Every parenting journey comes with its unique set of experiences and challenges, and raising a child with special needs is unmarked territory for most. In light of International Day of Persons with Disabilities – observed annually on December 3 across the globe, to raise awareness on challenges faced by people with disabilities during periods of crisis – Sister Basilia Center and Zoila Richardson came together to share the journey of Zoila and her firstborn child Zuramaya (Maya). Now 24 years old, Maya is a joy to her mother.
In Zoila’s own words:
“My name is Zoila Richardson, I am a civil servant, working at the KPSM [St. Maarten Police Force – ed.] in the detective department. I have two beautiful children, a girl and a boy.
“Zuramaya Maria Alexandra Leonard Richardson was born on the beautiful island of St. Maarten and she is 24 years old. She was a twin, but after a week, her brother passed away. Zuramaya is my firstborn, always very special and dear to me. She learned to walk at a late age, if I remember well, close to her being two years old. Talking and doing things for herself were not going well either. At that time, the paediatrician told me that not all children’s development is the same. He indicated that Maya will get there in her own timing.
“At the age of five, when she had to start primary school, they decided that she couldn't go to primary school, but instead had to go to the Sister Basilia Center. That is when I decided in the year 2003 to go to the Netherlands with my family to find out what was going on with my daughter. Upon arrival, I walked my way to different specialists, where I was told that Maya had a “mental disability” and she would have to attend a special needs school for children with disabilities.
“It was not easy for me as her mother. I decided to stay as long as I could to do all the tests in the best interest of my loving daughter who meant the world to me. I returned to St. Maarten in 2005. After being on a waiting list, Maya got accepted at the Sister Basilia Center. She has been attending Sister Basilia Center since 2005.
“Maya worked at Sundial School part-time for a few months leading up to Hurricane Irma. After that, it was no longer possible. In early 2020, she was volunteering at the veterinary clinic in Cay Hill but due to COVID-19, this was stopped. Maya loves animals, dancing and singing, going out and having a good time.
“Coming to terms with having a child with special needs and being a single parent was not easy. However, I do receive support from her father. I had to manage with her and my younger son at that time. Moreover, they have two years age difference. But I can tell you, Zuramaya has been a blessing for me. That child knows when I am in pain, when I am sad. She reminds me of things when she realizes I forget. She brings joy to my life. She has been there with me, for me, in the good and bad times.
“The Netherlands is very good in their medical and educational field. When I was planning to leave, they told me I could leave her behind in a special home. However, I could not do that. Maya was and still is one of the most important persons in my life. Back home, I had the support of her grandmothers, especially her ‘Ina’ who took care of her when I could not be there for her. Her aunts and cousins also assisted and they still assist when needed. Sister Basilia Center’s doors where always open for her too. Her mentors always loved her, no matter what. That was helpful through the journey of raising Maya.
“What is my take on persons with special needs on the island? Back in the day, it was not easy for me or her brother – especially for me – because I wanted her indoors, since kids did not want to play with her; they didn’t accept her for who she was. Parents used to stare at her, so I used to cry a lot, because it hurt. My son did not want to go to school, or go anywhere with her because the kids used to tease him.
“Over the years, it has changed. I think schools talk more about kids with special needs now. They are more accepting in the community. Most persons on the island know Maya. When I am with her on the road, she will be hailing and you will be hearing persons calling her, ‘Maya!’ Then you will see this big, beautiful smile on her face.
“I would like to see more opportunities for persons with special needs – especially with regard to work and education. Places for them to attend outdoor recreational activities, etc., where safety isn’t an issue. I myself didn't give her much opportunity to grow and to be independent, because I kept her like my baby. I would consider myself to be protective of her and wanting to keep her safe at all times.
“I would advise persons raising a special needs child to always love and support their child and to try to understand them. To my family, ‘International Day of Persons with Disabilities’ means that a person with a disability has to be accepted in the outer world just like any other person. No matter what, that person did not have a choice to be born with a disability; but in their own way, they should be loved and accepted, and be able to live their own life.”