Obituary: aided many with special needs

Helen Brathwaite in the new special-needs rooms at Kaikorai College named after her, with pupils...
Helen Brathwaite in the new special-needs rooms at Kaikorai College named after her, with pupils Caleb Alexander, 16, Michael Williams, 18, and Tony Bryant, 14, enjoying their new surroundings. PHOTO: JANE DAWBER
Special needs educator


Hundreds of special needs school pupils and adult students will remember fondly the efforts of Helen Brathwaite to improve their lives and develop them as citizens to survive and contribute to society.

Helen Brathwaite, the daughter of Alec and Mabel Campbell, was educated at Waitaki Girls’ High and Otago Girls’ High School. She married Michael Brathwaite and was living in Oamaru with her young family when she discovered her calling.

Once daughters Andrea and Robyn started school she offered to volunteer for a Health Department programme developed for intellectually handicapped adults.

Despite being untrained (a qualified nurse was preferred), she got the position, and so started a 42-year-long career.

Five years later the family moved back to Dunedin, and Helen joined the staff at Sara Cohen School as a special-needs teacher in the junior school. Although she didn’t have formal training the Education Department Inspectorate assessed her as having the skills and experience needed to be a primary school teacher.

Having originally been accepted for Teacher Training College on leaving school — marriage and children had intervened — she decided to set about obtaining a formal teaching qualification by correspondence and block teaching courses.

Although Helen had a busy life with her husband, two by now teenage daughters and their social activities, and a full-time job at Sara Cohen, Helen was determined to qualify.

After graduation Helen moved to Kenmure Intermediate, and when that school amalgamated with Kaikorai Valley High School, she went with it to manage, and later take up the position of director of the special-needs unit.

Initially it was not easy: her "office" was a cupboard, and for private phone conversations she had to go outside and use the phone through a window.

Special-needs pupils come from many walks of life. They are children assessed as not likely to thrive in a normal classroom where large numbers of pupils to a teacher makes one-to-one support impossible.

These children need far more individualised educational programmes focused on providing them with the skills and attributes needed for independent living.

For a class of up to 20 pupils Helen managed with a small staff.

The age limit for pupils was 21, so some lads towered over the diminutive Mrs Brathwaite. One hulking young man was asked after he had left school "Were you ever afraid of anybody at school?" he replied, "Naa, only the principal, and Mrs Brathwaite."

Helen had to deal with many challenging situations and behaviours during her long career in special needs, and she was amazingly skilled at diffusing even the most difficult of these with patience, kindness and a calm approach.

Helen’s method was threefold: treat every pupil as a special individual; find at least one good aspect in each pupil that can be built on; and endeavour to prepare each pupil for life in New Zealand society.

Helen attended many lectures and kept up to date with innovative approaches to educating her pupils.

Helen Brathwaite after her investiture as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. PHOTO:...
Helen Brathwaite after her investiture as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Not all could be taught in the classroom, so Helen was prepared to go wherever she thought value to her pupils could be found.

Not afraid to innovate, they explored Dunedin’s wonderful coastal environment, including Waikouaiti and Karitane, the peninsula, Tunnel Beach, Brighton, and all the fascinating coast and country inland. They tramped in the Silver Peaks, Whare Flat and climbed Mt Cargill and other minor peaks.

Helen was a foundation member of the Special Olympics committee in Dunedin. She always encouraging pupils to become involved in sports, and was keen to have local sports icons visit.

At one stage the classroom made a banner which they displayed at a rugby game for Brendon Laney’s last rugby match in Dunedin, replete with a chainsaw. They won the competition for the best banner.

Laney and Kees Meeuws followed up with a visit to the classroom, much to the delight of the pupils.

Specialists in the arts, music, Māori culture, theatre and dance were also brought in and made part of the special-needs programme.

The art programme that was initiated and developed with Rob Pigott resulted in an exhibition of the pupils’ artwork at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. The pupils involved, along with Helen and Rob, flew to Wellington to visit the exhibition.

Probably the most popular trip was the semi-annual adventure to the Central Otago skifields. A party of perhaps a dozen pupils, most of whom had never seen snow before, plus key staff, volunteers and some parents, would stay on a self-contained basis at a hostel and go skiing. The Cardrona skifield was considered suitable, not too difficult, but downhill skiing proved too risky. On the first visit one intrepid pupil escaped his minder, got on to the ski lift and rode to the top. Never having skied before, he spent most of the afternoon sliding down the mountain on his bottom.

Helen decided to move across the valley to the Snow Farm, and try the simpler Nordic or cross-country skiing. It worked well. The staff could easily keep track of several pupils at a time, and they had plenty of exercise in the clear, cold mountain air.

There are a variety of trails, of differing difficulty, so they could progress, and some became quite skilled. The last night of the trip they went to a restaurant for a celebratory dinner, great fun and hilarity.

On one occasion the school principal decided to visit and inspect this special programme Helen had initiated. He decided to try Nordic skiing himself, so gear was hired and off he went.

He was confused by the colour-coded trail system and finished up doing the black trail, set up for the top skiers to train on.

Come the late afternoon and the closing of the skifield and it was realised the principal had not yet returned. A search party was ready to leave when he was spotted, exhaustedly making his way back to base. Due back in Dunedin early next day, he was dissuaded from leaving until he had had a few hours sleep.

As a consequence, Helen was awarded the Red Mug award, a whimsical award for the most humorous, ridiculous and entertaining event by a staff member, judged by their peers.

Helen, who edited the school magazine, participated in everything.

Prior to the annual school formal Helen would invite the pupils from her class who were attending to a formal family dinner, at her home, to ensure they had the experience of all the aspects of attending a school formal.

Helen also introduced a work placement programme for the special-needs pupils close to finishing school and some pupils were able to continue working for these employers after they had left school. A few were able to attend university classes and pass some units.

For many many special-needs pupils, Helen was their champion, always ready to help resolve their problems. She had endless patience, empathy, compassion, humour and a love of mankind.

For several years Helen had advocated the construction of an entire building solely for the special-needs unit, suitably equipped and staffed by specialist teachers. Her ideas were eventually accepted, and a new wing was built and opened in 2006, shortly after she had finally retired. In her honour, it was named the Brathwaite Centre. She was also made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Helen’s husband Michael Brathwaite died in 1998. In 2005 Helen re-met an old friend, David Tucker, who she married in 2012.

Helen enjoyed 20 years in retirement, although the last few years were blighted by Alzheimer’s, dementia and Covid. Aged 90, Helen died peacefully surrounded by her loving family on January 6 2024. — Supplied