Meghan Waterman photographed on the trampoline at The Academy for Special Needs in Maraval. Makeup by Shenelle Escayg, photography by Mark Lyndersay.

Originally published in Express Woman, April 02, 2017

What can we teach children with special needs? There is a whole heap but equally important, what can they teach us?  The Academy for Special Needs is my school. Everyday I am given a glimpse into the workings of an autistic mind and rewarded as I watch my children with special needs accomplish a new task, say a new word or just be happy in the company of their peers.

My name is Meghan Lee-Waterman and I am so grateful to be able to work with children of varying exceptionalities and be allowed the opportunity to see the world from a unique perspective.
I grew up as the eldest daughter in a very loving and supportive extended family. My grandfather in particular has been an instrumental part of my growth.

I’ve always been a bit of an academic but a balanced one. I spent my afternoons either on the football field or being whipped into shape by Noble Douglas on the dance floor. It was a perfect blend of books, mud and relentless dance routines. From a young age I was fascinated with how different people think and behave and found myself drawn to those who didn’t quite fit in “society’s box”.

Secondary school found me as part of the Young Leaders project. The year it was my turn to travel, the teachers announced that we would not be going away but rather we’d be doing our project locally. I soon realized what an opportunity it was to visit parts of my own island that I had never been to and to meet both children and adults with special needs. I discovered a whole different world on my doorstep. The experience planted a seed…

Eventually at University I pursued Graphic Design. I’d always loved art, I was good at it and knew the importance of loving what you do. After returning to Trinidad I worked for a bit in advertising and although I enjoyed the creative aspects I still felt like I wasn’t completely ready to be back in Trinidad and Tobago. I saved for about a year before deciding to explore South America through volunteer work.

I applied to work with children with special needs and before I could blink I was moving to Chile. My Spanish was rusty but I got to work in a school for children with autism and Down’s syndrome. The children ranged from 3 years old right up to adulthood and I fell completely in love with how wonderful these children and adults were and how much they loved dancing, cooking and learning trades to sustain them when they got older.

We went on outings and I got to see them perform a concert in celebration of Chile’s 200 year independence! As with all things, my time there came to an end and I was onto my next adventure in Peru. The experience helped me to realise the importance of non-verbal communication, which in my field, makes a big difference.

In Peru I worked with street children and orphans. Their needs differed from the other children but ultimately they wanted what every child wants. Love, support and acceptance. Perhaps it was an epiphany, a calIing, destiny? I was lying in bed one evening when it hit me that this is what I wanted to do; I wanted to work with children with special needs.

From the time I made that decision I knew there would never be any going back. When I returned home I sat my parents down and told them I no longer wanted to do graphic design but rather, I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to teach and to learn from these beautiful and unique individuals.

About a month later, a job opportunity came up in LIFE Centre where I met some of my mentors who helped guide and mould me a bit more into this role. I’m very grateful to many of the teachers there and after a while I decided I wanted to get properly qualified in the field.

I had to write a pretty convincing letter as to why a university should accept me into a Masters programme having come from an entirely different background! Gratefully I was accepted into all the ones I had applied to but in the end, I chose to pursue a Masters in Special Education with a focus on autism from The University of Birmingham, UK.

As cliché as it may sound, when I started my course I knew this was undoubtedly the right thing for me; school work came easy and I was more caught up with learning and liaising with some of the top professionals than thinking of it as “work”. I got to visit and volunteer at different special needs schools in the UK and by the time I finished my degree, I was so excited to return home to share what I had learnt.

I returned in September 2013 and fate stepped in, giving me the opportunity to take over a one-year old special needs school almost instantly. Truth be told nothing is without its challenges, but I spend everyday smiling and laughing with the most incredible individuals I know. Aside from being a young principal I am proud to be Secretary to The Consortium of Disability Organisations where I work on a wider level with passionate and driven persons who advocate tirelessly and wish to change the perception of the rights of persons with special needs.

Being in this field has changed me in so many ways, people often say “wow, you must be a really patient person” but I prefer to see it as I do my best everyday to remain grateful, to be accepting of differences and to do all that I can with love.

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.