Monday, November 17, 2008

Change makers in our midst

Observer column for Monday, 17 November 2008

by Jean Lowrie-Chin

As we made our way to Kendal in the blinding rain last Saturday, I joked to my colleague, “In this kind of weather, I may be addressing an audience of one.” We were heading for the 21st Annual Neighbourhood Watch Conference, zealously organised by Sgt Barrington Brown and their national executive. You can imagine our pleasant surprise when we saw a hall packed with volunteers, who had travelled from every corner of Jamaica on our rocky roads.

The main speaker was the no-nonsense Dr Leachim Semaj who warned us that while not trivializing our security challenges, we should take a wider perspective. He said that most crimes were gang related and concentrated in five parishes: Kingston, St Andrew, St. Catherine, St James and Clarendon. The statistics on the Jamaica Constabulary Force website ( supported this: of the 1050 murders committed from January to August 2008, a whopping 83.5 percent were committed in these gang-infested parishes. Recent abductions smack of horrific initiation practices – which is why we need all good citizens on watch.

Semaj said that the media should be careful how they give the impression that “Jamaica mash up”. He hoped more reporters would stay beyond the usual opening address at meetings to learn about such valiant efforts as Neighbourhood Watch. Then they could reassure the general public that there is much that is still good and decent about our country.

So here are some untold stories that should keep us positive on Jamaica. We spent some time last week with the Nurse, Teacher, Police Officer and Principal of the Year and were moved when we heard how these extremely busy individuals found the time to reach out to others.

Teacher of the Year Joan Davis-Williams who teaches Food & Nutrition at Ardenne related how she had maxed out her credit cards a few days before the award ceremony, because she wanted her students to have a comfortable and attractive work area for the examiner’s upcoming visit. “When I heard I was a finalist, I thought I would probably get a basket and a plaque,” she said. The morning of the ceremony, her utility bills arrived and she realised that she was now in a tight financial spot. She said she was thrilled to discover that her prize included $100,000 cash and said the lesson she was passing on to us was, “Give, give, give and don’t count the cost. It will always come back to you.”

Mrs Davis-Williams’ class scored the highest marks in the island – all 17 students passed with A’s!

Nurse of the Year Grace Smart Simms, who was the first Nurse from Bellevue to have won the Award, had a significant birthday a few months after receiving her prize money. She decided to throw a party for all the people who had supported her through life in various ways. Instead of asking for presents, she used half of her prize money, $50,000 to give gifts. Mrs Smart Simms is naturally aware of the importance of mental health, and relates how she gives such gifts as vouchers for massages, because she believes we should always find ways to lift up each other. “You may not be able to do big things, but you can do something,” she insists.

Police Officer of the Year Constable Marvin Franklin is the youngest and lowest ranking policeman to have won the award. He brought tears to our eyes as he related that the very next day when he went to his station, “For the first time everyone, even the Superintendent, called me MISTER Franklin.” He had us in stitches as he related that he had been called everything in his community “from Lasco police to mackerel police.”

In the Spanish Town area where he is assigned, Constable Franklin said there was a community that boasted a sign stating “Home of the ------ Gang.” When he said he wanted it changed, he was told that many such attempts had been in vain. “I went and reasoned with the youth in the area,” he told us. “I told them they were inviting tough security operations with such a sign and I noticed that they were listening to me. The next day I used some of my prize money and bought some paint. I gave it to them, and told them they should take the next step and paint a proper community sign.”

The sign was repainted and the close rapport that Constable Franklin established with the youngsters has now developed into one of the most active Police Youth Clubs in the island. He said when he took the children on outings, he realised that never before in their lives had they gone even as far out of their communities as Flat Bridge!

The Principal of the Year, O’Neil Ankle received a call after Barack Obama won the US Presidential Elections. It was from one of his friends urging him to go into politics, because of his passionate commitment to his country and his school. Mr Ankle is head of the Green Park Primary and Junior High School in Clarendon, where he insists that no student must be static. “Even if they are slow learners, we have special programmes to ensure that they move from one level to the next,” said this intrepid leader.

Students at his school pay a fine if they are late. “When they grumble, I tell them that they have to be prepared for the working world by developing the habit of punctuality. I explain that when they are adults, three times late and they could lose their livelihood.”

Mr Ankle said that while Jamaica had many positive role models, the youngsters gravitate to some of the dancehall artists who spew violence and obscenities. “Do we understand what we are doing to our children? This has to be stopped. That’s why we are having so many problems,” he believes.

Along with Senior Guidance Counsellor Melissa Pryce-Stephens, Mr Ankle is planning a Behaviour Change Camp at Morelands for some of the boys in his school. They regard this as an important step towards giving the children as much support as they can. There is a crying need for better parenting. “Children want structure in their lives,” says Mr Ankle. “They want their parents to be in charge.” Mr Ankle boasts a “brag board” for students and awards them with buttons that say “World Changer.”

World changers. That’s what these four goodly champions are. So are our Neighbourhood Watch volunteers, who refuse to hand over their communities to criminals. They have demonstrated that we can change our world by simple, but never ceasing, acts of care. In our hands, Jamaica can become the paradise that God designed her to be.,

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