by Nicole Scherzinger
(Sunday Express UK) I have always loved children and as a judge on the X Factor I always tried to be a really enthusiastic and supportive mentor. I feel it’s so important to encourage young people to be the best that they can be, no matter what their background is, so I jumped at the chance to travel to Guyana with Unicef, the brilliant global children’s charity.
Guyana is a fascinating country, sitting in South America but officially part of the Caribbean, with almost 90 per cent of the population living along its northern coast. This means their towns, hospitals and schools are packed and children don’t always have the space they need to play freely.
After arriving in the country, our first stop was a school in a deprived former mining town called Linden. Since mining ended, there isn’t much for people to do and jobs are scarce. Most people make money running small shops selling clothes or food, or travel south to the gold mines where they work as miners or cooks in the labour camps.
The school, named Linden Centre for Disabled Children, was amazing. It was set up to teach children living with disabilities. I found a classroom with deaf children communicating with sign language. Initially I watched quietly from the sidelines but they soon welcomed me in and began teaching me how to sign.
They showed me how to sign my own name and some pretty words like butterfly. Their enthusiasm was infectious and it was amazing how easily we were all able to interact and communicate. Their teacher is not deaf but was clearly so committed.
One girl, 10-year-old Ulancy Emmanuel, was such a character. Though she couldn’t speak, she found other ways to communicate and was actually one of the loudest people in the room. She enjoyed strutting her stuff so we worked on a few dance moves together and struck poses for the camera.
I’m used to being in front of a camera but this was very different to my day job. I always say that children like these have “diffabilities” not “disabilities”, because children all have different abilities. I know it’s not a common term but it illustrates ow every child is unique and special yet has the same right to learn and to play as others.
Two boys, 10-year-old twins Kabzuel and Kemuel Giddings, proved me right by jumping up and grabbing my hands, desperate to show me their play area. I was shocked by how small and barren it is. To them, the tiny courtyard is a space to play but to anyone from back home in the US or from the UK, it would look paltry. There is a broken basketball hoop in one corner and the floor is concrete.
According to head teacher Simone King, the children sometimes lose their balance and fall over and because the floor is so hard, they scratch themselves or have to stop playing so they don’t get injured. Luckily Unicef has supported a disability-friendly grass play park in the nearby capital Georgetown. I was desperate to tell them but it was a surprise so I had to keep quiet about the adventure we had in store the next day.
The children are all incredible individuals but I was especially moved by one girl called Nasia James who has Down’s syndrome. My aunt also has Down’s so Nasia’s story really resonated with me. I couldn’t help but give her a huge hug. She is 16 years old and is looked after by her grandfather while her parents are away working.
He is determined that she finishes school so she will be able to find a job and not just sit at home. He came to collect her at 3.30pm which seemed early to me. The headteacher said that in Linden, like in many towns across Guyana, children with disabilities must leave school early to avoid being bullied by youngsters from other schools.
It is so sad to think that children bully each other simply because they are too young to understand that some people in the world are different to them. But I was encouraged that this has not put off the families of children with disabilities who were able to come here to learn and play with their friends every day.
Once the pupils finished school for the day, the teachers escorted us to a nearby bandstand where the regional choir was practising for its next competition. Children in Linden don’t have much but they are the best singers in the country, often winning national competitions. I stopped by to hear them sing Guyanese calypso songs such as Under The Mango Tree.
I loved the lyrics about meeting up with your sweetheart and the children had incredible voices. One of them suggested trying something modern so they ended up singing Stickwitu by my former group, the Pussycat Dolls. I was flattered that the piano player and the boy playing guitar knew the chords and I couldn’t help but join in.
Then, in an incredible moment, we were singing the lyrics “Nobody gonna love me better, I must stick with you for ever” when one of the girls must have clocked I was in the group because she got really hysterical.
The next day, we brought children from the school to Georgetown to play in the disability-friendly park. It was full of brightly-coloured slides and little animals the children could sit on. The swings had seats with straps so they could play on them without sliding off. There was even a pony for the children to ride on.
The head teacher explained that the pony and climbing frames were particularly good for children with disabilities because it teaches them to trust, be brave and take risks. This is important when you live in a society where your disability can be mocked.
Many of the children are visually impaired like nine-year-old Roel Sumnar. He attends a blind unit at Wismar Primary, another school nearby. The teachers there have been trained by Unicef to give children extra lessons and support. This means blind children are able to attend normal classes with their able-bodied peers. This is a really positive step towards stamping out ignorance and integrating children with disabilities into daily life.
Roel and his friends can still make out some colours so we got brightly-coloured ribbon and wrapped them around the trees. I love sport so couldn’t resist starting a game of limbo and then skipping. The children loved it and helped pick each other up if they fell down.
Seeing the way Unicef is encouraging young people to play sports, no matter their ability, was really inspiring. That’s why their ground-breaking partnership with Glasgow 2014, organisers of this summer’s Commonwealth Games, is making sure the countries’ poorest and most excluded children come first. The partnership will help stop children suffering poverty, disease and exploitation, provide life-saving food and medicine, and give children the chance to take part in sport, many for the first time.