By Kimberly Wallace, reproduced by kind permission of the author and Express Woman Magazine. Originally published in Express Woman, October 02, 2016
The gutsy singer/songwriter and mother of three has the superhuman ability to connect with people through her words and music, She can disarm people with her down-to-earth nature so that you feel at ease with her even though you just met her. Pierre-Escayg is also one half of Cause an Effect, a non governmental organisation which focuses on transforming perspectives about disabilities, which she runs with her husband – filmmaker, music producer and published author, Francis Escayg.
Their son, 12-year-old Isaiah was born with Incontinentia Pigmenti – a rare genetic disorder – and was the spark which led to the registered for purpose organisation. Together, the duo create content with the aim of shaping conversation and bringing about change. Late last year, the NGO took on greater meaning for Pierre-Escayg, at the time she felt unhappy in a part-time job and found herself at a crossroad, having to decide what her next move would be.
“I feel like my life has been a bit of a blur for the past 13 years based on a lot of challenges that came up in my life. In trying to take back my power and figure out what I wanted to do, I decided to jump into the NGO full-time with my husband,” says Pierre-Escayg, who is passionate about issues are that are close to her heart.
In our no-holds-barred interview, Pierre-Escayg opens up about a particularly distressing period in her life which later resulted in the creation of something else that would not only add purpose in her life but in the life of others like her. It happened last year when while experiencing a low point, Pierre-Escayg poured out her emotions onto a post on her Facebook page.
The overwhelming response from friends and people she never knew filled her with hope and a realisation that women like her need a platform to discuss the unique and seemingly insurmountable challenges faced by families of disabled ones. What began as an idea eventually became known as The Lioness Project.
It’s a positive forum which features mothers who have gone beyond their challenges and done something excellent that benefits others in their community. She chose the word ‘Lioness’ because mothers of differently-abled children are often portrayed in the media either as weak and unable, or as people to be pitied, however the reality is that these very women are strong, resourceful and resilient. They are lionesses.
The Lioness Project is about opening up and standing emotionally naked before others and saying “this is how I feel about this”. Pierre-Escayg is quite honest and candid about her own experiences raising a child with a disability day in, day out while having to deal with other peoples expectations, ignorances and input that in many cases does not add value to the situation.
She’s candid about the hurt she feels as a mother to see her son depressed or cry tears of frustration because he can’t speak or go outside and play like the other children without tripping and falling. These experiences remind her that not only do children with special needs have emotions but that the challenges parents like herself face, are unique.
When Isaiah was born, the Escaygs had to go through a transformation of their own. During her pregnancy the couple had so many expectations but when they realised something was wrong with their son, their world fell apart.
“I just felt like I was drowning and I couldn’t find my way above water. I didn’t know how to. For Francis, it was difficult. And so it was about learning to love Isaiah as he is. You have to learn how to deal. It either helps to define you and your character constructively or it breaks you. When it breaks you, you can become a bitter and unhappy person and I’ve seen that side of it as well,” she says.
Pierre-Escayg felt the way most parents of disabled children feel – alone. Then she picked herself up and decided she wanted to create a better future and a more inclusive and understanding society for her son and other disabled children. The Escaygs are among what she calls a “new world order” of parents taking charge of the future for their children with special needs.
“I like to call us the new world order as we are the ones working hard behind the scenes on creating and implementing sustainable initiatives to create a better future for our children and all children with special needs,” says Pierre-Escayg.
With Cause an Effect, she and her husband are effecting change. What Isaiah has done for them both is invaluable, he has helped them build character. Looking back years ago to the time when he was born, Pierre-Escayg admits that she had a lot of growing up to do. Her singing career which had been so promising, ended abruptly. She had hopes of reviving her music and giving it a second chance but when Isaiah came along, she had to put herself aside along with her dreams and hopes, to take care of her son.
“That was difficult for me because I was angry. I kept saying ‘God, why? You gave me a good voice, the ability to be so fearless on stage, the ability to go into an interview and charm people and now, this is it? This is the end?’ Because I saw it as ‘the end,” she reveals. “I feel like Isaiah was the defining moment of my life, I just wasn’t wise enough to realise it at the time.”
“I want mothers to feel empowered and know that life is not over because you have a disability or a child with a disability. It’s not the end, it’s the beginning of a defining moment in your life.”
When Pierre-Escayg got pregnant again, she spent nine months anxiously awaiting the arrival of the girl they had always wanted, fearful that she may also be born with special needs. But then came a healthy baby girl whom they named Phoenix.
A year later, she was pregnant again and had another girl, Roxy Moon. Both girls are complete opposites; Phoenix, 7, is an extrovert while six year old Roxy Moon is introverted but they have brought a lot of joy and healing into Pierre-Escayg’s life. They are also aware that their brother has special needs and has limitations as a result.
When they’re out in public, some stare or look at Pierre-Escayg with pity but she has learnt to use humour to deal with it.
“People feel sorry for him, they feel sorry for us. I see people looking at me with pity and I’m like hey, if it helps me get through sooner in the bank, then great! Do people stare? Yeah. But Isaiah is a really handsome boy, so being good looking helps,” she says with a laugh.
Since chanelling her creative abilities into Cause an Effect and now The Lioness Project, Pierre-Escayg believes she is where she is meant to be, even though some friends and family members may not quite understand. Cause an Effect is now working on educational programmes to open the eyes of not just the general public but also the technocrats so that they begin to really grasp what it means to live with a child with a disability and what it means to be someone living with a disability in our society, and understand what they require to function in society so that they can contribute.
“Too many times we’re looked at as people who are dependent on society, we want people to understand that these families who have to deal with these challenges want to be able to contribute to society and live normal lives like everyone else but they simply can’t do that without some degree of systemic support,” she says.
While reaching out to women who have become part of the lioness series, Pierre-Escayg was able to really get to the heart of their stories, including the depression and the struggle several had to face to get social assistance. She’s also learnt that while there are many NGOs functioning in a small space, the disabled community in T&T is largely disjointed.
“Everybody is so busy fighting to get money for their cause that sometimes they forget what they were actually about in the first place, because when you are genuinely about the cause, you will put aside every part of your ego and work with other people- that doesn’t happen in Trinidad. Whether it’s the private sector or civil society there is always this battle as if it’s a race to the finish line and it’s all about the glory, it’s about what I did, how many people I helped. That sickens me,” says Pierre-Escayg.
She is hopeful that the Lioness Series would bridge the gaps between the different NGOs so that they work in tandem with each other.
In 2012 Pierre-Escayg experienced a sort of revival when she finally returned to the stage after a long absence. She put pen to paper and wrote another album which is a reflection of her thoughts on our socio-political landscape. She describes her shows as a combination of storytellers-meets-old-school-soul singer who doesn’t give a Sh!! It’s also like an intimate experience which has grown from acoustic to a full band with a brass section.
“I feel that now I am finally coming into my own, artistically and as a woman and mother. All the pieces are gelling and it feels really good because I thought it was lost forever. There was a time I thought I’d never sing again and there was a time I was in such a depression I could not even open my mouth to sing, not even around the house,” she says.
The life Pierre-Escayg has now may not be what she expected for herself, the dreams she once had of being this major artist have had to be shelved, but being a recording artiste of epic proportions would not have given her life as much meaning as being in service to others. Now, when she steps on stage, it’s not about her, it’s about connecting with people, raising money for Cause an Effect and reaching out and motivating fellow Lionesses.
“God, the Universe, Allah, Buddha – whatever you believe in, something is always talking to us through every experience we’re having to help us define what our mission is and what our service to others is going to be,” she says. “This is where he wants me to be and what he wants me to be doing. Do I doubt myself? Yes, sometimes. Do I feel down about it? Yes, sometimes. But in my heart of hearts, I do believe I am exactly where I am supposed to be.”
The production of the Lioness series, highlighting the experiences of 12 mothers, is supported by Cause an Effect, Angostura Limited, First Citizens Bank and A Very Special Disabilities Forum.