis “Lexy” Hankins, now 21.
Hankins recently opened Bella’s Salon on Franklin Street in downtown Martinsville, and her husband, Clifton Barrow, just opened nearby Roosky’s Bar & Grill on West Church Street. Alexis attended Magna Vista High School where she was crowned homecoming queen in 2018, the year of her graduation. Lexy made it through the public school system with the help of an assistant.
Melissa Hankins said that because standard day care wasn’t enough, she brought a nurse to Lexy instead. It was difficult, however, she said, because “not everyone wants to work with kids with special needs, especially when they have to change diapers, feed them, give them baths… this is a difficult work”.
Lexy’s aunt, Sierra Barrow, is a registered nurse who has occasionally been Lexy’s aide. Lexy’s experience is part of what inspired Barrow to want to open a special needs daycare center, to be called The Barrow Center, in Martinsville.
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Barrow worked in the local emergency department before moving to Daytona Beach, Florida, then to Greensboro, North Carolina, before returning to the Martinsville area. She has also worked in labor and delivery and emotional care management.
She is now a training program manager for a managed care agency serving Medicaid clients, working in professional development and education, quality improvement, coaching CCM readiness courses, and training. assistance in the creation of initiatives and programs.
“Continuing to fight for services that weren’t available, not having child care to take her and so many other kids here” was difficult, Barrow said. “What struck me even more” were my experiences as a “pediatric care manager, where I was embedded in a pediatric palliative care clinic in Greensboro.”
She said seeing the struggles of those parents who had children at this clinic was an eye-opening experience that, when she returned to her home community, inspired the idea for the Barrow Center.
“The Barrow Center will be Martinsville and Henry County’s first specialized special needs center specifically for children,” Barrow said. It would be licensed by the Virginia Department of Education as a Therapeutic Child Care Center to provide day care for infants and children up to age 17 who have special needs for all types of developmental issues including, but not limited to, developmental delays, autism, and cerebral palsy.
“I know a lot of parents here with special needs who constantly say they can’t get into day care or after school care,” Barrow added. “So the need is there.”
Barrow executed his business plan through the Gauntlet, an intensive 10-week program for small businesses to develop business knowledge and received help from professionals. It would operate as a non-profit organization and its first fundraising opportunity will be a gala on Saturday at TAD Space in downtown Martinsville.
“Pretty much you name it, we can take any child,” she said. In addition to daycare, the center would provide respite care and contract local therapy facilities to provide in-house speech, occupation, and physical therapy.
Barrow said she intended to implement a wide age range at the center, from 0 to 17 years old. A standard daycare usually only accepts children up to the age of 11.
I think it’s important to say… she’s trying to do a very good service,” said Smart Beginnings director Melanie McLarty. “She wants to do what I would consider a holistic service for this family…connecting them to the resources they need, not just child care.”
Barrow’s mission fits perfectly with a need identified by Workforce Foundations, an initiative started by Harvest Foundation to improve the web of factors, such as housing and childcare, that affect people’s ability to work.
In October 2020, United Way received approximately $300,000 in funding, between the Appalachian Regional Commission and, in counterpart, the Harvest Foundation, for its Workforce Foundations project, managed by Smart Beginnings.
The Workforce Foundations project examines four key aspects of child care: availability, quality, affordability and proximity.
In a 2019 survey by Harvest, one-third of 2,000 responses from families in the Martinsville and Henry County area identified a need for more child care options for children with special needs.
“There is a need in this area,” said Ashley Taborn, business development coordinator for Smart Beginnings Childcare.
The ARC is offering ten grants of up to $10,000 to help child care centers add slots for children with special needs. Grant recipients also receive technical support from Taborn as well as business assistance from Michael Scales of the Longwood Small Business Development Center.
An area program, the YMCA Early Learning Center in Collinsville, serving children ages 2 to 5, applied for and received funding to allow for five slots in its program for children with special needs, Taborn said. The YMCA used the funding to hire staff to fill the gap that allowed them to open all five spaces for children with special needs, she said.
On Friday, the Bulletin called and emailed the YMCA for comment, but had not received a response by the end of the day.
According to Ruth Anne Collins, coordinator of early education and family resources for Smart Beginnings, some children with special needs are in daycare, but it works more on a case-by-case basis with arrangements made between program directors and families.
Now that Lexy is a graduate of the Henry County Public School system, where she had personal help during the school day, Hankins said that “there’s really no place around that can handle Lexy because she has need individual help”.
One problem with a standard day care center caring for children with special needs, Barrow said, is that traditional day care centers are not always fully capable of caring for children with special needs, as caring for them often requires special training beyond standard education.
Barrow said staff at his center would be specially trained to deal with children with special needs. “I hope to focus on a lot of help from SPED [special education] teachers as well as any experienced CNAs or personal assistants who have experience with children with special needs,” she said.
“Because we will likely have medically fragile children, we may be able to provide some nursing services,” she said. “And because I’m a registered nurse…if there’s an emergency that comes up, there’s definitely nursing staff there to be able to help with that.”
“I need someone who will be there that I can trust,” Hankins said. “And Sierra is wonderful. She has been a nurse forever.
The Virginia Department of Education licenses daycares and has a special level for therapeutic daycares. Brandie Smith of the Virginia Department of Education sent a document containing the requirements to open a therapeutic daycare center at doe.virginia.gov/cc/files/final-8vac20-780.pdf. People who intend to open one of these centers would start by submitting an application to become a licensed children’s day center through the child care application processing system.
Requirements include parental consent; the specific registration terms to be established between the child’s parent and the program; individual assessment for therapy programs; individual service, education or treatment plan for therapeutic child care programs; presence of physical and mental health staff or volunteers; a specific staff/child ratio based on the severity of the disability; specific daily activities; special equipment to allow the use of wheelchairs; plans for food needs per child; and many more that go into more in-depth specifications depending on the needs of each child.
Locally, Patrick and Henry Community College offers two certificates and an associate’s degree in early childhood education, according to early childhood education instructor Jan Harrison. The college offers a class that focuses specifically on caring for children with special needs. P&HCC program credits are transferable to seven Virginia universities that offer bachelor’s degrees in the field of early childhood education. However, she says, the P&HCC certificate is enough to open a daycare.
Harrison said P&HCC daycare graduates interested in majoring in special needs day care could transfer to Radford University, which offers a bachelor’s degree program in special education.
“Anything with special needs is outrageous” in terms of cost, Hankins said. “They mark up the price like 10 times for a swing. You’d think it might be a thousand [dollars] – it’s probably five thousand.
The Barrow Center fundraising gala would help defray expenses associated with starting the business. It will take place from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. at the TAD space on East Church Street. It will be a formal event with a live DJ, food and a cash bar. Tickets can be purchased at eventbrite.com under the Barrow Center.
For more information on the proposed Barrow Center, Barrow can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://www.thebarrowcenter.org/.