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Ryerson alumna Alishia Liolli, 27, died last Thursday after her rooftop collapsed, as Hurricane Dorian charged through the Bahamas.
“Alishia was the happiest person… she knew how to carry people along and bring people together. She was so generous. She was always giving hugs,” said her longtime friend Peter Haastrup.
In Liolli’s third year of her social work program at Ryerson University, she travelled to Abaco Islands in the Bahamas to complete a placement for a course called “The Bahamas Project”, led by sociology professor Jean Golden.
Living with other Ryerson students in the Abaco Islands, Liolli taught students with disabilities at a school called Every Child Counts (ECC). She led craft workshop classes, and she spearheaded the yearbook group and student council, and organized a Special Olympics team for the school.
“She blended in well with everybody,” said Teresa Yeh, Liolli’s roommate in the Bahamas. “It didn’t matter what type of person it was, or whether people had different personalities, she got along with everybody.”
During her placement, Liolli got to learn what it’s like having a disability in a developing country.
“She was really interested in understanding the background of students and teachers which she was interacting with,” said Golden. “She made a real effort to try and understand the socio-economic and political culture of the society.”
When her placement was over two months later, Liolli found herself invested in the students at ECC, the community and Bahamian culture.
According to Golden, Liolli felt drawn back to the Bahamas, where there is a “lack” of schools and services for students with disabilities. Liolli set out a plan to come back to Canada, finish her studies, pay off her student loans, and return to the Bahamas to work full time at ECC.
“We all thought it was an interesting logic, it was truly inspiring,” said Haastrup, who also completed the placement with her. “At first, we thought she wasn’t going to go through with it, until she graduated, and then boom – she was back there in 2014. That blew my mind.”
For the next four years, Liolli began building her life in the Bahamas, working as a special education teacher and starting a family there, as well. Liolli’s death left behind her partner, three step-children and a 17-month-old son.
“My heart completely broke. I haven’t cried until now,” said Yeh. “I’m not crying just at the fact that she passed away, I’m crying for her as a mom. I can’t imagine as a young mom having to pass away and leave my children behind, that’s what hit me the most.”
Liolli’s death also impacted her Ryerson community members back in Canada, including the group of liberal art students that participated in “The Bahamas Project” last May.
Fourth-year students Cassandra LaFay and Nicole Meffe witnessed Liolli’s contributions and described her as “an integral part of the ECC community.”
“She always had an ECC student on her arm,” said LaFay. “She really loved the students.”
When LaFay and Meffe learned about the news of her death, their mutual reaction was shock.
“I sat there in silence and didn’t say a word… how do you accept something like that?” said Meffe. “I’ve noticed that [even those] from previous years, anyone who attended that course, [has been] affected.”
“People can easily brush it off hearing it on the news” said LaFay. “I think that having it be a graduate student from Ryerson hits closer to home for people that didn’t have a personal connection to her.”
Both LaFay and Meffe plan to run a fundraiser for hurricane relief in the Abaco community and to return to the Bahamas to help restore ECC, in Liolli’s honour.
A GoFundMe page raising money to bring Liolli’s body back to Canada has surpassed its goal so far. The remaining money will go towards resources for rebuilding the school and the Abaco community.