Theresa Donaldson-DePass — Paying it forward


Monday, July 23, 2018

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THERESA Donaldson-DePass is vibrant, tenacious and passionate about helping people with mental health and behavioural challenges.

Born and raised in Kingston, Donaldson-DePass told All Woman that growing up in Washington Gardens, her mother was very strict and raised her to be self-sufficient, resilient and resourceful — attributes that helped shaped her life.

An old girl of Holy Childhood High, Donaldson-DePass said while there she was given the opportunity to develop her skills, so much so that she formed a strong relationship with Sister Maria Goretti and even considered becoming a nun. But she said most importantly, she learnt to pay it forward.

And so, Donaldson-DePass said when she left Holy Childhood and moved to the United States where she completed both an undergraduate degree in zoology and psychology and a master's in mental health at Howard University, she decided to give back, starting with her high school.

“I took alternative vacations — instead of taking a vacation to go and lie on the beach, I took it to go and do something [productive]. During this time I would do counselling with the children, and helped others with fees. I also did workshops,” she said.

With an interest in behavioural and mental health, Donaldson-DePass — retired programme director of the Mental Health Services Division, Department of Behavioural Health for Washington, DC — wanted to do more to help individuals in Jamaica who have mental health challenges. This opportunity presented in the midst of her own family crisis.

“Several years ago I came to Jamaica and someone was playing with a gun in my parents' house and there was a crisis. Later, I was sitting on the verandah reading the newspapers and saw that our mental health hospital [was lacking basic amenities] because of budgetary constraints so I called up the hospital, spoke with the administrator, and I said to myself that I could provide some services here. I went back to the States and got 25 of my closest friends to donate. We took note of the mental illness population and were able to impact how they were housed. I had brought my daughter on that trip and it was a great experience for her. About eight years ago when my son was in middle school I told him to bring his friends along and this time we were able to help the children at Maxfield Park Children's Home,” she said.

But Donaldson-DePass didn't stop there as she knew that one of the greatest problems with addressing mental illnesses is that people are often misunderstood and there's a lot of stigma.

“Jamaica likes to label folks as bad or say they won't amount to anything. No one wants to be shunned or looked down upon, so there has to be a reason they behave that way. I am a strong advocate that every child is educable; none is a throwaway. My mom always said if it nuh dead nuh dash it weh. I have seen people who were labelled turn out to be wonderful adults,” she said.

And so, before retirement Donaldson-DePass ensured her vacations were spent giving her services in the areas of behavioural and mental health. Now retired, she has not lost a beat, and has returned home to Richmond, St Ann, where she remains dedicated to volunteerism and nation building in the land of her birth.

Through the Xi Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, of which Donaldson-DePass is a member, she was able to lead a mission that fulfilled a critical need for school supplies in an underserved community in Waterhouse, St Andrew last year.

“This was organised by my niece Racquel Layne, a former member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, BetaLambda Chapter, and a resident of Waterhouse, and saw us donating over 100 book bags and school supplies to the children there,” she shared. Further, Donaldson-DePass also conducted a seminar on parenting to the parents in Waterhouse where she discussed child advocacy and directed them to resources in the community for additional help.

“My role is not accusatory; I was there to guide them. Many said they knew no other way to parent. I realised that if you weren't parented you do not know how to parent. Many young girls don't know how to parent and sadly think if they knock over their kids or cut them up it's effective parenting, but what that does is just perpetuate a cycle of violence. We truly need to have more social services for parents,” Donaldson-DePass said.

Also a recipient of the 2017 Cafritz Award for Excellence in leadership in mental health, Donaldson-DePass organises cultural trips for school-aged children annually to Jamaica and also intends to start working closer with children with behavioural problems.

“If we begin to identify kids with a problem from as early as pre-school we will go a far way in resolving issues. Parents with kids not displaying ideal behaviours think mental illness is bad and that's the problem. A lot of people suffer from various types and make the most of their lives. It's not different from cancer, you don't ask for it, it just happens. As a result we need to be more accepting and help people to move forward and access treatment,” she said.

Her other acts of volunteerism have seen her, through her sorority, sew 250 dresses which were donated to girls in Liberia, and advocating for children to be taught early to read, which saw her donating books to a place of safety locally when her nephew was placed there.

Also a wedding cake baker with exemplary culinary skills, Donaldson-DePass is in the process of penning two books — Pearls and Words of Wisdom from my Mother and Bad Gyal.

“My mother used a lot of colloquial phrases which I came to use and know the value of so the first book will look at those, and 'bad gyal' is a term Jamaicans use to describe wayward young girls. But have you talked to them and know why they behave the way they do? Find out! I have had the opportunity to speak to many 'bad gyals' in Jamaica through my volunteer work and it is heartbreaking. If we taught them a different way and gave them different tools it would be a marked difference.”

Donaldson-DePass acknowledged her parents Alvin and Lucille Donaldson for their contribution to her life and used the same breath to encourage women to value themselves and be self-sufficient.

Married to Neville, she lives by the philosophy, “each one help one”.

“There is no joy in your achievement if you're not able to turn around and help someone,” she said.

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