Dawsher Charles's nickname is "The Resilient Warrior." She is just 22, but her life has not been easy. She openly wears her scars to show others that you are not bound by your circumstances.
Charles moved to Trinidad from Grenada at two. Her father wanted to start a new life, but her mother left for Cuba to study business, leaving her without a mother figure.
She would later learn that her mother had left her father after claims of domestic abuse. Charles had more questions than she got answers, but both her parents seemed to have wanted a fresh start.
Charles and her father settled at first in Laventille, where he was able to find an affordable place to live. He tried to make ends meet by selling a variety of food in Port of Spain, but was robbed several times. When she passed the SEA for San Juan South Secondary School, her father moved them – and his food stall – to San Juan.
But not all new beginnings are pleasant ones.
“I had to help my dad (with his businesses)," Charles told WMN. “Though he placed emphasis on my education, he made sure I understood that without food or money, I would not be able to go to school.”
Facing higher rents in San Juan meant it was all hands on deck. But for Charles, the ship was sinking. Working from as early as 5 pm and ending as late as 3 am, she helped her father sell Pennacool, chicken and chips, soup, and pudding.
By the time she got to Form 3, they had moved 11 times within San Juan. Most of the moves were due to her father’s inability to pay the rent and even when it was partially settled, amenities like water and electricity were disconnected.
“We lived hand to mouth, and that was really challenging.”
Worse, “For almost anything I got licks. My father would snap…pick up anything and beat me. I was physically and emotionally abused, because he told me a lot of mean things.”
And then there was pressure at school. Because of the situation at home and her responsibilities in her father's business, it became increasingly difficult to concentrate on schoolwork
“Because of things being hard in life, I used my situation as a means of thinking that I did not need to do good in school,” she admitted.
She found herself performing poorly and sometimes coming bottom of the class.
The turning point came when Charles began to understand that education could well provide an escape.
“There was a day (in form three) when I had a really important exam. I knew (the school) would be looking at my grades to see what subjects I would have done in forms four and five. I knew I had to do well in my exams. I knew I had to do better and not use my situation as an excuse to do poorly in exams.”
She also knew it would not be easy, but she was determined to turn her situation around. She still had to help her father, but she decided to take her books along and to study during downtime. She got support from customers and passers-by who would motivate her with their comments.
But her peers were less than sympathetic, unaware of her struggles. After they saw her selling food, they bullied her in school, calling her names like “pudding girl.”
“That time was really difficult for me and I had really low self-esteem," she told WMN. "I spoke to my friends, who tried their best to encourage me to see the best in my circumstances, given that I was making money."
She had to find self-love and strength in herself, not to be put down by those who knew no better.
“I started to look myself in the mirror and say that I am beautiful and worthy. I just had to believe those things about myself and take care of myself. I needed to do these things to feel good about myself.”
She did. And it was worth it. In 2014 Charles aced all her subjects in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams, and was among the top economics students in the region.
How did she do it?
“A big part of me doing well was being in complete communication with my teachers. In situations, like (mine), when you are disadvantaged, you must be in communication with your teachers for them to help you where they can.”
Charles went on to do sixth form studies at St George’s College, followed by a degree in economics at UWI, St Augustine, which she achieved in 2019.
But these accomplishments were not without obstacles. When she was in upper sixth form, her father died from complications of sickle-cell anaemia. His sudden death meant she missed months of study and lost her only financial support.
Despite her father’s flaws, Charles still recognised what he provided for her and wanted to give back to him when she completed her studies.
After his death, she got help from her family in TT and reconnected with her mother, who was back in Grenada, even visiting the island a few times.
Apart from family support, Charles worked in a fast-food restaurant and taught lessons to help see her through university, jobs she continued until earlier this year.
In 2017, while at UWI, Charles founded the Survival Scholars initiative to help students of all ages excel despite whatever personal circumstances they faced. She shared her experiences and successes with them, and spoke one-on-one with students to help them figure out what individual styles of learning worked best for them.
While she herself was balancing school and work, the initiative slowly expanded, but this year she decided to make it a full-time commitment. She’s working on a model to monetise it sustainably, but said she’s focused less on money and more on finding herself in helping others.
Explaining the reason behind Survival Scholars, she told WMN, “School is now a situation where it is the survival of the fittest. Those who can stand the pressures of school and life often survive school. I do not think many people consider students have their own lives at home to deal with.
“What I went through in my life has so much to do with what I am doing now. I had so much trauma. I know what it means to be labelled a 'troubled child' and why some students behave the way they do in school.
“It’s important for children to have proper coping mechanisms. To learn properly, we must understand it’s not as simple as students not knowing the work but understanding their learning styles and what works best for them.”
Alongside studying economics, in UWI, Charles did over 20 online short courses with numerous institutions on topics like crisis management, mental health and trauma.
With the knowledge she gained through these courses Charles has hosted workshops under the banner of Survival Scholars with groups of young people in schools, police youth clubs, community centres and libraries. The topics have included social and emotional learning, youth development coaching, educational development programmes and stress relief events.
Before the covid19 pandemic, workshops were at physical locations, but during the lockdown period she continued her outreach work on virtual platforms.
Right now Charles wants parents and students to understand the unique times the pandemic has created and encourages everyone to simply do their best in the upcoming CXC and SEA exams.
What is her goal for the initiative?
“I would love Survival Scholars to grow to a point where I can have my own physical location to have workshops and other activities.”
Above all, she wants students and educators to recognise the importance of mental health in learning.
She is now doing an online course in crisis management and trauma with the American School of Counsellors and wants to become a specialist. She also wants to expand her advocacy efforts to ensure teachers are properly trained in trauma-informed care and different learning techniques, especially for children those who are at risk and labelled “troubled.”
Anyone interested in assisting Charles can learn more about her work on Facebook at Survival Scholars or contact her at 369-7522.