ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD schoolgirl Rachel Bhagwandeen was given a standing ovation while her weeping father Kelvin accepted the Hummingbird Medal (Bronze) on her behalf, on Sunday at the Republic Day national awards ceremony at President's House in St Ann's.
Rachel, who saved the life of her younger brother when she confronted an aggressive dog which attacked them on August 25, 2022, received the award posthumously in the sphere of gallantry. A sombre Major Nigel Parris – the aide-de-camp to President Christine Kangaloo – called Rachel's name as he announced her being awarded the Hummingbird Medal for gallantry.
As her father slowly got up from his seat and made his way to the stage where Kangaloo, her husband Kerwyn Garcia, the Prime Minister and Chief Justice Ivor Archie waited, an announcer read a tribute to her selfless and heroic act.
"Miss Rachel Bhagwandeen was 11 years old and lived in Freeport with her parents and her three siblings. Not everyone is built with a protective mechanism that puts the life of others before themselves. It is often a testament to the type of upbringing you have had and that inner resolve to be of service to others.
"When Rachel and her brother were confronted by a vicious animal, her first thought was to protect her brother and make the way clear for him to be safe while allowing herself to take the brunt of the vicious attack.
"Her brother survived and unfortunately, she did not. For an 11-year-old to be so selfless certainly showed that she possessed a spark of the divine, nurtured by her parents, and leading to a place which can only be remembered as wonderful, gracious and kind."
As he received his daughter's medal in a closed black box from Kangaloo, Rachel's father's grief was clear for all to see. Kangaloo spoke to him for a few seconds and she too, overcome with emotion, patted him on the shoulder as her husband then hugged Bhagwandeen.
Dr Rowley then embraced Bhagwandeen and rubbed his back. Like Kangaloo, Rowley spoke words of comfort to Bhagwandeen as the anguished father's tears fell freely. The Chief Justice shook Bhagwandeen's hand as he told him, "Be strong."
Even before Bhagwandeen could leave the stage, the audience, comprising fellow national award winners, including the three Order of the Republic (ORTT) recipients, government ministers and other guests, rose as one in a sustained round of applause in Rachel's memory.
Speaking with Newsday after the formal proceedings, Kelvin said the moment was bittersweet because while he and his family were grateful that Rachel was recognised, she was still not there to share in the moment.
"At the end of the day for us, it is difficult. Receiving an award is a good memory. Her name went down in history, but we have lost a big part of our family. A year has passed and we all still miss her. Every day it is a new challenge, moving on without her," Bhagwandeen said.
He said when he was embraced by Rowley, the Prime Minister's words of support and encouragement made him weep harder.
"He said to me, 'We all share your loss and heartbreak.' That in itself was very touching. Everyone who knows her story...it touched them in some way or another. It was a selfless act to protect her brother, but that is just the kind of person she is. Stepping in and protecting her brother was something that came naturally to her."
The awards ceremony began with MC Adrian Don Mora saying in keeping with Kangaloo's express wish to promote and advance the development of the youth, this year she was introducing the reading of the awardees' biographies by school students from across the nation.
Students from Shiva Boys' Hindu College, QRC, Bishop's High School, Tobago, Cowen Hamilton Secondary, ASJA Boys' College, San Fernando, Pt Fortin East Secondary, Holy Cross College, Arima, Pleasantville Secondary, Rio Claro West Secondary, Hillview College, El Dorado East Secondary, South East PoS Secondary, Miracle Ministries Pentecostal High, Couva East Secondary and Toco Secondary were selected to read the biographies.
Leading off the investiture were recipients of the ORTT.
The first ORTT announced was Prof Emeritus Clement Imbert in the spheres of innovation/steelpan technology, education and culture and the arts.
Next up was Prof John Agard in the spheres of environment/climate change and biodiversity protection. The last ORTT recipients was Prof Pathmanathan Umaharan in the spheres of science/agricultural development. All three are or were professors at UWI.
Four people received the country's second highest award, the Chaconia Medal (Gold); eight received the Chaconia Medal (Silver); nine received the Hummingbird Medal (Gold); nine received the Hummingbird Medal (Silver); Rachel Bhagwandeen was the sole recipient of the Hummingbird Medal (Bronze); five received the Public Service Medal of Merit (Gold) and two people received the Public Service Medal of Merit (Silver).
There was no Medal for the Development of Women award this year. In 2022, academic and Newsday columnist Dr Gabrielle Hosein and Gia Gaspard-Taylor received that award.
– Additional reporting by RYAN HAMILTON DAVIS