Manisha Willms has built her life around helping special-needs children be all that they can be.
That commitment goes beyond her professional capacity as an administrator and clinician and was a large part of why she was chosen to fill the role of OSNS Child Development Centre executive director.
Willms recently returned from eight years in the Middle East and Asia and is taking over from Judy Sentes, who, in 20-plus years, has made the facility one of the best of its kind in B.C.
“These are tremendously large shoes to fill,” said Willms who began her new job this week. “I’m just hoping for the community’s patience and support as I endeavour, or at least try, to do as much as I can of what Judy did. She has created a real legacy.”
The new director even joked about getting a name tag that simply says; Judy’s replacement, until she becomes better known in her position. As well as the Penticton centre, OSNS staff work in many communities throughout the South Okanagan and Similkameen to help children with a variety of developmental challenges at the most critical time of their lives. Born and raised in Vancouver, Willms and her young family moved to Penticton in 1997 and to Summerland a short time later. It was during the stay in the Okanagan her real passion for helping kids blossomed.
“I think all clinicians go into this field, not because of the money, but because there’s a personal commitment and a personal compassion for these children,” said Willms, who worked one summer at the centre “This is much more than a job to me, it has to be because you cannot lie to a child, kids can see through you. Kids definitely understand when somebody has their best interests at heart.”
The OSNS board decision as to which of the 40 candidates was selected has already received one special endorsement.
“I’m thrilled,” said Sentes, who also had some input in the selection process. “In retirement you always wonder who is coming in your footsteps and for me I am so encouraged to be handing off to someone of this capacity. Manisha will definitely be taking the OSNS forward in the future.
“She understands the OSNS because she has worked for us so I don’t have to teach her the compassion, the understanding, she gets it. She is a very warm, nurturing, approachable individual.”
Sentes added the real bonus in this situation is getting someone with a clinician’s experience. Although she has officially stepped aside, the former director and her four-legged assistant Tucker will be helping out during the transition period.
Willms spent the last five years overseas working as specialist, helping international schools develop special education programs.
While there she had an opportunity to see how important early intervention is, both in places where it exists and more importantly, in countries without those programs.
“We have to understand that special education is never a lucrative business and all our partners need to understand the message why special education and early intervention are important, how it benefits us as a community and a society as a whole,” said Willms. “I really believe as a clinician as well as an administrator that early intervention changes the trajectory of these children’s lives and ability to reach their potential.”
While her time away was valuable in terms of knowledge and experience, the new director is happy to be back in her homeland working at a facility like the OSNS centre.
“I’m so thankful to be coming home,” she said. “I am just so completely excited to again be a member of a team that is part of that intervention.
“I am also thankful I am joining a community that is so aware of the importance of that early intervention for special needs children.”
Two critical areas she plans to concentrate on initially will be the centre’s fundraising efforts and getting the families of children who attend the centre involved in the process. Today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. there is a special open house at the centre ( 103-550 Carmi Ave.) for those wishing to say goodbye to Sentes and meet the new executive director.