For 21 years, Melissa Hankins has struggled with finding consistent and quality care for her special needs daughter, Alexis “Lexy” Hankins, now 21.
Hankins recently opened Bella’s Salon on Franklin Street in uptown Martinsville, and her husband, Clifton Barrow, just opened Roosky’s Bar & Grill nearby on West Church Street. Alexis attended Magna Vista High School where she was crowned the homecoming queen in 2018, the year of her graduation. Lexy made it through the public school system with the help of an aide.
Melissa Hankins said that because standard day care wasn’t enough, she had a nurse come to Lexy instead. That was difficult, though, she said, because “not everyone wants to work with special needs children, especially when they have to change diapers, feed them, give them baths … it’s a hard job.”
Lexy’s aunt, Sierra Barrow, is a Registered Nurse who has at times served as Lexy’s aide. Lexy’s experience is part of what inspired Barrow to want to open a special needs day care, which would be called The Barrow Center, in Martinsville.
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Barrow has worked in the local emergency department before moving to Daytona Beach, Florida, and then to Greensboro, North Carolina, before returning to Martinsville area. She also has worked in labor and delivery and emotional care management.
She now is a training program manager for a care management agency serving Medicaid clients, working in professional development and education, quality improvement, coaching CCM prep courses and assisting in building initiatives and programs.
“Continuing to fight for services that weren’t available, not having child care to take her, as well as so many other children around here” was challenging, Barrow said. “What struck me even more” was from experiences as “a pediatrics care manager, where I was embedded in a pediatrics palliative care clinic in Greensboro.”
She said that seeing the struggles of those parents who had children in that clinic was an eye-opening experience that, when she returned to her home community, inspired the idea of The Barrow Center.
“The Barrow Center will be Martinsville and Henry County’s first special needs center specifically for children,” Barrow said. It would be licensed through the Virginia Department of Education as a therapeutic child care center to provide day care for babies and children up to age 17 who have special needs of all types of developmental issues including, but not limited to, delayed development, autism and cerebral palsy.
“I know a lot of special needs parents here who constantly say that they can’t get into child care or after-school care,” Barrow added. “So the need is here.”
Barrow ran her business plan through the Gauntlet, an intensive 10-week program for small businesses with the goal to develop business knowledge and received help from business professionals. It would run as a non-profit organization, and its first fundraising opportunity will be a gala Saturday at TAD Space in uptown Martinsville.
“Pretty much you name it, we will be able to take any child,” she said. Along with daycare, the center would provide respite care and contract local therapy facilities to provide in-house therapy for speech, occupational and physical.
Barrow said that she intends to put a large age range in place at the center, from 0 to 17 years of age. A standard day care center will generally only take children up to the age of 11.
I think it’s important to say … she’s trying to do a really great service,” Smart Beginnings Director Melanie McLarty said. “She wants to do what I would consider a wrap-around service for that family … linking them to the resources that they need not only just child care.”
Barrow’s mission fits right in with a need identified by Workforce Foundations, an initiative started by Harvest Foundation to improve the network of factors, such as housing and child care, which affect people’s abilities to work.
In October of 2020, the United Way received about $300,000 in funding, between the Appalachian Regional Commission and, in a matching amount, the Harvest Foundation, for its Workforce Foundations project, managed by Smart Beginnings.
The Workforce Foundations project looks at four key aspects of child care: its availability, quality, affordability and proximity.
In a 2019 survey by Harvest found that a third of the 2,000 responses from families in the Martinsville and Henry County area identified a need for more child care options for special needs children.
“There is a need in this area,” Smart Beginnings Childcare Business Development Coordinator Ashley Taborn said.
ARC offers ten grants of up to $10,000 to help child care centers add slots for special needs children. Grant recipients also receive technical support from Taborn as well as business assistance from Michael Scales of the Longwood Small Business Development Center.
One program in the area, the YMCA Early Learning Center in Collinsville, serving children ages 2 to 5, applied and was granted funding to allow for five slots in its program for special needs children, Taborn said. The YMCA used the funding to hire staff to bridge the gap that allowed them to open the five slots for special needs children, she said.
The Bulletin on Friday called and emailed the YMCA for comment but had not received a reply by the end of the day.
According to Smart Beginnings Early Education and Family Resource Coordinator Ruth Anne Collins, some special needs children are in day cares, but that operates more on a case-by-case basis with arrangements made between program directors and families.
Now that Lexy has graduated from the Henry County Public School system, where she had a personal aide during the school day, Hankins said that “there’s really no place around that can handle Lexy because she needs a one-on-one aid.”
An issue with a standard day care taking on special needs children, Barrow said, is that traditional child care centers are not always fully capable of caring for children with special needs because their care often requires special training beyond the standard education.
Barrow said her center’s staff would be specifically trained to care for special needs children. “I hope to focus in on a lot of help from SPED [special education] teachers as well as any experienced CNAs or personal care assistants that have experience with children with special needs,” she said.
“Because we will probably have medically fragile children, we will be able to provide some nursing care services,” she said. “And because I’m a registered nurse … if there was an emergency that arises there’s definitely nursing staff there to be able to help with that.”
“I need somebody that’s going to be there that I can trust,” Hankins said. “And Sierra’s wonderful. She’s been a nurse forever.”
The Virginia Department of Education licenses day cares, and it has a special tier for therapeutic child care centers. Brandie Smith of the Virginia Department of Education sent a document containing the requirements to open a therapeutic child care center at doe.virginia.gov/cc/files/final-8vac20-780.pdf. People who intend to open one of these centers would begin by submitting an application to become a licensed child day center through the Child Care Application Processing System.
The requirements include parental agreement; specific enrollment procedures that are to be established between the parent of the child and the program; individual assessment for therapeutic programs; individual service, education or treatment plan for therapeutic child care programs; presence of physical and mental health staff or volunteers; specific staff-to-children ratio based on the severity of disability; specific daily activities; special equipment to accommodate the use of wheelchairs; plans for feeding needs per child; and many more that go into deeper specification depending on the needs of individual children.
Locally, Patrick and Henry Community College offers two certificates and one associate’s degree in early childhood education, according to Early Childhood Education Instructor Jan Harrison. The college offers a class that specifically focuses on care for special needs children. The P&HCC program credits are transferrable to seven universities in Virginia that offer bachelor’s degrees in the field of early childhood education. However, she said, the certificate from P&HCC is enough to open a day care.
Harrison said P&HCC day care graduates interested in specializing in special needs day care could transfer to Radford University, which has a program for bachelor’s degree in special education.
“Anything special needs is outrageous” in cost, Hankins said. “They mark the price up like times 10 for a swing. You’d think it would be maybe a thousand [dollars] — it’s probably five thousand.”
The Barrow Center’s fundraising gala would help with the expenses that come with starting the business. It will be held from 7 to 11 p.m. at The TAD Space on East Church Street. It will be a formal event with a live DJ, food and cash bar. Tickets can be purchased at eventbrite.com under The Barrow Center.