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An image of courage

...Shamla triumphs over physical challenges

By Sandhya Santoo sandhya.santoo@trinidadexpress.com

“I don’t want fame. I want to live.”

The words of Shamla Maharaj, who, although confined to a wheelchair, continues to inspire and touch the hearts of many with her life’s story.

Maharaj, the Express Youth Individual of Year 2010, said despite the recent death of her father Rajkumar Maharaj, she moves forward with faith and hope that life is still worthwhile. 

She now works at the National Agricultural Marketing and Development Company (Namdevco) in Debe, and, of her father, said: “Even though he’s gone and I miss him dearly, I want him to know wherever he is that I’ll always make him proud. He was the one and my mother who didn’t give up on me, they didn’t abandon me. He was the one who set the foundation for me.”

She said the passing of her father has moulded her to remain humble.

Maharaj’s mother Chandra Maharaj said she had been able to cope with the loss, as a result of her daughter’s courage. 

“I have found strength through her as I have given her mine. Like every mother, I am proud of my child and what she has done in

her life. She never gave up and it’s what I think is worth all the happiness a mother can have.”

Maharaj has accomplished much over the years, being a youth ambassador, a social motivator and academic achiever. She represented Trinidad and Tobago in October last year at the Eighth World Youth Forum at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris after being approached by Irina Bokova, director general, at a UNESCO conference at Hilton Trinidad. There she was giving a motivational speech at the Management of Social Transformation (MOST) conference with Latin America and Caribbean countries in Trinidad representing the youths of T&T, making her the ideal candidate to represent the country.

In the French capital, she gave an inspiring speech about her life and the struggles she endured. 

She said at the forum that her physical challenges, though largely misunderstood by the public, were not her limitations but served as a means to accomplish more within her life. 

Serving as an inspirational figure, she said: “ I find inspiration through normal people, they have challenged me to become more than the person you see here.”

When asked how this opportunity of representing her country made her feel, she laughed, saying: “At the moment I was called upon to speak I zoned out, I kept thinking ‘I hope I don’t forget to speak’. 

“It was only later that night did I feel this overwhelming sense of happiness that I have done something huge. I didn’t feel proud, I felt happy. 

Maharaj has also been a member of Team Hope since 2013, an adviser within a council for the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Child Development and a social motivator for the Ministry of the People and Social Development. She continually gives inspirational speeches for the Cerebral Palsy Society and Maritime Financial Group. She also won a makeover photo shoot competition in 2012 with Kinesis Studio.

However, her achievements do not end there, as she has attained her Bachelor of Science degree in Agribusiness Management at The University of the West Indies and is in her final year of her Master’s in Agribusiness and Marketing. 

Once completed, Maharaj said she will be the only one with her disability (cerebral palsy) to have completed a master’s degree. 

And if you thought she was done, you would be wrong. She also said she intends to do her Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in a related field. She is currently a Research Assistant I at Namdevco.

No one truly understands the emotional, psychological and physical pains someone with a disability has to endure unless you have experienced it yourself.

Maharaj said, “I’m paving the way for others.”

She adds that she is trying to break the stigma of society always being sympathetic.

“I always wanted to be independent and when people show sympathy to someone like me it’s restrictive as it doesn’t allow someone to show their full ability. But I’ve never let this stop me.”

Maharaj said she wants to be able to move on her own and not depend on others. She has been receiving free occupational therapy sessions at Renew Star in St Clair with Priya Gomes, an occupational therapist. This, she said, has helped her tremendously as she is now able to move from one chair to the next without aid. She said that she wants to take care of herself, especially when her family is not around. 

Despite all the titles she has rightly earned, she also has a thriving social life as she still makes time for friends and family. 

When asked what are her plans for the future, she said, “Hunger breaks my heart so I want to dedicate my time to poverty-stricken people. Coming from a farming community, I see the importance of food.”

 This has become a motivating factor for her as she wishes to pursue opening a business within the food production line, details she said she would not divulge as everything is in the planning stage. 

After thanking the Express for highlighting her life for all these years, she left the interview with these words for everyone. Maharaj said, “Don’t make the excuse about what you can’t do. I haven’t, so you shouldn’t either.”

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