Kind hands, big hearts

Issue: Volume 99, Number 4

Posted: 12 March 2020
Reference #: 1HA6Qx

An early learning service in Whangarei has become a lifeline for medically fragile and disabled children and their whānau.

Kind Hands(external link) was established by Sharlene Clements and her husband, David, to meet the needs of the kinds of families Sharlene had worked with during a 24-year nursing career.

“My role was to visit babies and children after they got discharged from hospital. I found these families are in isolation from the get-go because children with additional needs have such specialised needs that it can be difficult for families to get out. Seeing these families planted the seed for me.” Sharlene explains.

Kind Hands was initially established in 2018 as respite care for families with medically fragile children. But in response to requests from parents, Sharlene decided to establish a very special early learning centre staffed by both registered early learning teachers and nurses, alongside a respite care facility. 

By the end of 2018, she had gained a probationary licence and Kind Hands is now a fully licenced early learning provider for up to 10 children at a time. Sharlene and a fellow nurse are completing early childhood education qualifications and will be registered as both nurses and teachers by the end of the year.

Range of needs

Early intervention is giving Eli a head start.

“The children who come to us might be oxygen-dependent, have a tracheostomy, heart, lung or neuromuscular disease, to name a few. We include children having cancer treatment. They can be quite sick and for that child to be able to have social interaction in a medically controlled environment is really important,” says Sharlene.

“We have both teachers and nurses working together so when a child is dropped off in the morning, who may have a heart condition or a feeding tube, parents know they don’t have to explain about how to use the equipment – they know we know what to do,” she says. 

A typical day at Kind Hands may include feeding a child who has a feeding tube, therapies twice a day tailored to each child’s needs and a range of activities focusing on each child’s individual needs.

“Low ratios are the key. We have to stay small so no child is overlooked – some of our kids are quite sick. We are starting to see some awesome successes with the kids. For example, one three-year-old, who came to us bum-shuffling, is now able to crawl and is standing at the play equipment and the drawing table.” explains Sharlene.

Catering for all needs

Kind Hands also caters for children with developmental disabilities such as Down’s syndrome and global development delays. Children on the autism spectrum also attend Kind Hands and it is sometimes a juggle to ensure a good mix to get the best outcomes for each child. 

“I think we are just scratching the surface in Whangarei. There aren’t a lot of resources for that 0–6-year-old age group with special needs here. The children are very non-judgemental at this age and just don’t notice the difference about each other. They help each other in different ways and accept each other.” 

Some of the children who attend Kind Hands haven’t been able to attend another early learning service and the opportunity to play, learn and socialise with other children is important to children and whānau, says Sharlene, who tries to keep the environment and activities as mainstream as possible.

“We have a sandpit and we do gardening. The kids get muddy and love getting the hose out and doing water play. The difference is that if that feeding tube gets really sandy, we can replace it,” she says.

Support for parents

Kind Hands provides parents with some respite from care and worry, as well as time for other family members.

“One mum wanted to go to a school assembly for her other child, but who was going to look after her sick child?” asks Sharlene.

Kind Hands has started a regular coffee group for whānau of medically fragile children or those with special needs. The centre provides childcare while parents meet and talk and have a chance to develop a support network.


As a licensed early learning centre, Kind Hands receives Government funding, but with a ratio of one adult to approximately two children, and a maximum roll of 10 tamariki, extra income has to be sought. Sharlene says some additional money comes from Carer Support funds and she has set up a Trust.

“We do lots of fundraising – community backing is massive for me because all I want is to be able to pay the staff and keep the place running. I won’t compromise the quality of care the kids get,” says Sharlene.

Nationwide need

Sharlene says she regularly receives emails from people around New Zealand asking for a Kind Hands facility to be set up in their town or region. 

“It’s been a hard journey setting up something that hasn’t been done before because nobody had anything to compare it to. I would love to help someone else interested in setting up a similar facility because there should be more of these places in New Zealand for other children to access.”

Family support important, and valued 

Eli Barnes was born four years ago with floppy baby syndrome (hypotonia) and has a neuromuscular disease and disabilities. He was one of the first babies through the door at Kind Hands says his mother, Jessica Barnes.

“Sharlene wanted to help mothers like me who were virtually trapped at home because of the medical needs of our children. When the centre opened, my needs had changed – I needed to go back to work full-time. Without Kind Hands, either my husband or I would have had to stay home. Now I can focus on creating a future for the family rather than navigating all these things I don’t understand.

“If I was to take him into normal daycare, I would be scared all the time that he might get knocked over or catch a bug – he can’t get sick – his body just shuts down. At Kind Hands I know he is being looked after by trained specialists,” says Jessica.

Eli loves “my Kind Hands” and “my Sharlene”. Early intervention is giving him a head start as without it, his developmental and educational needs would have been put on the backburner, she explains.

“He learns new things every day, whether it’s from the kids or teachers. It’s a place where all his therapies can happen. We have regular meetings and are able to tailor his education around what will teach him at his own level. If you compare him today to a year ago, he’s at a level that many of his doctors wouldn’t have predicted,” she says.

Unique facility

Jessica is in touch with parents around the country and also belongs to an international Facebook group of parents with children with hypotonia. 

“We are just the lucky ones. They were gobsmacked when they heard what we have here. When a child like Eli is born, we are meant to become their nurses. It’s stressful, the financial situation crumbles, there’s a really high marriage breakup rate and I can understand why because you are so stressed out.

“In terms of the model of Kind Hands, I think there should be something similar in every district around New Zealand,” says Jessica.

Ministry support for Kind Hands

Kind Hands provides a unique service in Te Tai Tokerau for tamariki and whānau who are unable to access other early learning services due to high medical and/or learning support needs, says Sacha Cherrington, education advisor for the Ministry of Education in Te Tai Tokerau.

“Kind Hands is the only service in Northland that can cater to these needs and allows for tamariki to engage in social interaction with peers in a medically safe environment that may not have occurred for them otherwise,” she says.

The Ministry supported Kind Hands with some targeted funding to assist with opening and licensing the service; the centre now receives operational funding for tamariki attending. Kind Hands also received Strengthening Early Learning Support for professional development when they opened to help them towards full licensing. Support is also provided through Learning Support staff and Ministry of Education advisors.

The Ministry would like to work with other agencies to explore ways to support the social, educational and medical needs of tamariki in other parts of New Zealand.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:55 am, 12 March 2020

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