By RON FANFAIR
Though down for the count on a few occasions, Tracy Bell has always summoned the strength to rise from the canvas and fight on.
Nearly 15 years ago, the Malvern resident was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, which is an autoimmune disease that affects the skin, joints, kidneys, brain and other organs.
While hospitalized for six weeks in 2003, Bell suffered brain injuries and lost the ability to talk and walk.
“Those were very challenging times, but I hung in there and refused to give up,” said the aspiring teacher who spent a few weeks undergoing rehabilitation at Bridgeport Active Healthcare after her release from hospital.
Her positive attitude paid dividends.
Bell, whose parents migrated from Jamaica, graduated from Seneca College with an early childhood education certificate and York University with honours while majoring in psychology. She’s enrolled in York University’s consecutive teacher education program for the primary/junior division.
“I still have challenges with the disease,” said Bell who was among 13 recipients of scholarships offered by the Tamara Gordon Foundation (TGF). “I have good days and bad days, but I don’t allow those rough days to derail me from my goal of becoming a teacher.”
Not only was Bell excited to win a scholarship, but she was elated that her grandmother – Huldah Thorney who celebrated her 100th birthday last May 15 – was able to attend the third annual awards ceremony.
Scholarships were also presented to Alireza Tehrani-Moein who is a paraplegic enrolled in Laurentian University’s Bachelor of Commerce program, University of Guelph Master’s leadership program first-year student, Amani Hitimana who is hearing impaired; doctoral candidate, Andrew Molas who is interested in the role of empathy and inter-subjectivity in mental health care; colorectal cancer survivor, Danielle Taylor; third-year University of Toronto mental health studies & health policy student, Emily Chan who was born with a rare neuromuscular condition; Fraser Jansen who suffered a spinal cord injury and is enrolled in Laurentian University’s mechanical engineering program and Ontario College of Art & Design University student, Melanie Wilkinson who was paralyzed for a few years after contracting bacterial meningitis.
Other recipients were Queen’s University doctoral candidate, Rebecca Wallace who is an advocate for persons living with disabilities; quadriplegic, Shanjay Kailyanathan who is pursuing automotive engineering studies at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology; aspiring human rights lawyer, Sherry Dai who suffered permanent spinal cord injury in an accident while in Grade 11; activist/author, Laura Pavey and Sheridan College student, Tishana Collins.
Gordon launched her foundation at Queen’s Park in February 2014 in the presence of the province’s then lieutenant governor David Onley who was at the awards event.
“I was only able to go through university because of financial assistance which, at the time, came from the provincial government,” Onley said. “Because of that, I was able to complete my education at the University of Toronto and do a year of graduate work before pursuing a television career and eventually becoming lieutenant governor. I have often thought back to that time realizing how crucial and important it was to have that kind of support because, as a person with a disability, it was almost impossible for me to get a summer job just to offset some of the education costs.
“We also know that unemployment for people in general with disabilities is very difficult and that one of the most important determinants of business and career success for persons with disabilities is the capacity to either graduate from college or university. It is that post-secondary experience that makes all the difference.”
Tracy MacCharles, the province’s first Minister responsible for accessibility, thanked the TGF for providing financial support to students with physical disabilities.
“Like you, we want to empower people with disabilities so they can reach their full economic and social potential,” she said. “You understand that post-secondary training can help young people with disabilities to secure meaningful employment.”
In the winter of 1992, 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 completed her undergraduate degree in Administrative Studies and was on the Dean’s List. She headed the student caucus for undergraduates with disabilities and served as the student undergraduate representative for Access York.
In the last three years, the TGF has awarded 29 scholarships worth $51,750.
New member of provincial parliament, Raymond Cho; provincial minister, Michael Coteau and Justice Donald McLeod attended the awards ceremony.