How Cayman’s charities are adapting to COVID in the community

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Local charities are facing challenges created by health regulations and the spread of COVID-19 in the community. However, they say that last year’s shutdown has helped them to adapt better to the currently changing situation.

The Cayman Current reached out to a number of non-profit organisations involved in the Cayman Islands education sector to see how the recent COVID outbreaks have affected their operations.

Juliet Austin, Executive Director of LIFE Cayman (‘Literacy Is For Everyone’), said public health rules have hindered initiatives where volunteers visit schools, including the non-profit’s signature Paired Reading programme and the volunteer component of their new early childhood Thrive By Five programme.

“Sadly, as a result of this new wave of cases, many of our volunteer interactions have had to be scaled back or postponed until January, in line with government mandates,” she said.

In response, LIFE is focussing on efforts that comply with social distancing requirements, and looking at shifting programmes online.

“For example, for the underserved district of East End, we ran a new Smart Start programme catering to a small ‘bubble’ of families, and the on the first Saturday of each month from August 2021 to January 2022, we run Ogier’s Foster’s Tabletops at three Foster’s supermarket locations, where we give away hundreds of free Early Childhood books to families and engage with them about how to promote foundational literacy skills within the home. We can maintain social distancing and still make a difference,” Austin said.

For the first time, LIFE offered a Partners in Print session via Zoom to parents at one school.

“Knowing that this was a success means that this can be replicated, should the need arise,” she said.

Inclusion Cayman has put an emphasis on protecting the people they serve. Formerly known as Special Needs Foundation Cayman, the non-profit works to ensure that people with disabilities have equal rights and can participate fully in the local community.

“Our team works with many individuals with increased vulnerability to significant impacts from COVID-19, and therefore aim to always practice due diligence in going above and beyond to protect our community. This includes the wearing of masks, increased sanitization, and social distancing while in the office and community,” said Inclusion Specialist Melanie Coffey.

Coffey said people with disabilities, globally, are being impacted by the pandemic, for example, as it has become more difficult to access support professionals, medical appointments, therapy, accessible education and employment.

“We encourage the community to think, create, and plan with persons with disabilities in mind when responding to COVID-19, and always. Designing inclusively benefits all persons!” she said.

Other non-profits say their operations have been less affected by COVID.

Stacey VanDevelde, Founder/Chairwoman of Feed Our Future, said her organisation has continued to provide meal support for students “as school canteens are operating as usual”.

The biggest challenge, she said, is receiving information from education officials.

“What we still lack (and the same goes for parents I am sure) is quality direct communication from the Ministry, DES, or schools,” she said.

Learning from last year

The Islands-wide shutdown in 2020 radically disrupted just about every person, business and group in Cayman, including non-profits. The experience last year, however, is helping the charities to adjust to the government’s new responses to the recent community spread of COVID.

“Former lockdown and office closures have allowed us an opportunity to practice navigating COVID-19 in our community. It will definitely be easier to shift back again, and learn from areas we may not have executed ideally,” Coffey said.

Austin said the March 2020 school closures exposed the digital divide in the community and illustrated other needs in regard to at-home, online education.

“Through LIFE’s Education for Everyone programme, 1,600 laptops have been donated to schools so that students can continue to have access to continuing education. This means that we are in a better position to serve young people and offer educational continuity,” she said.

Austin called books the “unsung heroes of this pandemic”, saying books provide an escape for children and adults, and a coping mechanism for anxiety and stress.

“Children need books now, more than ever before, so we have learned to be creative and flexible with our approach and re-prioritise needs as they arise – e.g providing laptops for schools or donating books to families so that there is at-home access,” she said.

She said LIFE has learned to provide more training remotely or in ‘bubble’ groups, that they can reassign volunteers to other areas outside schools, and to use social media to help parents and educators support children being educated in a masked environment.

Coffey said Inclusion Cayman has learned to be more flexible and adaptable to serve their community remotely, although the technological changes aren’t all positive.

“The rapid increase in the use of technology has benefitted our team and community in many ways, however it has also increased isolation and limited access to participation for some of our community members,” she said.

Last spring with schools closed, Feed Our Future shifted its programmes from providing ‘school lunches’ to providing ‘home lunches’. VanDevelde said the organisation learned that “accurate contact information and addresses are important to have for the children we support”.

Help needed

Austin said one of the biggest challenges to LIFE is it has become more difficult to raise funds to cover the wages of their two members of staff.

“It’s a catch-22 situation: increasingly, companies prefer to sponsor individual programmes, yet we are limited in how many programmes we can offer due to our small staff. With the increased cost of books and sea freight, and the prohibitive cost of air freight, our operational costs are higher and the process of ordering from overseas is more complex as publishers struggle to stay afloat,” she said.

“Therefore, if businesses or private individuals value our work and the impact we are having on the community, financial or in-kind donations make a world of difference to how we can operate and to our circle of influence,” Austin said.

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