Kandasi Levermore: Committed to helping others

BY CANDIECE KNIGHT

Monday, May 13, 2019

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KANDASI Levermore grew up in the rural community of Knibb Street in Gibraltar, St Ann, with very strong family support.

It is therefore no surprise that when she left home to pursue higher education and met people without that kind of support, who desperately needed help, her inclination was to find ways to assist them. Her desire to provide support to those in need has led to her becoming the executive director of Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL), a position she has held for the last eight years.

“My mother was a teacher, and my father worked with the bauxite company and was a farmer,” she told All Woman last week during an interview at her office off Washington Boulevard in St Andrew. “I'm from a very big family; I have two sisters and four brothers, and I also have a large extended family. I was loved. I never had a sense of want. We were in our own little bubble enjoying life.”

When Levermore left home to board at Westwood High School in Trelawny, she was angry with her parents for sending her away.

“The boarding took me out of what I was accustomed to, so I was a little spoilt. If my parents didn't come on a Saturday for visiting, I would cry all weekend,” she recalled, sharing how she also missed her siblings, with whom she was, and still is, very close. “But Westwood was wonderful. It's a school that was dedicated to my development, whether I saw that at the time or not. A lot of emphasis was on deportment, speech and personal development, and overall academics.

“Because of where I'm from, the only career options when I was growing up seemed to be farming, bauxite or tourism,” she laughed. “So at first I wanted to be a dietician or a food and beverage manager or hotel manager. I wanted to be on the coast.”

Levermore said she was very involved in school as she tried her hand at everything. She said she even made house captain at Westwood High despite not being very athletic. When she moved on to Brown's Town Community College, she took her active spirit with her.

At the community college, the JASL executive director said interacting with students from different schools helped to open her eyes to the endless possibilities that awaited her in the world beyond her rural community.

“When I went to The University of the West Indies (UWI), I signed up to be a part of the UWI Quality Leadership Programme in 1996. We had a social project that we had to do as a group, and my group had picked Musgrave Girls' Home, and that changed what I wanted to do with my life,” Levermore explained.

This was the first time that she became cognizant of concepts such as poverty, neglect, and the idea of children not having someone to take care of their needs and being totally dependent on the Government. She continued her first degree in management and economics, but when she left school, her first job was with the Social Development Commission (SDC) as a youth development officer, before going on to become a community development officer.

“These were people that I was the same age with, really, and I developed a love for youth work,” she recalled.

But after some reshuffling at SDC, Levermore moved to the National Centre for Development as the youth information specialist.

“My job was really to implement the Operation Phoenix programme, which looked at the establishment of youth information centres across the island, and employing a cadre of youth workers. That was exciting and it felt very fulfilling,” she said.

However, after being employed in government organisation for a few years, Levermore began to get restless.

“I loved the government but I felt like some things took too long. I felt like it was killing my spirit. I was young, and I felt like I really needed to make a difference, and I had to do it fast,” she said pointedly.

“I took up a job in a sexual reproductive health project for adolescents, which was to bring information to young people in a way that they would be in control of their sexual and reproductive health, and that's how the issue of HIV/AIDS came into my mind,” she recalled.

Sex and sexuality were topics that were never up for discussion in her rural home as an adolescent, where the only thing young people were told about sex was that it should not be done until marriage.

“That is what led me to the Jamaica AIDS Support,” she said. “I started out just as a volunteer to this NGO (non-governmental organisation) to organise and do whatever I could. I did a lot of training. I was trying to create an impact, and so that was what I came to do at JASL.”

She was tasked with restructuring the organisation, incorporating established programmes that could really create an impact. Levermore said she was excited to see how she could help the organisation move in a more structured direction, and the organisation has thrived under her leadership.

“We try to provide discriminatory-free, stigma-free, enable-type of services to people who are at risk for HIV, as well as to ensure that the people who are living with HIV/AIDS are served with dignity and given the support that they need to live their best lives,” she said.

The JASL provides support and treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS, members of the gay community, sex workers, and members of the disabled community who might have increased difficulty in accessing support services through other channels.

“We have about 725 people who access JASL treatment services who are living with HIV/AIDS. That's separate from the number of persons we offer testing services to, and prevention work, and so on. We are being that bridge between the population and the organisations, so persons understand that people exist, and within their existence they have rights,” she said.

She shared the touching story of a particular patient who she met in her early days with the JASL.

“When she came, the person who provided support to her would take her and she would stay in the car, and she we would have to put her through a side door because she was terrified of being seen in public. That level of depression is not good for anyone. We nudged her to allow us to take her through a journey to expose her to other persons, but we were just at the tip of the iceberg.

“Some of the women in the programme had babies, and we facilitated them bringing their babies to the hotel, and we had a nanny so they could go to the training. And when she saw the women with the babies, she asked how they had HIV and had babies and the ladies explained to her that it was possible for a HIV-positive mother to give birth to a HIV-negative baby. She was inconsolable because she was pregnant when she had found out that she had HIV, and she was advised to have an abortion. She is one of our champions now, in helping other persons to come to terms with their diagnosis, and ensuring that our clients adhere to their medication,” Levermore said.

While she admits that being executive director of an organisation such as hers can be emotionally taxing, Levermore has her own support system on which she relies. Her husband of 16 years, who was her boyfriend from her days in rural St Ann, and her four sons, ranging between the ages of seven and 17, are her number one priority.

“On one end of the spectrum I'm very liberal, but on the other end, I'm very conservative. Maybe it's how I grew up, where every household had a mother and a father, but while I want to have a career, I also want to be able to have a wonderful relationship with a husband, and have some lovely children who will grow up to be remarkable citizens,” she beamed. “My husband keeps me so grounded.”

She laughed that it is not for a lack of trying why she does not have a daughter, but she is thoroughly pleased with the gentlemen she is raising. She is also a practising Christian, who says she is unable to hold a grudge.

“My aspiration is that JASL can evolve to where it can fund itself. To be able to generate enough income that it needs to reduce its dependency on external funding. When we would have controlled the epidemic, I think that what we've learned at JASL could be applied to any emergency of the day,” she said.

As for personal aspirations, Levermore does not plan on leaving Jamaica unless it's for work or maybe to travel in the distant future, after she has accomplished her career goals. She, however, will give of herself wherever she is needed.

“My love for development has no boundaries. It's broader than the love for a country; it's the love for humanity. I am open to now look at how I can not only help to develop Jamaica, but how I can help to develop the world,” Levermore said.


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