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Ormond Beach Observer Friday, Mar. 6, 2020 1 month ago

Conklin Center closes after four decades of leading the blind to independence

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With 60% of the Conklin Center's funding coming from the state, a termination of its contract due to unaddressed issues meant Conklin could no longer run its residential program.
by: Jarleene Almenas Associate Editor

A 41-year-old chapter of helping visually-impaired adults become independent has come to a close, as the Conklin Center For the Blind at 408 White St. in Daytona Beach closed its doors on Friday, March 6.

When the board of directors received the news via a Feb. 21 letter by the Florida Division of Blind Services, board member Nancy Epps said they were shocked. Epps, who is acting as the board's spokesperson during this time, had only been an official member for one day at that point, despite having been involved with the Conklin Center for a long time; she's the president of the Ponce Inlet Lions Club, and the Conklin Center was an endorsed entity of the Florida Lions. 

“I had absolutely no idea anything wasn’t going along just fine," Epps said. 

The Division of Blind Services first issued a notice of breach of contract by the Conklin Center on Feb. 5. The notice, addressed to former Conklin Center President and CEO Kelly Harris — who has since been terminated — lists eight issues that the center failed to address following a Dec. 11 email that stated the Division of Blind Services would be completing a comprehensive contract review as part of its recent monitoring. The issues included "operating without sufficient staff to ensure quality services" are provided to Division of Blind Services clients, and listed certified rehabilitation counselors, life skills instructors and part-time dorm aides, among others; failing to "submit actual client service and progress reports in correct and sufficient detail;" failing to "provide adequate client services in regards to the offsite community independent living apartments;" and failing to communicate and cooperate with Division of Blind Services staff and district offices.

The Feb. 5 notice also stated that 50% of both staff and the board positions have turned over. 

In a second notice, issued on Feb. 18, Division of Blind Services Director Robert Doyle wrote that additional concerns had risen during a second visit. 

"During this second on-site visit, DBS was able to determine that the Conklin Center continues to operate in a state of material breach and non-compliance with its contractual requirements, has altered client service documentation and environmental conditions may cause undue harm or danger to the vulnerable clients who are residents of the Conklin Center," Doyle wrote.

Because the Conklin Center failed to address the issues within the two-week period, Doyle informed Harris and the board on Feb. 21 that the Division of Blind Services would be terminating its contract with the Conklin Center.

Because 60% of the Conklin Center's funding came from the state, Epps said they weren't able to keep residential services going any longer. 

'Thank you for teaching us'

In a Facebook post to the Volusia County Women Who Care page, Teresa Smith wrote that as a volunteer, she got to know Harris and found her to be inspiring. Volusia County Women Who Care donated $7,350 at its second-ever meeting in 2018, she wrote, detailing that Harris became a member of the group as well. 

She called the former Conklin Center president a "tireless ambassador." She said she met students whose lives were transformed due to the services the Conklin Center offered.

"In a special handwritten Christmas Card one of the students thanked Kelly, 'Thank you for teaching us to be happy with what we have while working for what we want,'" the post reads. "Unfortunately for the students, staff and community the legacy and ongoing issues inherited by Kelly and her team proved to be insurmountable in her brief tenure as CEO."

Epps said they had about eight or nine students when the contract was terminated. They have all been transitioned to their own apartment, sent back to their families or moved across the street to the Division of Blind Services facility at 1185 Dunn Ave. 

Since 1979, the impact the Conklin Center had on visually-impaired adults was "tremendous," Epps said. 

“We’ve given people the opportunity to become independent, to have jobs, to have that same opportunities that anybody wants, and overcome some major challenges in their lives," she said.

The future of Conklin's legacy

There is hope for the Conklin Center, though. 

Epps said the board is currently working with the state and other entities to reconstitute the Conklin Center.

“We would like to continue our services, obviously, even if it’s in a somewhat modified form," Epps said. 

The board also wishes to keep the Conklin Center name in honor of its founder, Millard Conklin. And on its closing day, the board received good news: They were able to find enough funding to continue the center's supported living and supported employment services for local clients for at least a couple more weeks. 

This means those clients are guaranteed to have their coaches available, which Epps said have become like an extended family to these adults as they help them out with personal aspects of their lives, such as banking, transportation or employment issues. 

Though the board doesn't have a timeline, she said she feels Conklin will get back on its feet in the "short to medium" term, rather than long-term. What they need most now, she said, is financial help to keep services going. Those interested can contact any board member or call the Conklin Center at 258-3441, a line which will remain operational for at least a few more weeks.

“We have great support in a lot of different areas, and so we’re feeling very encouraged that something is going to work out," Epps said.

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