By Julia Pearl | Reporter
The Talitha Koum Institute, a local institute for trauma-affected children, normally welcomes upward of 40 Baylor volunteers each semester, but COVID-19 regulations barred volunteers, causing a series of changes in how the institute operates and forced them to analyze how they can stick to their mission while keeping the community safe.
Susan Cowley, executive director of the Talitha Koum Institute, sees volunteers as a powerful part of what the institute does. However, they’re a part of its regular operation that hasn’t been possible since the institute reopened on June 1.
“We’re trying to keep it as little changed as possible, but we usually have up to 40 or more Baylor students who volunteer in classrooms,” said Cowley. “That won’t happen, and it’s just really hard and sad.”
Despite the order preventing volunteers from entering childcare centers while there are children present, Cowley recalled the impact both the institute’s children and Baylor’s volunteers had on one another when those interactions were possible.
“You can’t be attuned to a child if you’re not present to them and the fun they’re having or the sadness they’re having,” Cowley said. “It takes your mind completely out of Baylor, academics and all the things you think about at other times, but they [volunteers] won’t be there until the governor’s orders change.”
The institute has yet to experience a high number of COVID-19 infections, Cowley said. Despite this, she said that the school strictly follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines. Cowley believes that keeping the institute’s staff and students safe is a top priority.
“Lots of childcare centers aren’t even taking temperatures. They’re not going through the questions, and they’re running like business as usual which we think is pretty dangerous,” Cowley said. “We promised our teachers during COVID that we would go by all the top CDC standards. Even when the governor relaxed them for about six weeks, we did not. We figured if you relax them, something bad is going to happen.”
Each day before allowing the children into the facility, Talitha Koum staff interview the parents about possible exposure and take the students’ temperatures. If a child shows symptoms, the teacher is required to send them home, Donna Losak, the nurture center director, said.
“In general, our parents are cooperative and understand, but they are under extreme amounts of stress already in their lives,” Losak said. “When we call them and say, ‘You have to come pick your child up, and you have to take them to the doctor,’ it just adds layers of stress to what they’re already experiencing. Sometimes, they respond OK, and sometimes they’re really upset about it.”
While the regulations cause obstacles for the parents, not having volunteers puts greater responsibilities on the institute’s teachers as well.
“We depended on our volunteers for a whole lot of things, and teachers have a heavy load that they carry already,” Losak said. “[Having] someone to read to a child who was having a rough day was something that teachers really looked forward to. All of that has kind of gone by the wayside because we’re not allowed to have volunteers in the building right now.”
While the institute cannot currently accept volunteers, Talitha Koum’s website normally has a place where new volunteers can sign up. Cowley said she hopes to accept and train new volunteers as soon as it is safe.
Despite pressures from the pandemic impacting the institute, Talitha Koum is still dedicated to its mission and the children, Losak said.
“The children are able to come into a regular routine with teachers that they trust and feel safe with. It allows [parents] to work, and it relieves some of the stress from their lives. I think we’re still quite effective with what we’re doing,” Losak said.
Cowley said the staff at Talitha Koum looks forward to a time when volunteers can return to the facility and play with the children. She feels that this is the best way to achieve Talitha Koum’s mission.
“We would not have founded Talitha Koum if God hadn’t called us to this work and showed us that our kids were dying on the vine in public school,” Cowley said. “We want [Baylor’s volunteers] to go out into the world and spread this sort of gospel of ‘What can you do for very young trauma-affected children?’”