Angels on Anguilla (And how you can be one, too!)

Locals, expats, and visitors band together to give special needs children in Anguilla a place to blossom.

Coveted as a secret playground for the rich and famous, Anguilla hosts a handful of über exclusive resorts hugged by some of the most gorgeous beaches on the planet. It’s as close to a tropical paradise as you can get. But anyone who lives on, or has moved to a tropical island like this one, will tell you that a holiday there is very different than living there. The challenges can be daunting in daily life with a lack of services and conveniences we often take for granted in a modern metropolis. Especially for those with special needs.

Anguilla (Credit: Sue Campbell)

Anguilla (Credit: Sue Campbell)

I first became aware of the Arijah Foundation while attending a gala champagne reception for the annual Anguilla Literary Festival this year. Though there were many celebrity authors, big time publishers, and government dignitaries in attendance, I was star-struck when I sighted famous actress Annie Potts and her husband producer/director James Hayman. I asked organizer Trudy Nixon, creator/publisher of True Anguilla Magazine, about their connection to the festival. The intriguing story that ensued became my new favorite cause.

It starts with Renuka Harrigan—an expat from Ontario, Canada—who adored her new adopted island home and was eager to build a life there. But when her daughter Arijah was born with special needs, she soon realized that there was little in place to support those needs on Anguilla. So she took it upon herself to change all that.

Renuka Harrigan with Annie Potts (Credit: Arijah Children’s Foundation)

Renuka Harrigan with Annie Potts (Credit: Arijah Children’s Foundation)

Renuka sought out others with children in the same circumstances and then founded the Arijah Foundation (named after her daughter) in 2006 to give them a common organization to work from. The eventual goal was to create a learning and care center that would focus on the kind of education and development special needs children require to grow.

It was a gargantuan task, but by 2010 the dream was realized when The Blossom Centre opened its doors. Today, housed in a cheery schoolroom setting, they help over 70 special needs students in-house and in outreach programs at other schools and family homes with physical therapies, games, art, music, academic subjects and even field trips.

So where does Annie Potts come in?

Annie Potts and Kemarley Brooks on Anguilla (Credit: James Hayman)

Annie Potts and Kemarley Brooks on Anguilla (Credit: James Hayman)

Annie and her husband are longtime regular visitors, and one day on the beach a young boy with special needs named Kemarley asked Annie if he could borrow her blue swimming goggles, and that was the beginning of a very special friendship. Annie loved his unique view of the world—so different from ours—all wonder and innocence and unbridled joy at the simplest things of beauty. Afterward, Annie met Renuka and learned about The Blossom Centre. She then decided to share his unique spirit through writing a children’s book in his honor. The result: Kemarley of Anguilla.

Annie with her book (Credit: Arijah Children’s Foundation)

Annie with her book (Credit: Arijah Children’s Foundation)

I asked Annie if this was her first book. She said, “Before I was introduced to the theater and acting at 12, I always thought I’d grow up to be a children’s book illustrator as all I did was draw and draw and draw. How sweet to come back to it at 60! And it was meeting Kemarley that prompted me to do the book. I wanted to create something that might sell locally that would both raise awareness for special needs and funds for Arijah Foundation. And Renuka truly is an angel; I would do anything to help her.”

Renuka has many others to thank as well. She says, “I couldn’t possibly list all those who have stepped up to support us but I must mention a few like the Grubb Family and the Community Baptist Church in Greensboro N.C. that just built our playground, the Anguilla Tennis Academy that holds annual fundraisers, Marvet Britto of the Britto Agency that put us front and center at the Anguilla 2014 World Travel Awards, and local tour operators like Seaside Stables who host field trips, and restaurants like The Straw Hat who have hosted so many events … and of course Trudy Nixon, one of our biggest angels! She really gets the word out! But there’s still so much to be done.”

It takes a village (Credit: Arijah Children’s Foundation)

It takes a village (Credit: Arijah Children’s Foundation)

If you’re planning to visit Anguilla, the center always is in need of basics- everything from magic markers, paper towels, and diapers to furniture and equipment- and they also welcome you to volunteer your time. Or you can donate through their online portal at: http://arijahcf.org. And if you’ve never been to Anguilla, it should be on your bucket list, this island of angels really is heavenly. For more see: http://ivisitanguilla.com.

(This article first appeared as a guest blog on More Time to Travel website.)

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