NASSAU, BAHAMAS – When tenth grader Keshawn Gardiner strutted across the stage to celebrate achieving Bronze in the Governor General’s Youth Award (GGYA) it was a defining moment for the autistic teen who had never participated in a mainstream youth programme alongside his peers without disabilities.
With adolescent programmes seldom addressing the issue of youths with disabilities, much less including them in activities, for Keshawn, GGYA opened up a world of opportunities allowing him to develop a candle-making skill, get fit with aerobics, as well as cultivate a sense of volunteering and adventure in the wider community.
“I didn’t like the hiking or the camping part. I wanted to stop,” said the outspoken Hope Academy student who completed GGYA as a participant in the C.V. Hart Enhancement Institute.
“I like this part,” said Keshawn, pointing to his certificate and perhaps, referencing the photos and the fuss celebrating his achievement and that of 71 other university and high school students presented with their Bronze, Silver or Gold Award on Thursday, May 30, during a 90-minute ceremony and reception held at SuperClubs Breezes.
It was a fitting end to a six-month journey, which for Keshawn and other Bronze Award honorees featured two, 15-mile hiking expeditions, each spanning two days and one night of camping outdoors.
The experienced marked the first time the 18-year-old was away from the watchful eyes of his parents, Marcus and Christine.
“This was special for Keshawn. He fully enjoyed it. As his parents we were more concerned than he was, since it was the first time our baby was away from us,” shared Mr Gardiner.
That’s not to say his son didn’t require a little coaching and huge amounts of convincing to stay with the voluntary and non-competitive programme which prides itself on challenging young people to dream big, celebrate their achievements and make a difference in their world.
“There were times he wanted to drop out, but we spoke to him and his unit leader spoke to him and we got him to follow through. He got to mingle with kids from different schools and was able to forge new friendships so that was another positive,” Mr Gardiner noted.
“Keshawn was independent before he left. He came back even more so. This is the first programme he has been involved in. It taught him structure, values and survival skills. It lets us know that with his condition, if he has to leave home for any length of time, he has some skillset he can use. The weight of the worry for us wouldn’t be as great. The only challenge now is to keep him motivated to go through the other stages, Silver and Gold.”
Keshawn’s response, “Definitely not.”
In contrast, tenth grader Canaan Cooper is adamant, he is headed for Silver, then Gold. It’s a goal which will take a minimum 18-month commitment to achieve.
“I pooled some of my friends together to form a group of seven. I would encourage persons considering the programme to round-up five to seven friends and get them involved, that way you won’t feel the walking,” the Aquinas College student advised.
Under the leadership of GGYA advisor Brian Tappin, Aquinas snagged 34 of the 72 Awards presented to the gathering of young people collectively representing six public and private schools and The University of The Bahamas.
“I want to encourage you to tell others about the programme. It is your witness which will carry it to even greater heights,” said Archdeacon James Palacious, chairman of GGYA’s Management Council in his brief remarks.
“Always give more than is expected. In the workplace, give more than you are paid for. At some point you will be recognized for it, even if you are not recognized in material things, there is a gratification. There is a satisfaction in knowing that you have given of your best. Someone put it this way, don’t aspire to be the best because when you are the best you are just number one. Aspire to be unique, when you are unique, you are the only one.”
With its non-formal education framework, GGYA – an affiliate of the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award – challenges young people to discover their potential and find their purpose, passion and place in the world, regardless of their background or abilities.
The aim is to equip participants for life and work.
“It’s an experience that changed me for the better,” said Emily Thain, a twelfth grader at Lyford Cay International School.
“I realized how far I could push myself, both physically and mentally. There were times at all three award levels when I wanted to quit. I managed to break through the wall I built up in my head and succeed through all three.”
It was equally enriching for Durran Thompson, a twelfth grader at C.V. Bethel High School.
“It was a great experience,” said the Gold Award recipient. “It molded me into the person I am today which is a more confident version of myself.”