Saturday, April 23, 2016

Jamaica, rich in excellence

Observer Column excerpts - published MON 18 Apr 2016
by Jean Lowrie-Chin

While there was much pomp and ceremony at the opening of Parliament, there were other rich happenings last week, as we learned more about autism, discovered the wonderful Alston High School in Clarendon, and accompanied Champion Household Workers to King’s House.
On Wednesday, at the ‘Light it up Blue – Autism Awareness at UWI’, we saw the power of parental love, youth and experience, private and public sector collaboration.  Education Minister Senator Ruel Reid praised the parents who have had to bear virtually all the responsibility for their children’s challenges. 
Honoured to receive appreciation award on behalf of Digicel Foundation at UWI Autism Awareness event ... and be congratulated by Senator Ruel Reid, Minister of Education 

“As a society, we have not properly understood and treated with the condition of autism,” the Minister noted. “The time has come for inclusivity.”  He commended the work of the Jamaica Autism Support Association (JASA) who have been advocating for early testing of children so they can receive the appropriate guidance.
Professor Maureen Samms-Vaughan, Jamaica’s internationally respected Developmental and Behavioural paediatrician, walked us through the numbers that revealed autism as being more common than we realise. Using recent US statistics, she said that one in every 42 boys, and one in every 189 girls are affected by autism.  She said this means it could be one boy in every primary school class and one girl in every school year.
How does autism present?  She explained that signs include difficulty in communicating, not looking persons in the eye and repetitive behaviour. Children with autism may be hyper-sensitive to sound, touch, taste smell.  She noted that this was a spectrum disorder as there are autistic savants, for example the wealthy artist with Jamaican roots, Stephen Wiltshire MBE.  
Toni-Ann Tucker, Exceptional Needs Coordinator at Liberty Academy (at the former Priory High School location) told us, “The most interesting people I have met have autism.”  She describes her approach as “operating in autism time – twice as much time, half as much done”, because her focus is on the child.  She says despite her training, she has to keep learning as “special education is dynamic”.  It is important, she notes to “manage the behaviour, not blame the behaviour.”  Thank goodness for teachers like Ms Tucker.
We then heard from the parent of a child with autism, Dr Gale Ford.  Her son was diagnosed early, and she told us, “I held my baby and promised him to do my best to make him a functional member of society.”  She was blessed with a loving caregiver who actually offered to accompany the child to pre-school.  After an attempt at home-schooling, her son was diagnosed with ADHD, and with treatment was able to attend a regular school.  He is now 13 years old, and will next year be at a new stage in his life, when skills training will be a consideration.
The students of Chancellor Hall, Block X and the UWI Chorale have been reaching out generously to JASA, raising considerable sums to help promote awareness.  It did our hearts proud to see the interest of these bright young students. Kudos to JASA co-founder Kathy Chang, who honoured Ms Lome Hvass of UNICEF, the Digicel Foundation, Wisynco and the UWI students for their unstinting support. 
Alston High’s Greenhouse
Students of Alston High treat us to a witty rap on the benefits of their new greenhouse.
The two-hour trip to Alston, Clarendon just beyond Spaldings, took us to the beautiful Alston High School where they showed us their flourishing new greenhouse.  The students were impeccably uniformed and welcoming, the speeches by Chairman Eric Green and Principal Headley Cross inspiring and to the point.  The best part of being chairman of the Digicel Foundation, which has been sponsoring several of these greenhouses, is that I am constantly reminded of the resourcefulness of fellow Jamaicans who just need that extra boost to create something wonderful. 
Despite challenges with water supply, the school has answered with what they describe as their ‘climate change initiative’, harvesting rain water and using drip irrigation and precisely applied nutrients to their first set of seedlings which arrived last November.  In the few short months since then, they have reaped 995 pounds of tomatoes and 559 pounds of sweet peppers from their greenhouse. 

Clearly Alston High has great leadership in Mr Cross and Vice Principal Mrs Latty-Johnson – the grounds are attractive and the students courteous. Mr Cross reminded us that agriculture “is a major platform for national growth”, and so his school is proud of the results gained by students of agricultural science.  Their greenhouse assists with their CSEC practicum, supplies their canteen and raises funds for the school through sales.  

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