Dawn Rudder with her grandchildren (from left) Quinn Sealy, Kai Rudder and Mila Rudder-Forde at King George V Memorial Park. (LT)
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IF LOVE is patient and kind, Dawn Rudder has poured it into her career without measure.
As the principal of the Learning Centre, a school for children with learning disabilities, she has cared for many young people like her very own. For Rudder, working with special needs children was a long-time passion and perhaps, her destiny.
In an interview with the SUNDAY SUN at the Orange Hill, St James institution, the recently retired 68-year-old reflected on her years of service, calling it “amazing, fulfilling and filled with lots of love”.
She said that she had always adored children but was drawn to the speciality for more pressing reasons.
“I didn’t like the way the disabled were marginalised,” she said.
“I don’t like the idea that because a child may have a challenge, whatever it is, that people automatically assume that they cannot achieve anything. I believe in giving a person, not only children, everything they need to achieve whatever they can.
“I think [Barbados has] come a long way since the 70s but we’ve still got a long way to go. You still hear people make simple comments like, ‘Oh, I didn’t think I could do that’ and that says it all. You never gave them the chance. You see somebody who walks with a limp or somebody who’s in a wheelchair and you automatically assume they can’t.
“No, give them a chance to prove what they can do. I gravitated towards special needs because I thought they needed that help, that acceptance, especially. They need to be accepted,” she said.
In Rudder’s eyes, every child deserves an opportunity to reach the fullest potential. That’s why it gives her a strong sense of fulfilment when her students excel.
She said cricketer Ryan Nurse, jockey Demario Bynoe and computer technician Larry Hope were just some of many examples of outstanding alumni.
“My greatest joy is seeing the children succeed. A lot of them have gone on to be self-employed, which is what we strive for here with our skills programme because if you [can work for yourself], then you don’t have to wait on somebody to accept you and give you a chance. I always tell the children to go out there and prove to the world that they’re wrong,” Rudder said.
“With the higher functioning children, you want to make sure that they can get a job, support themselves and, most of all, become decent human beings.
“That’s very, very important. You keep instilling in them, no matter what your challenges are, once you have the correct attitude people will give you a chance but if you go out there with a horrible attitude, they may not,” she said.
Now that Rudder, who retired last term, has entered a new chapter in her life, she can spend more time doing other things she finds enjoyable, like reading.
The former St Michael School student said when she was young, books by Enid Blyton were among her favourites and reading them made her want to become “a matron of a children’s home”. This childhood fantasy never panned out, she said.
After she graduated from secondary school, Rudder got a job at Scotiabank, where she worked for five years as a teller and for a period of time acted as manager.
It was not long, however, before she made a bold decision that changed her life completely.
At 21 years old, she quit her job to study child care and geriatrics at the Medical Aid Training School in New York.
“I loved the bank and I loved working there but there was still this urge, this need, to work with children. It really was a big step because I had to give up my job to go and train, not knowing what’s going to come after the training, whether I was going to find a job or not,” she said.
In 1970, Rudder returned to Barbados and began applying for jobs, but with no success.
A year later, she was invited to volunteer at the Challenor Creative Arts and Training Centre and was eventually hired as a teacher. Her dream had finally come true. Not only was she doing the only job she could ever want, but she was able to work alongside women like Sister Maria, whom the Ann Hill School was named after, and Sister Margaret Cossol, whom she admired deeply.
The wealth of opportunities opened to her did not end there. While working at the institution, Rudder received a scholarship from the Kennedy Foundation to attend the New York Medical College, where she studied special needs education.
“I think the main thing I gained from that [experience] was that each child is different, even if the challenges are similar, and to go all out to make sure that you give each child what it needs,” she said.
And so she did. Rudder eagerly applied what she had learned over the two years of studies overseas when she returned to the Challenor School. Although she loved her work, she said she experienced challenges and sometimes considered another job.
“I really loved what I was doing and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else although over the years, you go through your frustrations. Sometimes things happen and I would say to myself ‘I think I need a more peaceful job’ . . . but every time I came to that point and I thought about what else I would like to do. There was nothing else,” she said.
In 1977, Rudder accepted a job offer at the Learning Centre. The mother of three children, Nikolas, Petal and Kean, said she believed that “God was in control” of her life, noting that in 1993 she was promoted to head teacher.
“I think it just happened, it just evolved. It wasn’t anything that I went after. It just so happened that at the time when they needed a head teacher they asked me if I would do it. I said ‘Okay,’ I just continued what I was doing and took on more responsibilities,” she noted.
After being blessed with countless opportunities during her career, Rudder said she did not feel sad about her retirement and was satisfied with her contribution to the community of people with disabilities.
She said her wish was to see the school and its students continue to do well.
“I would like them to look back and say, ‘Those were the best days of my life. That’s where I found love; that’s where I found acceptance’.”