Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Mercy for Jamaica's Alpha boys

Observer column by Jean Lowrie-Chin - 14 April 2014
Screenshot of Usain Bolt's great Instagram message after visiting Alpha Boys School last Wednesday
 After almost 130 years of nurturing Jamaican boys, the Alpha Boys School is closing its residential facilities. On the positive side however, the school will expand its educational offerings.  You would think that an institution like Alpha would have no difficulty receiving a decent subvention for its good work, but like many others of its kind, it has been struggling financially.

“We understand that the decision to close the residential part of Alpha Boys School has been subject to misunderstanding and misinterpretation,” commented Sister Marie Chin, area administrator of the Sisters of Mercy when I called her after hearing the reports. “We appreciate this opportunity to explain that the closing of the residential part is due to a constellation of factors that are as much social as they are economic.”

Students of the legendary Alpha music programme
She said pointedly: “The problems that have arisen in this programme did not materialize overnight; nor do they belong solely to Alpha Boys School.  They have grown exponentially alongside the deterioration of societal values and norms, our seeming incapacity to halt our country's downward spiraling into alarming dysfunction, and inadequate government funding to meet the social and developmental needs of our people.”

 It seems that the Minister of Youth and Culture Lisa Hanna may have misunderstood the situation, as she ascribed the change in operations to deviant behaviour among the students.  Sister Susan Frazer, the Administrator for Alpha Boys School, wants to make it clear that it is a small minority that gives cause for such concern.  The students are deeply hurt by this comment, so we hope that the Minister will explain to them, that her sweeping statement resulted from a misunderstanding.
Thank goodness the great Usain Bolt lifted their spirits when he visited Alpha Boys School last Wednesday, and presented gifts to all.

“The Sisters of Mercy remain firm in their long-time commitment to boys at risk,” said Sister Marie Chin. “Neither Alpha Boys School nor St. John Bosco [which the Sisters operate in Manchester] is closing. In fact, Alpha is undergoing a restructuring that will enable the ministry to help more boys who are at risk. Part of the restructuring will include closing the residential part only of Alpha Boys School as the Sisters of Mercy join with the Ministry of Education and HEART to offer literacy, numeracy and remedial education along with technical and vocation education for more than 200 boys.”

“With the escalating cost of living over these last years, the amount of funds that government has given per capita to private children's  homes such as Alpha Boys School and St. John Bosco for housing, clothing, food and education has proven to be woefully inadequate,” said Sister.

After several attempts to address this situation the Sisters of Mercy have had to acknowledge some hard facts: “our child care system is broken and we can no longer continue doing business as usual. It is no longer enough to simply provide beds for our children. We must seek alternative ways to enable our vulnerable children to enhance their potential as human beings and to become employable and responsible citizens capable of taking their rightful place in society. And with the changes we are initiating, we are pursuing that path.”
Alpha Bandmaster Winston 'Sparrow' Martin
Alpha Boys School graduate, the legendary musician Winston ‘Sparrow’ Martin is the Bandmaster for the school and outlined the plans for the expansion of the their cherished and esteemed music education which has developed such other talents as Cedric ‘Im’ Brooks, Dwight Richards, Lennie Hibbert O.D., Tommy McCook, Don Drummond, Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore, Rico Rodriguez, Winston ‘Yellowman’ Foster, Dizzy Reece, Lester Sterling O.D., Dalton Browne, Nicholas Laraque, Leslie Samuels, Harold McNair, Wilton “Bogey” Gaynair, Bertie King, Leslie Thompson, Damon Riley, Tony Gregory and Leroy Smart,

They have played with many top bands including Bob Marley and the Wailers, The Beatles (yes, those world famous Brits) and our legendary Skatalites. Alpha past students have worked with or now work with Beres Hammond, Beenie Man, Jimmy Cliff, Stephen Marley, Damian Marley and Nomaddz.

“The future developments at Alpha Boys' School mean larger numbers of students will be able to take advantage of a comprehensive music industry training programme at the school,” said Sparrow Martin, “including but not limited to: training in performance; work in the newly created sound studio; radio technology as well as the "business" of music and recording”

He said that Alpha Boys School Radio http://www.alphaboysschoolradio.com/, featuring local and international productions has been gaining worldwide popularity, with over 60,000 unique listeners, many of whom have contributed to the recently completed Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign which will enable the school to build its own radio studio.  Here, the students will be trained in production, presentation, promotions and programming. 

Thanks to the Jamaica National Foundation, the school is also developing a state-of-the-art music recording studio where there will be instruction in recording techniques, audio engineering and audio production.

“Alpha now has its own top band, the Alpha All Stars, a touring band consisting of Alpha graduates playing jazz, ska, rocksteady and reggae,” said a proud Martin. “The band will be an opportunity for Alpha alumni who demonstrate an ability to perform and will facilitate the transition from school to work. This is a music enterprise, so instruction will include an introduction to and practical experience in contracts, booking, licensing, promotion and publishing.”

Catering Manager and Master Chef Newton Coote at St John Bosco
Additionally, students will be trained in screen-printing, woodwork, general maintenance, landscaping, hydroponic farming and other skills.  It is a model that has worked well at St. John Bosco where farming, meat processing and catering are helping that residential facility, also run by the Sisters of Mercy to be self-sustaining.  It is noteworthy that the Catering Manager there is none other than Newton Coote, who was rescued at seven years old after his hand was set on fire by an abusive father.  Newton, who is now in his thirties, has undergone reconstructive surgery and is a fine leader at Bosco. 

Clearly mercy for Jamaica’s children remains alive and well with the Sisters  – Alpha Boys School will continue to educate and train Jamaica’s boys, so that, like Sparrow Martin and Newton Coote, they can become responsible citizens, embracing the dignity of honest work, and enjoying the fruits of their success.

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