Aliya Drakes photographed at Opal Kids in St Anns. Makeup by Shenelle Escayg, photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

Originally published in Express Woman, April 16, 2017

My name is Aliya Drakes and I am an Occupational Therapist (OT). One of my favourite and most memorable moments of my career was the day one of my kids walked for the first time. We’d been working on it for months, and for months he was “right there.” I saw him at home and usually his mother was not present, but that day she was.

When he took those steps she had tears in her eyes and admittedly I wanted to cry too! Because not only was that a major milestone in his life, it was proof of the wonders of this career. This boy’s father did not believe in therapy up until that point, did not see the benefit of it. After that moment, he had no choice but to change his tune.

Over the years there have been countless wonderful moments such as that one, and I am honoured and humbled to share them with the families and the children with whom I work. I say ‘work’ loosely, as this vocation is a joy and a passion – I often think I could be having the worst day, but when I am working with my children they change everything. Challenging as it may be at times, this was what I was born to do.

It is sometimes an overwhelming experience being welcomed into the lives of my families. I see their struggles when they can’t find a suitable school for their child with autism who is bright and perfectly capable of learning, but unfortunately there aren’t accommodating schools that will allow the child to flourish. I feel their pain when they stay at home because their child cannot walk and the wheelchair they need costs over $30,000 (no that’s not a typo!) I hear their sadness when they ponder what will happen when their child becomes an adult and is expected to be independent.

There is no doubt that as many baby steps we have made in the past decade towards better healthcare for our families with specials needs, T&T is still poorly lacking basic necessities such as accessible environments for all abilities, and education for all types of learners. As Occupational Therapists we continue to do our part in the hopes that we can help one family at a time.

Aliya Drakes photographed at Opal Kids in St Anns. Makeup by Shenelle Escayg, photograph by Mark Lyndersay. Click to enlarge.

While there are those challenges that continue to arise, the precious moments I get to be part of, touch my heart and continue to let me know that this is the best possible career I could have chosen. Seeing a child complete a task for the first time, hearing that he was able to play catch with children in the neighbourhood, doing well in exams and completing them on time; these are the many moments that make each day worthwhile. I have learned that it’s the small moments that truly matter and all accomplishments big and small are noticed and celebrated.

Working with my children allows me the magic of experiencing the world through their eyes and I never cease to marvel at their unique perspectives, even if they are not verbal. Their personalities are no match for whatever challenges with which they present, and make each day entertaining, enjoyable, and yes, sometimes a real challenge!

On a personal level, Occupational Therapy has been a God-send for me that I never knew I needed. Little did I know that this profession would end up teaching me about myself and my own challenges; I have had to become my own OT over the years! Although my educational journey was a bit different and haphazard from most, thankfully I ended up in the right place in the end.

I’d decided on physiotherapy as a career and by pure luck, I stumbled upon a programme offered by the Barbados Community College. The programme name sounded fancy – Rehabilitation Therapy Technology –  a triple major that included physiotherapist, occupational and speech therapy. Over the two years I grew to love all, but both OT and Physio continued to stand out, and I applied to study both at various schools. When my acceptance to OT school arrived I was initially disappointed as I thought it was for physiotherapy. That’s how I learned deep down what I really wanted. OT had my heart!

Three years later I was back home to begin this wonderful career and meet more OTs who helped pave the way for me to become the OT I am today. I also discovered the joys of working with families in T&T. As a therapist, the bond you form with some of the families is truly special. However, I made the tough decision to return to England after two years for various personal reasons.

Although I secured a great job in England that would prepare me for having my own practice, working and living in England could never compare to the warmth of the families at home and the closeness of working with the children. I returned to Trinidad after my grandmother died to set up my own practice, and eventually started Opal Kids in January of 2014.

Opal Kids was named as a tribute to my grandmother, who was extremely influential in both my upbringing as well as my decision to return home and start a practice. Opal Kids has grown from strength to strength over the past three years and is now able to serve families in both Port-of-Spain and South Trinidad.

Going forward, Opal Kids aims to continue to provide occupational therapy to our families across the country and in other Caribbean islands such as St. Lucia. In addition, we will continue to raise awareness of the profession and its benefits in the hopes that one day soon, all our families and children will be able to live their fullest potential without barriers.
The production of the Footsoldiers segment of the Lioness Project series, highlighting the experiences of 12 workers in the disability field, is supported by the Cause an Effect Organisation, the Massy Foundation and A Very Special Disabilities Forum.