Woman of the year isn’t a title Denise White will take for granted. The mother of two has worked tirelessly over the past six years to make her dream of empowering people with special needs through music and the arts a reality. With the phenomenal success of the group, Something Special, Denise has plugged a massive gap in provision locally for adults with learning difficulties and for her, the award she received in a special ceremony at Derry’s City Hotel last Friday, is as much about that fact as it is about her.
In 2007, Denise walked away from a senior lecturing post to pursue her dream. It was a vocation she’d had since spending time with her uncle Dessie, who had Down’s Syndrome. Dessie passed away in 2004 but Denise firmly believes that everything which has happened with Something Special goes back to the fond memories she has of time spent at the piano with her uncle.
“Dessie was so, so special and amazing and charming. He’d come into the house and we’d just head straight for the piano and the magic that happened when he sang was unforgettable. The emotion it brought out in him was unbelievable. I remember at one point we were playing ‘Danny Boy’ and the tears were just streaming down his face. I knew then that music had this power to really bring something out in adults with special needs Watching Dessie was incredible.”
Denise, originally from Hampstead Park, got her teaching qualification in St Mary’s Teacher Training college in Belfast and taught locally in Pennyburn and Lenamore primary schools, but all the while, she knew she wanted to specialise in special needs education.
Between 1993 and 2006 she volunteered and became leader of the Gateway Club, an evening, social and sports club for adults with a learning disability and during this time also took up a lecturing post at the North West Regional College.
All the while frustrated at what she saw as a lack of provision, Denise felt an intense need to do something about it.
“I remember chatting to my husband, Greg, about it all and he just turned to me and said, if you want to do it, go for it. I was in a job but I just knew I wanted to at least try and make a difference.”
No one would ever dream of asking Denise if she enjoys her job. A quiet room in Foyleview is suddenly filled with young people and the recently crowned ‘Woman of the Year’ can hardly be seen for hugs. This is what she does.
Denise tapped into something which she saw had the potential to make a real difference to the lives of the young people who needed it most.
“I could see that music worked some kind of magic with these young people and that it could really change things for them. When Something Special first started I could see that lives were being transformed. We had young people who had rarely engaged in conversation and had very little confidence in themselves, and all of a sudden these young people were able to sing and perform and that builds self esteem in so many other areas of their lives. I knew what I was trying to do worked, and it’s still working, but now we need to make it bigger,” she says.
Today, Something Special is an award winning regional educational charity that provides accredited courses in music and performing arts to over 80 students. The students have performed at events throughout Ireland and regularly showcase their music and talents to their local community.
But Denise isn’t done yet. She has bigger plans.
She wants to take the idea island wide, and is on the ISOS board, together with Foyleview Principal Michael Dobbins.
The plan she says, is to have an academy - based in Derry - where young adults with learning disabilities from right across Ireland.
“We think it would be an amazing legacy to have here after the City of Culture year,” says Denise.
“ISOS is the Greek word for equality and for us it’s all about inclusion. I have no doubt in my mind that the demand is there. The gaps in provision are huge, and when young people with special needs hit a certain age, there’s nothing out there for them. I’ve seen what music and the arts can do and it is so, so powerful. I have no doubt that an academy here would be fantastic.”
Awards and recognition aside, Denise went straight back to work at Foyleview on Monday, where she says staff and pupils have been “amazingly supportive” of her work. She says she’ll never forget having her work recognised in front of family and friends when she took home the overall ‘Woman of the Year’ award.
“It was so, so emotional. When they mentioned Dessie it was a really poignant moment but everyone was just crying and so caught up in the moment. I’ve hardly been able to sleep since. It’s been absolutely amazing.”
With 23 years voluntary service under her belt, Denise isn’t showing any signs of taking it easier.
“All this is much more than a job, it’s something I have to do,” she says.
She’s also Treasurer and Executive Director of the Liberty Consortium, an award winning, multi sectoral educational and community development charity.
Patsy Canning, whose son Robert is one of the young people Denise has worked, nominated her for woman of the year and said:
“Denise has been a lifeline to my son Robert and to many other young adults who left school last year and is now in Something Special. She is an inspiration. She never sees the disability in our young people, only their abilities, and she is fearless in campaigning to improve the lives of children and adults with learning disabilities.
She has made a massive difference to the lives of so many families in this area through her commitment and dedication and her uncle Dessie would be very, very proud of her.”
Denise, like many who give so much of their time for something they genuinely believe in, is driven by what’s been achieved so far, but concentrates most of her time and energy on looking down the road to help more and more young people with special needs realise their full potential.
“I know it’s in there, I’ve always known that, and I know that music and the performing arts is a powerful way to bring that confidence out. It’s about spreading that message to as big an audience as possible and involving more and more young people as we go, because they deserve it. Every one of them is amazing, something special, I suppose,” she smiles.
And anyone who meets Derry’s current woman of the year would agree that she’s something pretty special herself.