Ponce Inlet Lions Club President Nancy Epps is waiting, biding her time and anxiously anticipating a possible merger and rebirth of the Conklin Center for the blind, after the state withdrew funding and forced its closure.
Citing various contract violations within the agency, the state withdrew funding from its Division of Blind Services of $1.6 million, which has left about 50 students, who are blind with other disabilities, in a precarious position, and the center’s 40 employees without jobs.
Ms. Epps, who has been involved with the center for many years, became a board member just one day before receiving the devastating news from the state Feb. 21 that it was terminating its contract and withdrawing future funding for its residential education programs.
The programs help students prepare for self-reliance in all aspects of their lives, helping them conquer tasks while living alone, such as job preparation and placement, transportation and travel, money management, cooking and health-related issues.
“We make sure we not just teach them how to live independently, but also to have jobs for life,” Ms. Epps said. “We work with them and they (become) employees for life so they are able to maintain their apartments, maintain their jobs, and their employers have the security of knowing there’s someone to go to if they’re having any problems rather than just letting the person go. They have somebody to assist them and take care of the things. And, of course, the people who work with their graduates are very dedicated to them.”
Ms. Epps continued, “That was one of the things that was so devastating about losing the program. The people that we serve are a unique population. We are the only place in the country, we’re not even sure if there’s any place in the world that does what the Conklin Center does, which is help people with multiple disabilities who are also blind.”
Before the center’s closure, the Division of Blind Services had been conducting ongoing investigations at the center. Following its review, in February it began sending letters claiming breach of contract and non-compliance to Conklin’s former CEO Kelly Harris and Conklin board members, citing several violations, including health and safety issues, a shortage of required specialists, operating with non-credentialed specialists, an unfulfilled number of qualified residential clients in its programs, and altered client medical records.
Ms. Epps was the board member who contacted Ms. Harris, asking her to resign from her position. After refusing, she was terminated March 4. The center, which had been in operation since 1978, was shut down two days later. Students were sent from the facility at 405 White St. in Daytona Beach to the Division of Blind Services, also on that street, or sent home.
Ms. Epps and other board members are discussing a merger with the nearby Center for the Visually Impaired (CVI), which will help provide continued assistance to the Conklin Center students. “We are working on a merger with another entity in the community that also provides blind services, and we do definitely want to raise awareness of the situation with the Conklin Center,” Ms. Epps said.
“We still have some graduates within the community that we’re still serving. We’re hopeful that when this merger goes through the state will continue to fund, or will start funding them,” Ms. Epps added. “They have not been funding them up until now.”
She and her colleagues are trying to put together a new mode,l which would actually pay for their services. Meanwhile, she said they are using the funds paid the last two months while under the contract. “We actually have some communication with other community foundations to potentially work on a grant with us, but they are waiting for this merger to take place so that they know who they’re granting to,” Ms. Epps said.
Also, the Ponce Inlet Lions Club is doing their part to facilitate funding. Lion Mahyar Okhovatian created a Go-FundMe page, gofundme.com/f/save-florida-lions-conklin-center-for-the-blinds, for contributions. Other fundraising events, such as the club’s annual Western Night dinner dance, will be tabled until further notice due to COVID-19. She added, “This other entity has done a lot of fundraisers. CVI does galas They’re really good at them, so between the two of us. . .”
Ms. Epps is encouraging Lions throughout the state to support the Conklin Center. “Right now it’s just the Ponce Inlet club involved,” she said, pointing out that everything is at a standstill due to the pandemic. “We will certainly be encouraging the other Lions Clubs to be participating in this. Having been a Lion for 10-11 years now, I’m very familiar with the Conklin Center. Since I’m now a board member of the Conklin Center and president of our Ponce Inlet Lions Club, there’s a lot of focus on my club,” she said.