First Lady, Mrs. Sandra Granger, has encouraged donors and other enthusiasts participating in the Step by Step Foundation/Republic Bank ‘Light it up blue’ Autism Awareness Walk to continue to support the Foundation’s efforts to nurture and educate children affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
The First Lady made this appeal in her address at a reception held in the Promenade Gardens after an awareness walk to kick-start Autism Awareness Month. She praised the collaboration between the two groups, noting that it is a signal event for Guyana and is the eighth walk of its kind internationally.
At the same time, the First Lady noted that it is essential that focus continues to be placed on helping children affected by ASD to reach their highest potential as a large number of children affected by this disorder are now becoming adults.
“We have to look at how we deal with our special children and how we maintain their growth and development and assist their families,” Mrs. Granger said.
She also pointed out that there is only one autism school in Guyana, which cannot accommodate the scores of affected children countrywide, as such, “it is vital that they are included in the education system” where there special needs can be met, and their special gifts nurtured. Mrs. Granger reiterated that she is honoured to be patron of Autism Month and thanked all the ‘Light it up blue’ supporters for participating in this morning’s exercise.
Scores of persons turned up in their ‘Light it up blue’ T-shirts to participate in the awareness walk, which started from the Promenade Gardens Middle Street entrance, through several main streets in downtown Georgetown and closing off at its starting point. ‘Light it up blue’ is the global theme for autism awareness.
In giving a brief history of the Step by Step Foundation’s progress, Dr. Suraiya Ismail, Chair of the Executive Committee, expressed gratitude to the donors who have supported the Foundation from its inception. She noted that the Foundation was registered as a charity in 2011 and opened its school in September 2011. Today, Guyana is recognised as having the best institution of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean.
Dr. Ismail noted that this is due, largely, to the support the Foundation continues to receive from its dedicated US-based consultants Dr. Jim Ellis and Dr Kerry Davis, the tutors and donors such as Republic Bank which is mainly responsible for today’s activity marking World Autism Awareness Day.
“We have grown from five children and three tutors to nineteen children and seven tutors. Our growth was achieved through the generosity of many, many donors, from the private sector and from individuals too many to name,” Dr. Ismail said.
However, she called for a change in the attitudes meted out to children with ASD and their parents, who continue to face stigma due to a lack of public understanding about it.
“Autism is a complex brain disorder…which shows itself in a young child as a mix of behavioural, communication and social symptoms,” Dr Ismail said, noting that there is no known cause or cure.
While the Foundation has “made a significant beginning in enabling children with autism to develop their maximum potential and in helping their families to cope with the many challenges they face,” she said, there is still more to be done.
Dr. Ismail noted that the school “has a wait list of 40 children seeking admission” who cannot be accommodated as the Foundation has neither the space nor the funds to employ more tutors. However, she is pleased to collaborate with the Ministry of Education and is grateful for the land it has provided to build a larger facility.
In addition, the Foundation and the Ministry will be embarking on a training exercise whereby the Ministry will assign teachers to the Foundation for a period, where they will learn how to manage children with the disorder; the teachers will then implement that knowledge back in their own schools. Dr Ismail expects the training to greatly impact how children with ASD are nurtured. The Foundation is now actively seeking funds to construct its new school.
Special needs students
Meanwhile, Minister of Education, Dr Rupert Roopnaraine said Guyana can only confidently proclaim that it has created a satisfactory education system when special education needs are satisfied. While acknowledging that this goal is still in progress, Dr. Roopnaraine said that since his tenure in Government his ministry has strengthened its relations with external partners across the spectrum of education services delivery, particularly in the area of special education and is providing tangible support to groups that treat children with special needs.
“We have recommitted to increasing support to the Ptolemy Reid Rehabilitation Centre. We have provided critical assistance on the expansion of services provided by the United Women for Special Children and we have provided tangible support to the Step by Step Foundation with the provision of land to build a bigger facility to provide for autism education in Guyana,” Dr. Roopnaraine said.
The Minister also noted that on completion of this facility, “we will also provide the necessary human resource support for it to function properly. In other words, special training in autism [disorder] will become a part of the curriculum at the Ministry of Education”.
Dr. Roopnaraine also praised supporters for turning out in large numbers to participate in the awareness exercise, adding that he is confident that it has achieved its overall goal.
“Our walk was dedicated to raising consciousness about autism in the wider community and as a consequence creating appreciation for those affected by [the disorder],” he said.
‘A different way of being’
The Minister also echoed earlier appeals for a change in the attitudes demonstrated to persons affected by ASD. While pointing out that though it is a lifelong condition that appears in childhood autism has no negative impact on intellect and, he said, persons should be encouraged to appreciate the disorder as simply a different way of being.
Meanwhile, in her address, Republic Bank’s Marketing and Communications Manager, Ms. Michelle Johnson said the bank was first inspired by the efforts of its parent company, Republic Bank Trinidad which has been, since 2008, a part of the fight to make a difference for autism through awareness in Trinidad and Tobago.
“This caused us to consider the autism reality in our own country, Guyana, and it created a drive in us to learn more and to seek ways to address the issue locally. It is this strong drive that led us to seek out and approach the Step by Step Foundation when we learnt of their existence in 2012,” she said. “From our very first encounter we immediately realised that there was a great need for us to add our support to the Foundation’s efforts.”
Since that time, the Foundation became a partner under the bank’s Power to Make a Difference programme. The bank sought to invest in the Foundation from 2013 to date, and although awareness has been its primary focus, the ‘Light it up blue’ walk was added to launch awareness month this year to raise funds for the Foundation and to rally wider community support to join the fight for awareness.
“Today’s activity is really about persons coming together to raise awareness, to grow awareness, to strengthen the fight, to offer hope and opportunities to succeed for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD),” Ms. Johnson said.
Ms. Johnson also conveyed greetings from the bank’s Managing Director, Mr. Richard Sammy who, regretfully, could not attend the awareness walk, though he had been instrumental in realising today’s awareness activities. She also extended gratitude to the Office of the First Lady, the Ministers, including Minister of Public Security, Mr. Khemraj Ramjattan, who was accompanied by his wife Sita, representatives from Republic Bank including, General Manager-Credit, Mrs. Parbatie Khan and General Manager – Corporate and Management Services, Ms. Denise Hobbs; representatives from the Foundation, the Department of Culture, Youth and Sport, Demerara Distillers Limited, Colgate Palmolive, Global Printers, DD Signs, the National Steel Orchestra, N&S Mattai, among other supporters.
At the close of the session, she invited the ‘Light it up blue’ supports to leave a note of encouragement or make a pledge on the message board provided, while children were invited to make a creative imprint on the board provided for them. Both boards were donated by DD Signs.
Zumba instructor, Mr. Kijana Lewis then livened things up with a high-energy Zumba session, which supporters were happy to participate in.
Other Step by Step Foundation members who attended the activity are Deputy Chair, Mrs. Deborah Seebarran; Treasurer, Ms. Kiran Mattai and Mrs. Cynthia Massay of the Ptolemy Reid Rehabilitation Centre.