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Story Highlights

  • Twenty-eight years ago, Antonica Gunter-Gayle embarked on a career in the special needs field, when she accepted a job as Child Development Officer with the Early Stimulation Programme (ESP).
  • A Child Development Officer at STIM-PLUS, Marcia Blake, tells JIS News that Mrs. Gunter-Gayle has won the hearts of teachers, parents and students alike...
  • Mrs. Gunter-Gayle says she envisions a Jamaica where children with special needs will be accepted and treated positively.

Twenty-eight years ago, Antonica Gunter-Gayle embarked on a career in the special needs field, when she accepted a job as Child Development Officer with the Early Stimulation Programme (ESP).

She began  teaching children with developmental disabilities and later moved on to being the Supervisor of the programme. Now, for the past 10 years, she has been at the helm as Director of the programme, which operates through the Ministry of Labour and Social Security.

Reflecting on her almost three decades in the field in an interview with JIS News, Mrs. Gunter-Gayle describes the journey as “awesome.”

“I love my job. Children with special needs cannot get too much love. These children are amazing, they are wonderful,” she says.

This sentiment was evident as she interacted with the children at the Stimulation Plus (STIM-PLUS) Child Development Centre in Kingston, ahead of the interview, who were all too eager to shower her with kisses and hugs.

It is this authentic sense of passion for the children supported through the ESP, which has also earned her lengthy praise and respect from the parents of the children, as well as the teachers and caregivers in the programme.

A Child Development Officer at STIM-PLUS, Marcia Blake, tells JIS News that Mrs. Gunter-Gayle has  won the hearts of teachers, parents and students alike, because of her genuine personality and her willingness to go the extra mile for the students.

“She does her work from her heart. She genuinely loves the children and loves the job that she is doing. There is not a time that she doesn’t try her hardest to do everything possible for the children here,” Ms. Blake says, adding that the Director regularly hosts workshops to keep the teachers and caregivers motivated and able to work with the children efficiently and effectively.

Despite obvious challenges working in the field, Mrs. Gunter-Gayle says the enjoyment of working with the children and observing the progress they make after being in the ESP, inspires her.

“The biggest achievement from working with children with special needs is to see the progress that the children have made over time. Some children come to the programme so severely delayed in their development, and after a period of intervention and working with these children, you see them come from almost nothing to be able to do something, to be able to reach their developmental milestone. It means a whole lot to me,” she tells JIS News.

The ESP, established in 1975, currently caters to some 1,512 children with a variation of developmental, intellectual and physical disabilities.

“To see some of the parents, who oftentimes come in feeling distraught and hopeless, get overwhelmed when they see their children doing so well and are now able to help themselves, that too means a lot to me,” the ESP Director says.

She notes that growing up, her parents encouraged her to do secretarial studies and get a job in an office, but she harboured a desire to do a job that would allow her to interact directly with people.

“I wanted to do a job where I could reach out to somebody. My philosophy is if I can help somebody as I travel along, then my living will not be in vain,” she says.

The ESP provided her the avenue to realise this passion, after studies in Early Childhood Education and Social Work at the University of the West Indies, and later Guidance and Counselling at the International University of the Caribbean.

She also holds a Masters Degree in Education from the University of Sheffield and has also acquired certification in programmes on working with children with intellectual impairment.

Mrs. Gunter-Gayle says she envisions a Jamaica where children with special needs will be accepted and treated positively.

“It will take all of the Jamaican society to understand the needs of persons with disabilities, the need to be loved and the need to be seen as Jamaica’s children. It will take private and public bodies coming together to really lend support to this sector. It’s all of us together, it’s no one person or one Ministry,” she argues.

She says there is potential in every child with special needs to contribute positively to society, but this can only be unearthed through the opportunities given to them.

“It’s a collaborative approach that we need to take as a country, because we want to serve persons with special needs in our country, we want to focus on their abilities rather than their disabilities,” she said.

The ESP has locations on Hanover Street and Ostend Close in Kingston. Ground was broken last month for the building of an additional $87 million multi-purpose facility at the Hanover Street location. There is also a child development centre and a community-based rehabilitation programme in Portland.

Mrs. Gunter-Gayle says her vision for the ESP is for it to be able to serve more children with special needs islandwide. Still, she expresses pride that the programme has expanded over the years to now reach children in a wide cross-section of communities.

She tells JIS News that  Jamaica has also come a long way, through the work of the ESP and through support from private sector entities and non-governmental organisations, in changing how children with special needs are treated in the community.

“We have come a long way as a people that persons now know that having a child with a disability is nothing to hide. The parents and families are now realising that the child needs exposure and should be a part of society,” she sasys.

She further notes that the ESP has been carrying out public education campaigns to encourage parents to expose their children to opportunities and have them integrated in society.

Meanwhile, the ESP Director calls on classroom teachers in a regular school setting to display understanding and patience when dealing with children who have learning or developmental disorders. She is encouraging teachers to enquire about training and workshops offered through the Ministry of Education’s Special Education Unit, to build capacity in this area.