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The founder and director of the New Horizon Special School (NHSS) in Cantonments, Accra, Mrs Salome François, turned 90 on Friday and a thanksgiving durbar was held in her honour at the school. The First Lady, Rebecca Akufo-Addo, graced the ceremony and was guest speaker at the event.

The founder and director of the New Horizon Special School (NHSS) in Cantonments, Accra, Mrs Salome François, turned 90 on Friday and a thanksgiving durbar was held in her honour at the school. The First Lady, Rebecca Akufo-Addo, graced the ceremony and was guest speaker at the event.

Other important guests present included Iain Walker, British High Commissioner, Tom Hartley, Deputy High Commissioner, Joyce Aryee, Esther Obetsebi-Lamptey, Barbara Amesika Baeta, chief executive of Flair Catering, Justice Helena Abban, Gloria Ghartey, Edward Akufo-Addo and Helene Svane, wife of the Norwegian ambassador to Ghana.

Students welcomed the guests with waves and traditional choreography to entertain the guests until the programme began.

Mrs François’s grand entrance was heralded by students dancing adowa as they led her to her seat.

Inspiration to mothers

The First Lady spoke highly of Mrs François, recounting how she launched the school 47 years ago. She described the impact the venerable lady has made since the beginning.

“Scores of children’s lives have been changed,” Mrs Akufo-Addo said. “Families have been healed; society has been given a new awareness of special needs children and their education and training needs.

“Inspired by Mrs François, other mothers have also begun to fight for their special children.

“There is more to say about this incredible woman we are celebrating today. She has helped pass a bill for the disabled. She has also founded PACID – a parents’ advocacy group for these voiceless children.

“Additionally, Mrs François has started a sheltered workshop to help employ young adults with special needs and travelled the world to speak to interested groups and governments about her special children.”

They shall overcome

The First Lady said that she would not focus on the supposed misfortunes of the special children but rather tell those present that there is hope in spite of adversity in each child, in all situations.

She recalled how Mrs François’s story had encouraged her to research and examine some of the factors that help us overcome adversity. One thing the children and their parents need to do is believe in themselves, always trust that they have the ability to take back control of their lives when everything feels like it is falling apart, Mrs Akufo-Addo said.

They must also acknowledge the challenges they face, but know they have power within them to overcome anything that stands in their way.

Mrs Akufo-Addo also said society must stop making negative comments. “Words are powerful: words can create and words can destroy,” she said. “When adversity strikes, do not give in to negative self-talk. Instead, talk yourself out of negativity and affirm that which is positive.

“Speak words that are empowering to you and your situation.”

Eyes still on the prize

Recalling the biblical story of Joseph, who rose from being a prisoner to become prime minister, the First Lady said that after every setback in life, something great follows. Joseph’s story should inspire everyone, she said.

“Above all we must have faith. Faith overcomes mountains. You can either live in faith or fear. However, faith and fear cannot coexist.”

She ended by saying: “Mrs François has exemplified all of these characteristics. She found hope in spite of her adversity. She looked for helpers and found them and she is still fighting.

“Mrs François has run her race and fought for her prize. Her legacy is evident for all to see. She has put her shoulder to the plough and has never turned back …

“Mrs François, congratulations on this special day. At the age of 90, more than half of your life has been dedicated to this worthy cause. You are a very special woman. A woman of substance.”

Lifetime of achievement

Mrs François’s life history was read by master of ceremonies Chester Anie and told her story in detail.
She was the first Gold-Coast-born female radiographer in the country. She is also the founder and president of the Parents’ Association of Children with Intellectual Disability (PACID) in Ghana.

Mrs François was an executive board member of SOS-Ghana, a portrait photographer, a member of the committee that drafted Ghana’s policy on disability, an executive member of Zonta International, national treasurer of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and an executive member of both the Special Olympics Board and the National Council for Persons With Disability.

Mr Anie listed the awards she has received both locally and internationally, from the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Mothers’ Leadership Award in August 2004 to the Order of the Volta in 2008, for distinguishing herself in the education of mentally challenged children in Ghana.

Student performances

The Salome François and New Horizon Special School story were both performed by the students telling her story and the history of the school.

The performance told of how Mrs François decided to help her own daughter Helen, who, due to a medical error, suffers from encephalitis – inflammation of the outer covering of the brain. It was this that prompted her to start a special needs school with children of her friends who were also living with disabilities and in need of special care and attention.

Though she approached some of these friends with disabled children and told them she intended to start a school, they turned her away.

But thanks to her best friend and some American friends who assisted financially, the school was set up in her home with three children, including Helen.

To the future

The students of the school today gave a catwalk show sponsored by GTP textiles.

Presentations were made to the Helen François Education Foundation (HFF), a trust set up to provide children with special needs scholarships to help further their education.

The management of the nearby Morning Star School, who were also present for the occasion, ecounted how close both schools had become as a result of the friendship between Mrs François and Esme Siriboe, Morning Star’s founder headmistress. They made a generous donation to the HFF.

Parents of NHSS students, represented by Justice Helena Abban, as well as Mrs François’s nieces and nephews, also made presentations to the foundation.