Pain, progress, purpose
THEY say he who feels it knows it, and so while Samantha Chantrelle spent years working as a development expert with local and international agencies, it wasn't until her second child was diagnosed with autism that she got a deeper appreciation for the work that she does in designing programmes for those society seems to have forgotten.
The chief executive officer at Digicel Foundation recalls how traumatic the news of her son's diagnosis was, although the fact that he was barely speaking at four years old was indicative of a possible developmental challenge.
"I cried. I thought the world was coming to an end. And then I started thinking, 'What does this mean for him long-term and me as a parent? What's available to him?' You just don't know, and I still don't know what the future is going to be like."
But her husband calmly reminded her then that everybody has challenges, and with time she realised that there was also a purpose behind her son's diagnosis.
"God always does these things for a reason and initially it was, why? However, over the years I have come to understand exactly why," she said.
Chantrelle had learnt of her son's developmental challenge following her stint as the project manager of the National Commercial Bank Foundation. And instead of applying for another job, she decided to spend the next year and a half at home with her son. As she puts it, learning about autism and taking care of him became a full-time job, as days were spent taking him to the therapist and putting the necessary interventions in place. One of the obvious conclusions reached during those months at home with him, was the fact that Jamaica was far from equipped to deal with developmental challenges such as autism.
It was therefore quite heartening when she went to interview for the post as CEO for the Digicel Foundation and learnt that the company wanted to place more focus on addressing the needs of those with special needs.
"I don't know if I would have felt this passionately if I hadn't had my experience. It has also made me very knowledgeable, because when I realised that there was nothing here, I researched," she said.
"The services are just not available. So we are hoping that we, through the foundation, will be able to change that and get people to start talking," said Chantrelle, who noted that the company has given the foundation US$1 million dollars just to design and implement programmes for special needs children.
But apart from her work with those with special needs, Chantrelle said the Foundation also works with the Ministry of Education to establish a wide range of literacy programmes in schools and also assists with community development through the funding of entrepreneurial endeavours proposed by small groups. The group is also partnering with a number of other organisations to build the Bustamante Hospital for Children Cardiac Unit, which she hopes will be completed in the next two months.
"Just the idea that once this thing is up, the babies who are currently dying because there are no facilities will have the opportunity to have the surgeries that they need; that, I think, will make me really feel that we have made a difference in Jamaica," she said.
As a mother of three children ranging from four to 11, Chantrelle has a lot on her plate, but she tries to balance both responsibilities as much as possible. Her daughter just finished sitting the Grade Six Achievement Test, for example, and she had spent a lot of time studying with her.
"You take those moments when you can, and make sure that you are there for the important things," she said. "You know as a working mother that there are going to be times when you have to say, 'Wait, right now, this is what I need, I have to be there for the kids'."
Chantrelle has been a development expert for the past 20 years and has worked with organisations such as the United States Agency for International Development, the Canadian International Development Agency and the Embassy of Japan. She said she was inspired by her stepfather, a former World Bank employee, to go into this area, and so she had pursued both graduate and undergraduate studies in sociology and development studies. For her, seeing young people whom she had mentored and assisted through various scholarship programmes excel over the years has made her chosen career path all the more fulfilling.
"I have the best job in the world. When I wake up in the morning it's with a thought of what's going to be happening today. I always try to say to the team, 'Don't think too big, because then you are going to be frustrated. Think about the one person that you are going to help and make an impact on today'," she said.