Maintaining support for an underserved community

SubmittedHolly Randall and Project Sunshine SHSU Chapter president Kyla Howard. Project Sunshine has been instrumental in helping Holly feel at home in Texas since moving to the area four years ago. The nonprofit serves special needs kids and adults in Walker County in addition to visiting children at the Texas Children’s Hospital in The Woodlands.

Nonprofits have taken a hit through the coronavirus pandemic, posing challenges for the communities they serve. Project Sunshine’s Sam Houston State University Chapter upholds its motto of “bringing sunshine to a cloudy day” – even if that cloudy day lasts until the end of the year.

“Anytime Holly meets someone, one of the first things she’ll say to you is, ‘do you know about Project Sunshine?’ Because it’s so significant in her life,” Carolyn Randall said.

Project Sunshine is a nonprofit chapter at Sam Houston State University made up of student volunteers, or “buddies,” that create recreational and educational events and activities for kids and adults with special needs in Walker County. The nonprofit also visits Texas Children’s Hospital in The Woodlands to foster friendship and resources to the children and families .

The program has provided a whole new life and community for Carolyn’s 30 year-old daughter, Holly, who has static encephalopathy. The condition comes from a bad connection in the central nervous system that affects her gross motor, fine motor, speech and cognitive skills, however, according to Carolyn, “it sure doesn’t affect her social skills.”

“When we came here four years ago, Project Sunshine was just one of the things that really made her feel really like she belonged in Texas,” Carolyn said.

However, due to the coronavirus, Project Sunshine has not been able to engage in their weekly visits, events and trips since the beginning of March.

They have been emailing with families and doing FaceTime calls, however for social butterflies like Holly, it can be challenging being isolated at home away from her buddies, and virtual visits don’t seem to activate her attention for long.

“This has been really hard on her and she was really discouraged when she found out things were canceled or postponed,” Carolyn said.

It can be even more difficult for younger special needs kids who might not understand why their worlds have suddenly changed.

“Some of the families have reached out and said it’s been really hard on their kids because they miss Project Sunshine, and there’s really not a good way to explain why we can’t be in person. … Sometimes for kids, it just doesn’t make sense to them, and there is a lot of communication between us and the parents as to how we can best help them and their families transition and how we can make it easier on them,” Project Sunshine SHSU Chapter president Kyla Howard said.

“It has been really difficult on everyone and it’s been extremely difficult for the families, because they don’t have the support of in-person events that Project Sunshine puts on for their families.”

It’s Howard’s first year as president of Project Sunshine, and although her term is not what she imagined it would be, she is thankful for the opportunity to learn how to accommodate families through difficult times.

“It has been extremely difficult for the volunteers and I because we have become very attached, and we miss seeing our families on a weekly basis,” she said. “For a lot of us, that was what we looked forward to each week, so now we’ve been reaching out, doing FaceTime calls, not only for the families but for ourselves as well because we miss them just as much as they miss us.”

The Project Sunshine officer team has been working towards plans for their fall semester, deciding to not go back to in-person visits and events due to the uncertainty for the future of the virus. The group is in the process of transitioning their regularly planned in-person events to be completed online. Howard sees themselves purchasing supplies for families to pick up and use with pre-planned activities that will be held over Zoom meetings.

“Over Zoom, we will get to interact with those families and do those crafts with them, talk with them and check in with them,” Howard said.

Hospital coordinators are also getting in touch with the Texas Children’s Hospital to provide the same virtual options to their kids in The Woodlands, providing a sense of consistency and support until the situation can be reevaluated for the spring semester.