This month, OECS YES In Action caught up with Rianna Patterson, the 23-year-old founder of the Dominica Dementia Foundation who is creating lasting change in her homeland and internationally.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I am the founder of Dominica Dementia Foundation. I launched this organisation at the tender age of 18, in 2016. It is the only Dementia Foundation in Dominica and the 2nd organisation in the Caribbean to have the Dementia Friends Programme
I was awarded the Queen's Young Leaders Award by Her Majesty the Queen in 2017 at Buckingham Palace for my work in the field of dementia.
I also spoke on BBC1 with Prince Harry about the work my foundation is doing in Dominica during my visit to Buckingham Palace.
In 2017, when Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica, I was able to make contact with the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, where the President and Vice President are the Duke and Duchess of Sussex His Royal Highness Prince Harry, and Meghan Markle. Through the Trust’s assistance, my Foundation was able to donate to all the care homes in Dominica.
I am also a fellow TEDx speaker and spoke at the University of Kent. I have been featured on Comic Relief Media Platforms as part of the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme. I have also been featured on the Huffington Post, Melange Magazine, and other forums.
When did you first notice your inclination towards social advocacy?
When my grandfather passed away with dementia, it became clear to me that this was something I would advocate for and raise awareness on throughout my life.
What inspired you to start?
The experience with my grandfather inspired me. The lack of understanding of dementia and mental health, in general, makes it difficult to manage the disease. In terms of personal support, it was also difficult to speak to close friends and relatives as they too are not fully aware of all the effects of dementia. There wasn't a specific resource hub where I could go to speak to someone. I felt alone in this and I could imagine there were many families who felt the same. I wanted to develop an organisation that would be a source of hope.
What obstacles, if any, did you face and how did you overcome them?
Funding has always been an issue. I had to self-fund the foundation in the early stages of our growth. It was difficult as I just got my first job and most of the money was going towards building the charity. In some regard, I still financially support the foundation but not to the full extent. We have sourced funding from corporate bodies and we have received a lot of individual giving - this has helped the work of the foundation to continue.
My age was also seen as a limitation given that I started this journey when I was 18. This impacted funding as I struggled for business professionals to take my ideas on board. I began to build my credibility by making contacts with business professionals in the industry and securing press features with notable media houses.
The journey has been fulfilling and I have definitely grown with the charity. I am continuously learning and developing.
What has been your biggest challenge along the way?
Funding and membership have been my biggest challenges. As an organisation, we have great ideas but we need more people to delegate projects to and we need the funding to support these projects and donations to families.
How have you used the current COVID-19 global pandemic to your advantage?
I decided to launch a crowdfunder to raise £35k to produce a documentary film on dementia.
Given the global pandemic the world is still experiencing, we are all acutely aware of the impact this has had on older people, and especially those with underlying health problems such as dementia.
This issue is not going away anytime soon either as, shockingly, according to Alzheimer's Disease International (ADI), someone is affected by dementia every 3 seconds.
The Documentary I am planning will tell the stories of people and families affected by the illness, and will also feature respected older persons from the Caribbean - to learn their perspectives and how they are able to live such fruitful and long lives. It is a remarkable part of the story that the lifestyle on the island produces so many centenarians, the ‘live longer isle’. We want to capture the beauty of Dominica and the people that live there, working with some locally-based crew members, blended together with our international experience, and show the world how young people engage with and respect the older generation, which seems to be so often missing in larger countries and cities in Europe and the USA.
The film will also act as a model for research on dementia in the Caribbean, as I plan to produce case studies on dementia at a regional level. A global media campaign will follow because I believe it is important to amplify stories of hope.
Research in dementia is equally as important as dementia awareness. I've seen how dementia has been presented in the media and, if we want to challenge the stigma of mental health, we need to change the narrative, which is one of the main aims of this film.
Is there an achievement or contribution that you are most proud of?
I received the Queen’s Young Leader (QYL) award for my contribution to dementia in Dominica. This gave me the exposure I needed as the Foundation was still in its early stages of development. I met amazing young people and change-makers throughout the QYL year and I am completely humbled to have represented the charity I built from the ground, with the help of the team.
I was also commended by the former President of Trinidad and Tobago at an Annual Latin and Non-Latin Dementia Conference in Trinidad.
It was encouraging to have reached a point where the work of the foundation was internationally recognised, where my age was not a limit but was commended. It wasn't just a win for myself but for every young person in Dominica that has big dreams and a big heart for social impact. It was a source of hope to those who are advocating for dementia and families who have someone with dementia. The event was a global statement that dementia is an important cause that is worth fighting for.
Did you have any key mentors or people who deeply influenced your journey?
I have been inspired by Rihanna. I never had the privilege of being mentored by her but I have great respect for her entrepreneurial journey as she has established multiple sources of income. She also founded the Clara Lionel Foundation, which focuses on education - another area I am passionate about. I have reviewed her charity's framework to develop projects within the Dominia Dementia Foundation.
What advice do you have for other Caribbean youth aspiring to get involved in this field?
It is hard work. You may even lose friends because you will come to a point where you don't relate to them anymore. You will also have friends that don't support you (these may not be your real friends). Evaluate your circle immediately. Center yourself around people you can grow with. Change is an uncomfortable place to be but that does not mean it is a bad thing.
There are days where you will cry while writing public relations and sponsorship requests. Mentally prepare yourself for this journey. Ensure that this is something that you are passionate about because the recipe for success of any business venture is not money, it is your passion. It won't work if you don't believe in your vision.
Seek help when you can, know when you need to learn more and prioritise your health at all costs. Work smart and not hard.
Proverbs 3:6 Allow God to direct your path.
Don't ignore your talents, use them for the greater good.
What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to?
The documentary is my main focus right now. Whatever I do following this will definitely be for the greater good. I also want to travel and experience life while creating change.
Leaders see the world for not what it is but what it can become.
About the Queen's Young Leaders Programme:
The Queen’s Young Leaders Programme was established by The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, in partnership with Comic Relief, The Royal Commonwealth Society and The University of Cambridge’s Institute of Continuing Education, in honour of Her Majesty The Queen’s lifetime of service to the Commonwealth.
Each year, for four years, 60 Awards were given to exceptional young people aged between 18 and 29, with the last cohort awarded in 2018, to honour those who are addressing the urgent challenges facing their communities – including mental health, education, climate change, employment opportunities, and gender equality.