Sara Stephens photographed at the St James office of Therapy Works. Makeup by Shenelle Escayg, photography by Mark Lyndersay.
Originally published in Express Woman, December 25, 2016
My name is Sara and I work with children with disabilities. I am an occupational therapist and I have the greatest job in the world. I get to go to work everyday to help children and families gain independence.
Most of all I get to be a part of a significant transformation, where families find themselves and discover their strength through the process together.
The journey is not easy. It wears on everyone. It requires infinite patience and love.
The children I work with live with disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, sensory challenges and more.
This might mean that a child struggles to sit up and use their arms to play with toys or maybe they have a difficult time sitting still in class to be able to listen and learn.
Regardless of the severity of their disability, they fight every day to cope, to work to their best ability and to belong. In this fight are the mothers, the fathers, siblings and all members of the extended family. It is the job of the occupational therapist to be that coach that supports the child and their family, to set attainable goals and find ways to adapt the environment or task to allow the child to succeed.
During our first consultations, I can tell that the parents are worn down, worried but hopeful. Their expectations are at times unrealistic, and they may place all of their hopes for their child’s success in one short hour of therapy a week.
Over time, the ideal of success changes to include what may seem to be from the outside, a small gain, but in fact these small steps become monumental achievements in the eyes of the child, parent and therapist. This is when parents begin to find their joy within the journey.
The families I am blessed to work with never lose hope along this challenging path; always fighting for their child, to help them succeed against a system that doesn’t cater to their child’s abilities.
I first came to Trinidad & Tobago in 2005 to work at the LIFE Centre, a small school for children with involved autism. I wanted to make an impact by serving as many children and families as possible and so I also started an NGO with Laura Pierre Escayg, focused on providing occupational therapy services to all children in need regardless of their ability to pay.
As my understanding of the country grew, I started to realise how much was needed to begin to address the national lack of services for people with different abilities.
In 2011, I was back home in Minnesota where I was reminded by comparison of the lack of services and support for families back in my second home of T&T.
It saddened me, and I thought constantly about the clients and people I met in Trinidad & Tobago, and the work that needed to be done. These thoughts kept me from fitting comfortably back in to my former Minnesota life.
My calling it turns out was to be a Trini and to make my home here and to make a change. Luckily for me, my good friend Robyn Edwards, a Trinidadian Speech Language Pathologist, came up with a great idea. She saw the same obstacles and challenges with her clients every day and together we figured out a way forward.
In May 2014, we started Therapy Works. The mission of Therapy Works is to welcome and support individuals with special needs and their families through holistic and community-centred care. Since then we’ve grown quickly to see almost 130 children per week!
Our Therapy Works team improves the lives of our clients and families every day. Personally I am proud of our young therapists as I watch them grow to share the same high standards and passion that Robyn and I have for what we do.
This is our cause, it’s what we’ve dedicated our lives to. It’s where our hearts beat loudest.
As therapists we do assessments. We see the potential in each child who walks through our doors with the aim to help them grow to be healthy, happy adults. The therapy is as much for them as for their parents.
While we’re working with the children, when we teach them to put on their shoes, cut with a scissors or get them to sit at a desk and work uninterrupted for 15 minutes, we see the changes in the families, in the moms and dads.
It takes heart. It takes courage. But that’s what parents do, they’re strong for their children and their families. They face their own journey, their own transformation as the children work hard with us fighting their own fight. It is our privilege to be allowed into these families, where we can witness parents and children being brave together.
Currently, there are only 17 occupational therapists, and we need more to get to a scale where we can address the needs of the entire country. We have high hopes and we have put in years of work. We need to see this momentum we’ve started continue and spread throughout the country.
Every month Therapy Works has a lime for our teenage and young adult clients, where we go for pizza or to some public activity. It pleases me so much to have that many young people with disabilities be seen out together in public having fun, laughing, and just liming and being themselves. It’s something T&T should celebrate as much as we do our other types of diversity.
These kids should be admired and embraced for the battle-hardened warriors they are to their core, and for being the beautiful people that I have come to know so well.
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.