Alishia Liolli discovered a passion for working with special needs students during a Rye course placement in the Bahamas
Fourth-year social work students Alishia Liolli and Michelle English were sitting together contemplating where they wanted to be after graduation. They had recently returned from a school placement in the Bahamas, where they volunteered at Every Child Counts (ECC), a school for students with special needs.
On that day five years ago, Liolli told English that she visited a psychic who said in the next few years Liolli wouldn’t be staying in Toronto, but would go abroad for work.
“She said it felt like conviction and realized that this is what she really wanted,” English said. “I think from this point she wanted to go back to the Bahamas.”
Liolli set out a plan: she was going to graduate, pay off her student loans, return to the Bahamas to live, and work full time at ECC. Following graduation, English would watch her do just that.
“I thought, ‘you’re crazy.’ I’ll be honest, I thought, ‘really you’re going to do this?’” English said. “Sure it was crazy but she did it. The writings were definitely on the wall.”
Despite the island’s treacherous hurricane season, Liolli went on to live in the Abaco Islands of the Bahamas in 2016, where she started a family and worked as a teacher at ECC. There she developed learning programs for older students. This was before Hurricane Dorian hit the community in early September.
Liolli was one of at least 56 people who died during the storm.
“Not a lot of people are willing to uproot their whole lives just because they have a passion,” her brother, Gianni Liolli said. According to him, Liolli would often say, “In Canada, there’s a thousand people that could do my job, but in the Bahamas they don’t have anybody.”
ECC and Ryerson
The principal of ECC, Lyn Major, created the school after she couldn’t find adequate education in the Bahamas for both of her sons who have autism. Sociology professor Jean Golden, who led Liolli’s placement, said she personally went back because of the lack of education for youth with disabilities.
“ECC is the only place of its kind in the Bahamas that’s helping students with special needs,” Golden said. “There is no general school or integration for students with special needs into the public school system.”
When Golden was first introduced to ECC in 1998, she immediately saw where Ryerson students could help fill the educational gap.
In 2011, Golden founded SOC 803: The Bahamas Project. In this course, Ryerson students travelled to the Bahamas and volunteered at ECC. Using skills learned in their programs, students would help further disability education at the school and in the Abaco community.
Just two years later, in 2013, Liolli participated in The Bahamas Project and found her life’s passion through her studies. She spent most of her time working with the older students and helping with tasks around the classroom.
“She was really interested in understanding the background of her students and teachers which she was interacting with,” Golden said. “She made a real effort to try and understand the socio-economic and political culture of the (Bahamian) society.”
English said she remembers Liolli having a natural and instantaneous connection with the students. “Seeing how fluid her interactions were, it was like they were her brothers and sisters, and they just seem to really jell with her so well,” she said.
While Liolli was volunteering, Major was working to build a home extension for older students to learn how to live independently, once they completed their education: “Alishia and I shared a dream, from the day she came to ECC as a Ryerson University intern,” Major said. “The dream was to see a place for our most challenged students become a reality.”
When Liolli returned to ECC after graduating, she spearheaded two major projects to support this dream. She created StarFish Enterprises, a program that employed adult students to make soaps, jewelry and tools to sell in the community. Liolli also developed a living centre on the school’s premises for mature students to live comfortably and learn life skills, like managing a household and budgeting.
“There were hours that she spent trying to develop the program because in the Bahamas there is no second plan for persons with a disability who can’t function independently. To include them into society, that was an important factor for her,” said Nicole DeNardin, Liolli’s colleague. “What she had built was finishing right before the storm hit. She had seen it through to the finish.”
In September, Hurricane Dorian violently ripped through the Abaco community in the Bahamas. Liolli died in the storm after the roof of her home collapsed.
A memorial in her honour was held a month later at Ryerson University. Liolli’s partner, Cialian Dany, was in attendance with their 17-month-old son Evans, who also survived the hurricane.
After the memorial, Dany spoke about Liolli and her work in the Bahamas.
“Whenever one of the (ECC) kids would pass by, you would see her face just glow. Those kids were like her own. I always tell people, ‘Yes, Alishia was in love with me, but I was just her sweetheart she’d come home to. The Bahamas and the ECC, that was her husband, that place took her heart away,’” Dany said.
The destruction from Hurricane Dorian left ECC and the surrounding community in shambles, according to ECC volunteer and Bahamian resident Mary Gottlieb.
“There is no functioning school at the moment. It’s not even possible to rebuild yet with a million tonnes of debris on the island,” Gottlieb said.
The opportunity to rebuild will happen in the next two years, Golden said. In the meantime, Ryerson, ECC and other students who have participated in The Bahamas Project are running fundraisers to help with the recovery.
“We do not comprehend why this devastation struck Abaco and our school community. We do not comprehend why Alishia was taken from us,” Major said. “But, we do know that if it is in our power, Alishia’s dream will never be destroyed. I cannot bring Alishia back but I can promise her I will work tirelessly to see her dream come to fruition from the rubble.”
The compassion and dedication Liolli found inspired others to chase their own life callings. Although her brother, Gianni, initially went to school for broadcast journalism, he eventually switched careers because he said he witnessed the power in the work she was doing. Now, he teaches special education in the Windsor school board.
“I found my path in life because of my younger sister. She was always better than me with students with disabilities. I was like the President’s Choice cola and she was the Coca-Cola,” he said.
English’s career was also partially inspired by Liolli. While on their placement, Liolli brought English to students she was working with who needed some counselling. Initially, English wasn’t interested in working with youth, but that changed after she witnessed the connection Liolli had with the older students.
“They just loved her, they knew her so well, she was just able to support them in ways that I was like, ‘Wow, I want be able to have these kinds of connections as well,’” English said.
English went on to be a family co-ordinator working with youth in the Jane and Finch area. “Having that exposure with her helped me to feel stronger in giving this a try,” English said. “It helped to push my first career offer.”
“She doesn’t know this but I was super grateful to her for that.”