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Off to Hopewell

14-year-old wheelchair - bound student Britannia Stephenson starts the school of her choice, Hopewell High thanks to Digicel Foundation, Observer article

BY MARK CUMMINGS
Editor-at-Large
cummingsm@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, September 06, 2018

HOPEWELL, Hanover — Fourteen-year-old Britannia Stephenson could not mask her joy when she turned up for classes at the Hopewell High School in Hanover on Monday, the start of the new academic year.

Sporting a broad smile and exuding confidence, the former Watford Hill Primary student gleefully told the Jamaica Observer West that she was very happy to be at the school at which she was placed, following her Grade Six Assessment Test (GSAT) last year.

“I feel happy to be here (Hopewell High). I always wanted to come to this school, so I am happy and thankful for the opportunity,” said a smiling Britannia.

The soft-spoken wheelchair-bound teenager, who was diagnosed with encephalopathy, and has never walked since birth, was unable to commence classes at Hopewell High at the start of the 2017/2018 academic year because the State-run educational institution was not equipped with a ramp.

In fact, Britannia started her high school education at the Dr Fidel Castro Campus of the Anchovy High School in the neighbouring parish of St James, more than two months after the start of that academic year, following a Jamaica Observer story highlighting her plight which spurred the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders into action.

The Observer story also prompted the Digicel Foundation to construct two ramps and to retrofit sanitary conveniences at the Hanover school.

But even though Britannia was placed at Anchovy High where classrooms and other facilities are located on the ground floor, her mother, Cecilia Hill, who resides in the deep rural community of New Milns in Hanover, could barely afford to send her daughter to the school, due to severe financial constraints.

On Monday, a team from the Digicel Foundation, headed by CEO Karlene Dawson, visited Hopewell High to get a first-hand look at the two ramps installed and the bathrooms that were retrofitted to accommodate students who are physically challenged.

Jennifer Spence Silvera, education and special needs programme officer at the foundation, who was a part of the team, explained why the foundation decided to undertake the project.

“We decided to start the project because it (Britannia's plight) came up as an item in the news — and of course everybody read the article — and when our chairman Mrs Jeanne Lowrie Chin, saw it, she immediately contacted our CEO and asked that we do something about it, because giving access to persons in schools with disabilities is very important in terms of the foundation's core values,” said Spence Silvera.

She added that the matter was taken to the foundation's board meeting, during which a decision was taken to construct two ramps at the school and to retrofit the bathrooms at a cost of $8 million.

Spence Silvera noted that the ramps give access to all the classrooms and other facilities at the school.

“The ramps are not simply ramps to enter a building.these ramps ensure that there is access to the second floor of the building, and that is where most of the classes are held, so persons will have access to all the areas of the building.so once a student comes here to Hopewell High, if they are wheelchair–bound, if they are using a walker, once there is any physical disability, then the person will be able to access everywhere on this compound, and that was what we really wan t— to make it truly inclusive so every child must be able to go to any department at the school,” she explained.

Dawson told the Observer West that the foundation, will this year, collaborate with the Ministry of Education to construct ramps at about 10 other state-run schools across the island.

She noted that the foundation has been constructing ramps at schools since 2014, stressing that “special needs is a big part of the foundation's mandate”.

Hopewell High Principal Byron Grant lauded the Digicel Foundation for undertaking the project at his school.

“At least we can now reach those students that are physically challenged to offer them educational opportunities.So we are very pleased that the Digicel Foundation came on stream and actually build two ramps and retrofitted the bathrooms at no cost to us. We are most thankful to Digicel,” Grant stressed, adding that the school currently has two physical challenged students.

Hill also commended the foundation for undertaking the project.

“I really want to thank the Digicel Foundation for making this happen.

“Britannia really wanted to come to Hopewell High, so for her it's like a dream come true,” said Hill, who also thanked the Jamaica Observer for bringing her plight to public attention, and the tremendous support that she has received from the general public over the past few months.

She stressed that the financial cost associated with sending her daughter to Hopewell High will be greatly reduced, as the Hanover school is “not too far” for her home.