Shannon Taylor is dreading September because she no longer knows where her 10-year-old son will go to school.
Taylor’s son Brennen is on the autism spectrum and has been attending the Comox Valley Learning Centre for his schooling. But Taylor and the other parents recently found out the centre would be closing at the end of the school year.
The CVLC is one of the few options for Brennen. He is nonverbal, explains Taylor, but that doesn’t mean he’s quiet.
“He’s probably one of the loudest kids you’ll come across. He hums, he spins a lot, he makes a lot of noise to block out the outside sounds,” says Shannon. “There’s literally no point in me sending him to public school because he would be so disruptive to the other kids in the class.”
When it became time for Brennen to go to school, Taylor chose CVLC because of the one on one opportunities and the mix of individualized academics, social time and recreational activities.
“For him to be able to go there and learn life skills with people who are specifically trained on how to deal with him, it’s a devastating loss. Absolutely devastating,” she said. “He loves going to school. He has his routine. So every morning we get up and I put (on the news) so he knows it’s a school day. When we get up and there’s no (news) on, he knows there’s no school. Every morning of spring break he cried.”
CVLC was opened about five years ago by the Nanaimo Unique Kids Organization (NUKO) as demand grew in the Valley for more schooling options for kids with special needs.
But the centre’s small location prevented growth, and with a maximum number of seven children that could attend the facility, CVLC could barely cover its costs. Earlier this year, management decided to shut it down.
“Here in Nanaimo, we are in a lease to purchase and we would really like to purchase the building we’re in, so financially, it was very difficult for this centre to take on the risk of the other centre,” said NUKO’s executive director, Teresa Nielsen. “The decision was not taken lightly and it was very much hoped that the parents would step forward and create a board.”
The Nanaimo centre is run by a board of parents and community members, but Nielsen says there wasn’t enough interest in creating a board in the Comox Valley when the closure was announced in a recent meeting.
But if enough parents step up, Nielsen says the Nanaimo branch will still offer them support as they get the centre back up and running.
Amanda Flentjar runs the Autism Family Support Group and was one of the parents that helped start a branch of NUKO in the Comox Valley. Her son has been attending CVLC since it opened and is currently finishing Grade 9.
She says when the CVLC originally came to the Valley, the original idea was that it would become self-sustainable over a certain period of time with the help of the students’ parents. But that never happened.
“I don’t think there’s enough parents that can say, yes I can commit to this, yes, I’m in it for the long haul,” she said. “I mean, a lot of us want to contribute here and there when we’re able but we’re very aware that our life changes from day to day and we don’t always have more to give. It’s just really really unfortunate.”
Having been a part of bringing the centre to the Valley, Flentjar knows the importance of CVLC, but she also knows the amount of work involved in running it. She said a board of at least four members is needed to take care of the fundraising and admin work.
Taylor is hoping to find a way to keep CVLC open, starting with getting more parents on board and finding a bigger space where more students can access programming.
“These kids should be able to go and have a social experience and do all the things that regular kids do.”
CVLC isn’t the only centre for special needs youth in the Valley, but the options are limited.
Established in 2010, Footholds Therapy Center is another option for children with special needs, offering a variety of support services such as occupational therapy, academic support services tutoring and social groups.
Lynda Hearn, the location’s director, says there is no easy answer to how many children attend the centre as it is constantly changing depending on the needs of each child, but on average, approximately 100 families access their services. There is also often a waitlist to attend the centre, but the length of the waitlist also varies depending on the requested services.
She adds accessing enough funding can be a challenge and it’s something they deal with as well.
“I think that will continue to be an ongoing challenge to have adequate resources to support our unique individuals,” she said. “So one of my responsibilities at Footholds is to do the very best I can with the resources I have and to individualize it for that unique situation. If there were more resources, could we do more? Absolutely.”