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When Renuka Senaratne was in Grade 10, a man named Rick Hansen was just beginning his Man in Motion World Tour.
Her teacher asked if anyone wanted to help do some fundraising, and teenaged Renuka got on board.
"We didn't know who he was or what he would become," she says, recalling that a year later, she and some classmates got to go to BC Place to witness Hansen's tour finish. "It was so exciting and so amazing to learn about the obstacles he had overcome."
Several years later, Senaratne was attending UBC when she faced her own health crisis and found herself in need of a wheelchair and learning about disability, access and inclusion struggles. Uncertain how permanent her incapacity might be, she was understandably shook. The Disability Resource Centre where she would go for support happened to share an office with the Rick Hansen Foundation at the time.
"At one point, Rick Hansen was in the office and I had a chance to meet with him and talk to him," she remembers. "It gave me that extra boost of encouragement I needed."
Fast forward many years. Teaching degree in-hand, Senaratne was working at Janice Churchill Elementary when Hansen began his 25th-anniversary Man in Motion tour. She was one of thousands of medal bearers chosen to re-create his original cross-Canada trek, and completed a portion of the journey on 152 Street in Surrey – and again, met Hansen.
Her life repeatedly had the pair crossing paths, so when she received word recently that she won an award from the Rick Hansen Foundation, it seemed things had come full circle from that day in Grade 10 when she first heard his name and learned about his inspiring message.
Senaratne has been chosen a 2019 Educator Difference Maker of the Year, for her many inclusive initiatives, such as improving school accessibility, inviting Rick Hansen Foundation Ambassadors to her school, speaking openly about her own disability and abilities with her students, raising awareness about inclusive opportunities and sharing information about adaptive sports.
"It was pretty exciting," she said about receiving this recognition, her certificate and a personal letter from Rick Hansen, "especially because he's somebody I admire, as well."
Senaratne, who now teaches at Hillcrest Elementary, was nominated by principal Daljeet Rama at Janice Churchill Elementary, where Senaratne taught for 18 years.
"From the first day I met her, using her crutches and wheelchair, she was able to demonstrate her strength of character and express her ideas to make our school a better place," said Rama in her nomination. "By expressing her opinions and bringing her perspectives, she assisted with changes around our school that will help the lives of other students in wheelchairs for years to come."
Rama noted that the front parking lot has a paved surface instead of loose rock, thanks to Senaratne's advocacy, and the hallways are more accessible, so there's room for two wheelchairs to pass one another.
In addition to her work to improve physical inclusivity at the school, Senaratne promoted inclusion of students in wheelchairs and helped to educate staff and students and arrange speakers and presentations. She also prepared materials surrounding the Paralympics and brought a gold medalist to the school twice. She bridged a valuable connection with the Rick Hansen Foundation that continues at Janice Churchill Elementary, Rama said.
"Renuka Senaratne brought meaningful experiences to our school and others' lives on a daily basis," she added. "She teaches and shows on a daily basis how to turn impossible to possible."
Senaratne says her motivation comes partly from her own experiences and also from what she observes. Striving for and demonstrating accessibility and inclusion for all, she says, benefits everyone.
"When we focus on our abilities and share stories of struggles or success with students they learn that all of us can set goals, work toward those goals and achieve them," she says. "It has also helped encourage empathy in the classroom."