People with disabilities face significant challenges when it comes to securing post-secondary education, employment and good-paying jobs.
Paraplegic Tamara Gordon is on a mission to change that through a foundation she started to support high school graduates with disabilities.
The first set of scholarships, each worth $1,000, was presented last Saturday night at Malvern Christian Assembly Church.
“This foundation firmly believes that education is critical to changing the disparities that exist between those with disabilities and those without,” said foundation president and former York University administrator, Robert Tiffin.
Tiffin met Gordon nine years ago at York University where she completed her undergraduate degree in administrative studies, headed the student caucus for undergraduates with disabilities and served as the student undergraduate representative for Access.
“One of the things that struck me about Tammy was her very positive attitude, tenacity and commitment to overcome whatever obstacles she faces,” said Tiffin. “Over the years, I have watched her employ her talents and skills to succeed…She’s committed to supporting and giving back to the physical disability community. I was delighted to join the board and make her vision a reality.”
Twelve years ago, Gordon suffered a debilitating spinal cord injury while on a high school downhill skiing trip. The spinal cord and brachial injuries left her paralyzed from the waist down and without the use of her dominant left hand.
Despite the setback, the Markham resident – who aspired to win a basketball scholarship to attend an American university and pursue a law degree – graduated on time from Agincourt Collegiate Institute as an Ontario scholar with a 91 per cent average.
In spite of limited mobility, recurring health issues and other challenges associated with functioning as a student and a person with disabilities, Gordon was quite active on campus at York University where she was on the Dean’s List.
With her mother’s support, she delayed attending law school to start the foundation.
“This foundation is all about enabling and empowering students with physical abilities and encouraging and supporting those who are struggling to achieve their goals because they have physical disabilities,” she said.
This scholarship could not have come at a more opportune time for Wynnikka Matthews whose mother passed away last July.
“Since then, it has been hard financially because she was the only one working in my home,” said the teenager who graduated from Cedarbrae Collegiate Institute and is enrolled in Centennial College’s recreation & leisure service program. “I am so grateful for this award.”
Suffering from brachial plexus which has left her with a deformed and paralyzed right arm, Matthews faced challenges while growing up because of her disability.
“I was bullied in school and I didn’t see myself attending college,” she said. “It took caring family and friends, including Tammy who I met two years ago, to show me that my disability is not a hindrance and that I could do anything I want to.”
Other scholarship recipients were Sheridan College student Dean Wardak who is a quadriplegic after crashing his car into a fire hydrant and tree in April 2011; Ontario College of Art & Design student Melanie Wilkinson who has regained her ability to walk after being paralyzed by bacterial meningitis; Alex Balez who sustained a spinal cord injury resulting from brain surgery; Humber College hospital major Ahmad Matin who is still recovering after his skull was crushed by an elevator and first-year Humber College sports management student Gwyneth Hahn who was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus.
Gordon congratulated the winners for refusing to allow their disabilities to stand in the way of them becoming useful contributors to society.
“I am extremely proud of each of you for not giving up on account of your physical disabilities,” she told them. “You are all great students who have displayed such grit and deep resolve in being able to achieve so much. Thank you for allowing this foundation to be part of your journey as you aspire to greater heights.”
Gordon is the recipient of close to 60 scholarships, certificates and awards, including Harry Jerome and TD Canada Trust scholarships. In August 2006, she completed an internship at a TD bank close to her then Don Mills residence and was offered a full-time position.
She currently works with a branch near her Markham residence and is its diversity committee representative.