Debra Gaudet spent more than half of her life caring for individuals with special needs.
The social worker and teacher taught art therapy for the disabled in New Hampshire before moving to South Florida in 1984.
Gaudet worked with The Log Cabin Nursery in Miami Beach. The program catered to developmentally disabled adults through instruction in socialization, job training and computers. At Log Cabin, shuttered in 2011 due to state cuts, Gaudet taught the clients how to care for plants, which they then sold as a fundraiser.
“Anything they sold went back into helping these people,” said Gaudet’s daughter, Ida Williams.
Gaudet went on to social work at Life Plus in Miami. As a special education teacher, Gaudet taught disabled children at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in North Miami from 1994 to 2012. She retired after being diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
Gaudet, who lived in Hollywood, died July 28 at 59 after a four-year battle with ALS.
“Her biggest thing was that even if you are given a body that doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean there’s not a soul that doesn’t have every need, every passion you have,” said her daughter. “Though it was ironic and cruel that she got ALS, that was something she always said was her mission.”
Indeed, on February 21, 2013, 18 months after her diagnosis, in a voice slurred by the cruelty of the progressive neurodegenerative disease, Gaudet spoke at a Muscular Dystrophy Association function at Zoo Miami.
“What is one of the most important things we do everyday for each other but we don’t recognize it? What action makes our hearts skip a beat ever so slightly, nourishes our souls? Think about it. A hug.”
Gaudet encouraged the crowd of 150 to embrace.
“That contact with another living being is so important,” she said of the group hug. “That transfer of positive energy, that acknowledgment of caring for each other, is a simple but powerful gesture.”
After the communal embrace, Gaudet seemed buoyed. On the video, her concern for others seemed palpable.
“How powerful is that?” she said to a round of applause and giggles.
She then delivered a message that became the theme of the MDA event, a line she borrowed from the 1989 comedy, “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”
“Be excellent to each other.”
“It might sound strange but sometimes the simplest messages are the most meaningful and powerful,” she added.
Gaudet, born Feb. 11, 1957 in Jersey City, New Jersey, graduated from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s in fine arts. She earned her master’s from New Hampshire’s Plymouth State College in special education.
“She wanted to help those without a voice,” Williams said of her mother who had musical talents and loved to entertain and perform spot-on impersonations of singer Aretha Franklin.
In 2012, before she got sick, she took a group of Thomas Jefferson students on a field trip to Epcot. “She taught the kids how to make a butterfly garden. She thought that bond would help these kids,” her daughter said.
At the MDA event, Gaudet closed: “When I can no longer speak, I will have a voice. When I can no longer walk, I will still keep up with you. When I can no longer breathe on my own, you will feel my whisper in your ear. I am here. I will not give up. Do not forget me.”
Gaudet is survived by her children Ida Williams, Annie and Scott Gaudet; her parents Stanley and Shirley Buchwald; and her siblings Danny and Marc Buchwald. Services were held. Donations can be made to ALSA Broward Chapter.