Remembering Usha

Early learning facilitator remembered for her gentle ways

By Lindsay Advocate

Usha Devi Ayinarappan, centre, was much-loved by children. Photo: Sharon Johnson.

By Sharon Johnson

If you ever sat at a child-sized playdough table with Usha at an EarlyON program, you were probably offered her just-made, still-warm, naturally-fragranced playdough. You witnessed her gentle hands separating the dough and sharing it with everyone who wanted some. You saw her direct her attention to each child, showing how she shaped and rolled the dough under her palm into a beautiful round ball.

Usha Devi Ayinarappan died in late December. She was one of those exceptional humans who got down on the floor to play with early learners and embraced the light in every child. She listened attentively and helped many caregivers work through their childrearing woes.

Through the eyes of families who attend EarlyON, early learning facilitators like Usha are esteemed as wise sages. They have gentle advice when you’re clearly struggling. They meet children at their level and treat them as honoured guests. They sing in circles; they know how to play at all developmental levels and how to share; and they know the Beanbag Boogie. They celebrate accomplishments and recognize challenges. They welcome every family that walks through their EarlyON door. They are a form of community during the isolation of early parenthood. Sometimes they feel like life savers.

Usha worked with Ontario Early Years Centre in Haliburton Victoria Brock in many of its communities, including Bobcaygeon, Dalton, Little Britain, Janetville, Lindsay, and other places, but I met Usha when she was working at the Fenelon playgroup location when it was still tucked in behind Slices N’ Scoops. Usha’s stories were my family’s introduction to Diwali, the festival of lights that symbolizes spiritual lightness over darkness. In Usha’s childhood home in Malaysia, she remembered it as a time when all families of all cultures and religions would open their doors in celebration.

When Usha came to Canada, she moved in with her sister Shanthi Howe and became a primary caregiver in the family home. She lovingly referred to the Howe children as darlings and so the family started calling her Darling instead of Usha.

Shanthi remembers her little sister as always being a caring, selfless person even as a young child. She says, “The caregiving role seemed to come naturally to Usha.”

Usha first followed her calling to work with children by becoming an elementary teacher. She worked at a school with under-resourced students and, though she did not come from a wealthy home, she gave what she had to help the children. Parent and caregiver Lena Thompson remembers that if Usha noticed a child playing alone, she would include all the children in some play that would interest that child. If they happened to meet out in the community, Usha would always take the time to connect with her and the children in her care.

“Her smile was infectious and stayed on your face after you’d left her fantastic and attainable spell of whimsy. Usha decided life should be magical and I followed suit. She taught me to take in the small moments with great big appreciation,” tells Rylee Hines. “I love life more because of her and I am a better parent because of her.”

One mother remembers when her children were very young and were coping with death in the family. They had been playing funeral by placing dolls in laundry baskets, laying blankets over them, pretending to mourn, and then pushing the baskets under a bed to bury them. She was worried about it and she spoke to Usha during a playgroup visit. Usha said to her, “Death is a part of life and something we shouldn’t shelter our kids from, because life is not all rainbows and lollipops. There is heartache, and it’s okay to have your kids experience life. Play is how kids experience life and using play helps them process their emotions.”

Bett Sawyer, a caregiver of many children over the years, remembers being at an EarlyON program 13 years ago on the day Usha started working. “Usha was such a sweet person and just wonderful with the kids. She was one in a million.”

Howe learned about the value of EarlyON through conversations after work with her beloved sister over the years and now she takes her grandson to playgroup. “Because of playgroup, kids feel they belong and that they can be themselves.”

Everyone who attends EarlyON anywhere learns some version of the Sleeping Bunnies song. The little children gather in the middle of the circle-time carpet and pretend to sleep quietly while the older attendees hush “shh, shh” until the joyous singsong announcement: “Wake up sleeping bunnies hop, hop, hop!” and off the children go hopping around the carpet until they become the next animal to sleep and wake. Usha’s extra long “shhhhhhhhhhh” to provide us all with a quiet moment of stillness and reprieve resonates in the minds of caregivers who shared precious time in her presence.

Usha made a lasting positive impact on many lives. Her gentle spirit and her guidance will glow within us and in our children as we all grow.

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