Robert Barnes is a tireless advocate for children and education. A former public school teacher, Barnes now educates Children’s of Alabama patients via the Junior League of Birmingham Sunshine School.
When children are hospitalized, schoolwork can take a backseat to medical care. To help children maintain their normal academic routine, Children’s offers the Sunshine School, which helps patients continue their education outside a traditional classroom setting. “We believe that education is still a part of their story,” Barnes said. “That’s why it’s our goal to help facilitate their academic subjects while they are at Children’s. A child spends the majority of his or her time at school, so we want to make sure their academic needs are taken care of here, even though it’s secondary to receiving their medical care, so that they are set up for success when they leave here and go back to school.”
Barnes and other Sunshine School teachers, all of whom are certified Alabama teachers, provide educational support, educational needs assessments, help with school assignments, collaboration with the medical team to ensure comprehensive care, advocacy for the patients with their school administrators and re-entry to school planning. “A big part of my job is helping coordinate with the schools for their return,” Barnes said. “They may need special education services, a health plan or a behavior plan, so we try to help get those things set up. We try to bridge that gap to ensure that they have what they need while they are here and then go back to school with a plan in place that will work best for them.”
Barnes has worked at Children’s as a teacher for the past four years, specifically with patients who have behavioral needs. While he enjoyed his role in the public school, he realized that he could focus more on his passion for helping children with behavioral issues and special needs in his current role. “Before this, I didn’t know there were hospital teachers,” he said. “When I came across this job, I loved it. It provides me with an opportunity that wasn’t available to me in the public schools, which is to really advocate for students. Children’s allows me to advocate and help them get the educational services they need. Children’s understands that the patients don’t need to lose their education while they are here, so they allow me and the other teachers here to keep it going in that direction.”
In addition to helping patients with educational needs and coordinating with schools, another part of Barnes’ job is helping parents. Oftentimes, parents with children in the hospital feel overwhelmed with dealing with both medical and educational needs. “It’s a lot of navigating and talking with different people to figure out what to do, on top of being overwhelmed that your child is in the hospital,” Barnes said. “Our goal is to deal with the educational needs for patients so that parents can continue to focus on their children.”
While educating parents, Barnes also works to educate academic professionals and the community about the mental and behavioral needs kids may have to not only remove the stigma, but also create more positive learning environments for the kids at school. “That’s something that Children’s has really allowed me to do because they provide such great support,” Barnes said. “I wouldn’t find that support at any other facility. That has really helped me have an impact on my patients. Children’s truly helps me set up my patients for success.”