Fish swimming over coral

Smiles Through Trials

The Eslyn Richiez Learning Centre gives youth with disabilities a chance to unlock their abilities.

by Jane Bakewell

For a special group of youth with disabilities, there is a place in Tortola they fondly consider their "second home." Here they get a chance to bloom with one-on-one attention, a chance to learn a musical instrument, a chance to unlock some of their wonderful abilities challenged by their physical, mental or emotional short comings.

Here they learn acceptance through a smile or a hug, discipline through obedience to an ethical standard, and love from the staff, who invest so much of their selves in the youth.

Study group

All this began through the dedication of one woman, Eslyn Henley Richiez, for whom the EHR Learning Centre is now named. The school, which is located at John's Hole just down from the back road leading to the Red Cross building, was originally birthed through the Red Cross in 1972 to fill the community's need for a facility to serve children with disabilities. Its first location was in a small building in MacNamara, just across from the Queen Elizabeth II Park, where it was christened the Fort Charlotte Children's Learning Centre. The school moved to its present location in 1977 and a year later was renamed after the schools first principal, Eslyn H. Richiez, who along with her only assistant Alice Leonard faithfully kept the school going for a number of years until other teachers were employed.

Today under the administrative care of Principal Vansittart Huggins, there are six full time teachers as well as a guidance counselor, music teacher and physical education teacher, who come in twice a week. The school has maintained an enrollment of close to 20 students, presently ranging in age from five years to 20 years old. "We follow the same National Educational Curriculum as the public schools, but we modify it for our needs, "explains Mrs. Huggins. There is also a basic enrichment program, which draws out the abilities of the children, developed by an Israeli Professor named Feuerstein that the school uses with great success.

Students in the classroom

Walking around the grounds one notices the personal touches that make the learning centre so unique. Hanging from a mango tree in a plastic coated sheet is a child's schoolbook page with a child's lettering of a story that begins "under a mango tree." A small picnic reading table sits underneath. This is a quiet space, part of a reading garden the teachers envisioned. Next to it is a small garden where the children can practice gardening skills and watch plants grow. An old-fashioned hand bell on a wood handle rings, one proud smiling child gets the honor this day to ring it. It is mid-morning snack time.

The focus of the school as Mrs. Huggins explains, is to get the children to a level where they can integrate comfortably in society. For children suffering from autism, Down Syndrome, speech and hearing impediments as well as emotional disabilities – this can be a real challenge. "We treat each child individually and try to meet them at their point of need starting at ground level and help to mold them through character building and instilling values. In spite of their disabilities, the children seem very happy and there is great satisfaction in working with them," Mrs. Huggins reflects. One of the things that Principal Huggins is most proud about is her staff. "I always brag about my teachers, I have never seen such a dedicated group. They all bring something different to the table and work as a real team."

Recently the EHR Leaning Centre celebrated their 40th anniversary and asked a special speaker to come to address the formal dinner held at Treasure Isle Hotel.

The motivational speaker they heard from was an 18-year-old teen from St. Kitts who has suffered from paralysis for 12 years. Before the youth was a role model of an "over comer," who represented all the dreams and possibilities their minds can entertain, and seeing one who has attained it, sparks great hope.