Educator, Child Psychologist, Professor, Social Worker, Como, Italy

Dedre has special gift of warmth. Her kindness is demonstrated in every interaction and relationship she has built with others. It has been a true privilege getting to know her, and I'm honoured to bring her story and words to a larger audience. So many in our educational system are overlooked and under-appreciated that it is our responsibility to honour, cherish and celebrate women like Dedre, who truly want to improve the fabric of our society from the core. Please read and marvel at this wonderful human. She was interviewed and photographed in Italy, her full-time home is in South Africa but her challenges and struggles resonate with educators and social workers all over the world.

1. Name.

Dedre van Wyngaard

2. Where is your hometown? 

I live in Durbanville, Cape Town in the beautiful South Africa.

3. What is your profession/career/title/self-label/designation?

By trade I am an occupational therapist specializing in early childhood development. I have a special interest in sensory integration therapy, learning difficulties and developmental delays impacting on the occupational performance of children between the ages of 2 to 8 years old.

I have been a part-time lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch, Department of Occupational Therapy for the past 19 years. As a part-time lecturer, I am involved in the practical training of final year occupational therapy students in the field of paediatrics. In this capacity I get to work within the disadvantaged community and really make an impact on the lives of the children who often need intervention the most but do not have the means to access the services they need. 

Although occupational therapy is my profession and passion, if I have to give myself a label it would probably be that of a “designated taxi driver” and mother of three kids aged 7, 14 and 17. 

4. What was the journey like to get where you are (in life and career wise)? What are some accomplishments you are most proud of?

When I started my career I was very driven, building up my own private practice and employing other therapists. I loved every minute! At home, I had a loving and supportive husband and two boys who were textbook easy to raise.  When I fell pregnant unexpectedly with my little girl, my career and career aspirations took an unexpected turn. A very complicated pregnancy and pre-term delivery put my career on hold for a while. We were blessed with a beautiful little girl but as she developed I noticed small little “red flags” indicating that she had some difficulties acquiring her developmental milestones. When my daughter reached the age of 3, it became clear that she had different needs and that I needed to scale down my own career. After my daughter was diagnosed with ADHD, which was complicated by severe anxiety when she felt unsure and unable to cope, I realised that I needed to give her the time and attention I gave to other children in my practice. The kind of care for my therapy kids which often left me with less time for my own children. I sold my practice and became a “temporary stay at home mom”. Luckily, I was soon able to continue my passion by providing therapy services within a school in my community as well as disadvantaged communities as part of my responsibilities at the University of Stellenbosch. I became less career-driven but realised that I had a unique role within the wider community. As a mom of a child with special/different needs, as well as being a paediatric therapist, I realised that I am in the unique position to help parents deal with all the challenges that come with raising a child who does not necessarily fit into society’s box of what is “normal”. I also have unique perspective these kids and their teachers face in the classroom each day.

When I realized how these families are often left to their own devises, I changed my approach to teacher training and student development. I expanded my role as an occupational therapist towards the support of parents and children with different diagnoses, struggling to cope within the mainstream South African schools. As a result, it gave me a chance to spend more time with my daughter and still experience fulfillment of my chosen career. 

There are so many things I am proud of but I am most proud of my children and my little princess who has just started grade one and who has, despite many challenges, exceeded our expectations.

5. What did you study in school?

I studied Occupational Therapy at the University of Stellenbosch and also completed my Master’s degree in this field in 2008.

6. How is your life different from what you pictured at 20? 

In my twenties I had big career expectations with very specific ideas of where I would be. I saw my future self as a professional therapist with a vast referral network and a big case load, managing junior therapists in a multi-disciplinary setting. A goal I did reach. But when I look back, I realized that life pushed me in a direction I did not plan, but gave my life meaning. I had the skills and ability to really help special needs children and their parents and the motivation to do so. As a therapist in private practice you see a child for one hour a week. It forms such a little part of their daily care. They go back home where their parents need to cope with challenges 24/7. This is often very exhausting and leaves parents feeling guilty, asking “Am I doing enough? Am I a bad parent for feeling frustrated? How do I handle different behaviours and challenges?" 

Since I cope with these behaviour and scholastic challenges on daily basis in my professional and personal life, I am often able to give hands-on ideas and coping strategies that work in practice, not mere suggestions that only work in theory.  I call them "tried and tested intervention with a bit of reality".

Sometimes parents just need to talk with somebody who understands what they feel and what their challenges really are. So although my life and career looks different from what I had planned, I do not regret a single moment of my journey.

7. What was your biggest disappointment and plan to overcome it?

I really had to think very hard about this question. There were small disappointments at some stages of my life, but nothing truly disappointing. My approach to life is rather simple. Take the cards you are dealt with and play the hand. When something happens that is disappointing, not what you have envisioned for your life, you have a choice. Take the challenge and do something great or watch your life go by wishing for things that were never meant to be.

8. Advice for other women?

You are the only person who can decide your destiny. You need to take responsibility for your own happiness. Surround yourself with people who share your values and respect your opinions even if they don’t agree. Never be afraid to speak your mind. I have however learned that words spoken with kindness and honesty go a long way for motivating people to share your ideals.

9. Knowing what we know now in current political climate, can women be "all that we can be" in today's world? What is the way forward, as you see it for "feminist values"?

In South Africa the field of pediatric occupational therapy and early childhood education is largely dominated by a female workforce. Living in a time of more awareness with regards to the valuable role women play in society, I am positive that we are making some headway.  I do however feel strongly that young female learners, students and mothers should be equipped with life skills and a sense of confidence to be able to stand up for themselves. There are many cultures in South Africa where this is still a huge challenge, but there is a definite shift in the right direction. Thus those working with our future female leaders have a very important role to play in developing those young minds.

10. Where in the world do you feel tallest (i.e. where is your happy place)?

It is such a cliché but I am truly happy at home, with my kids and husband.  We also have this magical camping spot right on the beach in the little coastal town of Jeffrey Bay where we camp during the december summer holidays. We have been doing this for the past ten years and is truly a place to connect with nature and each other.

11. What extra-curricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why? 

Oh dear, very little time for any of that at the moment, but I would love to take out my ballet shoes again!

12. What do you want to be when you grow up? Future goals/challenges?

I have made a small start but I would like to expand my role as early childhood development specialist and advocate for children with special needs within the mainstream education system in SA. I would love to continue educating and supporting teachers and parents and make it easier for children with different needs to cope with the demand of a formal education. I can spend a whole day talking about the importance of unstructured play in early childhood development and how the current approach of the education system negatively influences development.

In the current education system academics are pushed from an extremely young age when kids are not developmentally ready for a formal education. The focus is on formal math, reading and writing from a very young age and very little time is given to recess and free play and gross and fine motor development. Our kids miss out on acquiring motor skills, as well as as developing creativity, motor planning, problem-solving, emotional and social development. These are just a few of the benefits of play in an unstructured environment.  It is such an important part of development that when overlooked it leads to over-stressed children with increased developmental and scholastic difficulties.

14. Anything you'd do differently if you had another go at life?

 I would definitely travel more and see the world. 

15. What inspires you?

Little children inspire me. I am always amazed at the things they say. The honesty in which a six year old will tell you how they feel. I have so many stories of how my therapy kids have inspired me. Lots of stories on how they made me laugh with the things they do and say.

16. What are you hopeful about?

I hope to make a change within my own community and that my passion will inspire small changes in our current education system that will benefit our children in the future. Kids with learning and developmental difficulties often fall through the cracks of our school system. By educating and supporting these children, their parents and teachers, we can make a huge impact on their future. I often think about Nelson Mandela’s words: "Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world." 

17. What are some ingredients to a good life?  

Family, good friends and an excellent cup of coffee.

18. What advice would you give your 14-year-old self? 

I was a very “good girl” during both my school and varsity years. I think my advice would be to live a little on the wild side. You are only young once!

19. What are you reading now? (What books do you gift most and what are your favourite reads?)

I love murder mystery novels. Currently I am working through the Karen Rose series. I am also a big Harry Potter fan.

20. Who is a WOW Woman in your world who inspires you and why? Can you nominate three women you know who perfectly fit WOW WOMAN description?

My mother.  She is an amazing woman who confidently raised me to be an independent woman who can think for herself. I did not realise it when I was young, but she was an amazingly strong woman who stood her ground in a time and within work environment where she was often the only female voice. She raised me with the understanding that it is OK to believe in yourself and determine your own destiny.

Young women like the american Emma Gonzales also get my vote. She is so young but confidently stood up to tell the world that enough is enough (in terms of gun control in US). We need younger women to inspire other young girls and leaders of the future.

My daughter Chrisli. She has become a beautiful young girl who, despite her rather interesting first seven years of life, have shown me what it means to find true joy. She has shown me how one should wake up every morning with a smile and a song in your heart. She has shown me that anything is possible with the right help and people in your life who can support you. She has truly given my life new meaning. My wish for her is to remain the confident, however slightly strong willed, little lady she has become. I have big hopes for the future filled with daughters who know their worth.

21. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)?

Hopefully within the next year I will able to start with a research proposal as part of a Doctoral Degree on inclusive education and strategies to ensure successful implementation in mainstream schools from a therapeutic perspective.