Caring for those with special needs
She’s a mother of one, a grandmother to a “cute little one”, and she has responsibility for over 500 children in Barbados with special needs.
The love and passion which Donnah Russell, Executive Director of Variety, The Children’s Charity, has for children in need, shines through whenever she speaks about working with them.
An office administrator by profession, the job to head one of the leading charities on the island literally fell into her lap. She chuckles as she recalls how it happened.
“A cousin of mine told me about it and I interviewed for one type of job because when she told me about it, she thought it was just like an office administrator. It was only when I got to the interview, I realized it was for an executive director. The rest is history.”
That was almost five years ago.
“I’ve been in the job since May 2010 and, like every other job, you come in and you just do what you can because, sometimes, you are thrown into the deep end of the pool.”
Since then, Donnah has not only tweaked and improved on what hundreds of volunteers have done before but also extended the Charity’s reach.
“Traditionally, we were concerned with children who are mentally or physically challenged. Since then, our clientele has expanded because we also now focus on children with parents who are financially challenged. When I started, we also took over Aunty Olga’s clients. I got a list with maybe 50 children,” she explains.
That list has more than tripled since then, with Donnah unable to say no to any child in need of the simplest thing from a uniform to a costly artificial limb, surgery or even a hospital bed.
“When we started to visit Aunty Olga’s children, we would have one name in the neighborhood. Shortly after the visit, another eight to ten names will be added to that from that same neighborhood, including their siblings and that’s just the reality.”
“We also include in all of our programmes the Child Care Board and the children who are in care. Then we have children that would not fall into either category but we know that they go to school at the Special Needs Unit or at AC Graham Development Centre or Sunshine Simulation Centre or one of the centres that help children with challenges,” she reveals.
The ever growing list includes babies through to teenagers aged 18 who are being catered to by Variety.
“Oh! We have children that we know are going to need assistance that aren’t even born yet, because we have children whose mothers are pregnant,” Donnah declares.
“We categorize our services into three main groups. We have Variety Freedom for Kids which includes anything that will give children the gift of mobility. Variety Caring for Kids programme which includes hospital services and equipment and the Variety Future Kids programme, where we concentrate mainly on the special needs units in Barbados.”
Taking on that mandate has come with its share of stumbling blocks but Donnah is not deterred.
“It has been challenging and every year has been a different challenge and the economic crisis has brought me an even bigger challenge this year, to look for money for all our programmes. But it’s just another challenge and I take it in stride just like all the other challenges,” she says proudly.
“We had other challenges that I had to call on my experience from other positions to make these challenges go away.”
Before Variety, Donnah worked at the Barbados Small Business Association in an administrative capacity and later headed the satellite office in St Philip.
“The need to help children unfortunately grows every year. The deeper we got into the financial crisis, the more clients we were adding on to our list. Before you could say that the clients that we were seeing were poor in every sense of the word. We have a lot of clients who are borderline and you have to be very careful when you are looking to give assistance.”
She gets misty eyes, her voice cracks a bit and takes a deep breath as she recounts the Charity’s continuous struggle.
“There are a couple of children that need help every year. For instance, you give a particular child who is five or six-years-old a prosthetic limb, but that child is growing. The limb may cost you US$16,000 but unfortunately in the next three or four years, that child needs another limb.”
She adds: “It is challenging to give help to one particular child all the time, when you know there are so many others that need help and you have to strike a balance sometimes because you know if you don’t give that particular child some help, that child will be lost.”
Despite this, Donnah has big plans for Variety.
“My vision for the next five years is to just do what we are doing better every single year, to just help a little bit more children every single year and at some point, not to have to turn back any child at all for whatever reason.”
The legacy she wants to leave behind is simple.
“The memories would be shown in the faces of the children that I have assisted. So, the memories of me wouldn’t have my face, they probably wouldn’t even remember my name, but I know that the children will know the difference and they would know that this is why they have reached at this point, this is why they succeeded.”
She encourages society to help in any way possible to make life better for Barbadian children in unfortunate circumstances.
“Welfare and all the Government services cannot provide for all the children in need,” she says. “We are working with children; Welfare deals with children, adults everybody. It is important to be your brother’s keeper. Charities are important but it is also important for people to give back on whatever level.”