A hard day's night: Behind the scenes with Perkins' overnight staff

Making sure students are resting safely is a sunset-to-sunrise job for Perkins' awake overnight staff

A girl sleeps peacefully in bed, with her head on a pillow

The awake overnight staff at Perkins School for the Blind keeps residential students safe, healthy and (hopefully) sleeping peacefully.

August 3, 2015

Their tools are flashlights and slippers. Their challenges are the lure of smartphones and complex medical conditions. Their definition of success is when nothing happens.

They are Claire Mulvaney, Carolyn Willwerth and Susan Walsh – three members of the awake overnight staff at Perkins School for the Blind. For the past 20 years or so, they have patrolled the cottages on Perkins’ Watertown campus from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., keeping residential students safe, healthy and (hopefully) sleeping peacefully.

“We want them to start the day well-rested,” said Mulvaney, who cares for students ages 9 to 22 in the Deafblind cottages. “Our goal is to keep them asleep.”

That’s more difficult than it sounds. Perkins students confront the same obstacles to getting a good night’s sleep as residential students anywhere. Some worry about an upcoming test. Some are homesick. Some think texting a friend is more important than sleeping.

But Perkins students face additional challenges. All are visually impaired and many have other disabilities. Some have complicated medical conditions.

“I once had a student with a seizure disorder,” said Willwerth, who works in the Deafblind cottage. “If she was having a seizure, I would comfort her (to help her go back to sleep). It made me realize just how important it is to have someone awake during the night.”

Perkins residential students live in stately brick buildings that face each other across a central walkway. Each cottage has a common room, dining area, kitchen and bedrooms. One or two staff members are assigned to each cottage, depending on the students’ needs.

The overnight shift begins just as students are settling in for the night. Staffers check on students every 30 minutes unless some require more attention. Mulvaney and Willwerth use a flashlight to make their way through the cottages without disturbing students who have enough vision to perceive light.

“Your hope is that every night is quiet and the kids are safe, but you never know,” said Mulvaney.

Walsh, who cares for older students in the Secondary cottages, makes her first rounds of the evening with her shoes on. Later she puts on slippers to avoid waking anyone.  This “stealth mode” allows Walsh to hear the telltale sound of after-hour electronics.

“They want to be on their cellphones, their computers,” she said. Many Perkins students use smartphones with built-in accessible features or have adapted computers in their rooms. “We let them do that until 10:30. If everybody’s quiet and I step up on the second floor and hear the ‘ping,’ I know someone is on (their smartphone).”

Awake overnight staffers have other responsibilities, too. They keep a record of unusual events, like a child with a nosebleed. They deal with youngsters who wet the bed. They receive the same training on caring for children with multiple disabilities as the day staff, so they also help students develop independent living skills, like consistent bedtime routines.

Playing such a critical – if largely unnoticed – role in students’ lives makes working the night shift worth it, the awake overnight crew agreed.

“I just like being able to make a difference in kids’ lives,” said Walsh. “If I have to go to work, I want to do something that makes a difference. I’ve made an environment that’s safe and comfortable so they can sleep and get up and have a great day.”