Career & Education

In love with volunteerism

Sunday, July 23, 2017

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He has been received by Queen Elizabeth II and has won endorsement from the Governor General, but those experiences pale in comparison to the time he volunteered at a nursing home in St Mary.

It was the end of the summer and his time had drawn to a close. As he was preparing to leave, one of the residents went up to him, looked into his eyes and started to cry.

“She had a speech impediment and she was not able to tell me how she felt. But her response made me understand and that stuck with me,” said Simmonds.

Impacting lives is something 23-year-old Ibrahim Simmonds has been doing since Grade 5.

The trained social worker recalls starting a drama group at his school in his native Port Maria in 2005.

“I was always starting mini clubs and groups in my community and my mother was always accommodating. She provided the meals and a safe space for me to bring people together to share,” Simmonds said.

With time, his love for volunteerism and effecting change in his community blossomed.

At St Mary High School, he served as deputy head boy, two-time president of both Inter-School Christian Fellowship and 4-H Club, Students' Council president, and president of the Jamaica Junior Leaders League. His track record extended to the parish and national level when he was named an “I Believe” Initiative Ambassador under the Governor General's Programme for Excellence. In 2013, under the same initiative, he was awarded a full scholarship to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Social Work at the University of West Indies, Mona.

While at UWI, Simmonds got an “aha moment”. It was the birth of something revolutionary — the Jamaican Youth Empowerment through Culture, Arts and Nationalism (JAYECAN). The organisation, which will turn four in November this year, was established by Simmonds and his friend, Alex Sterling.

“We felt that not a lot of young people were empowered enough to help Jamaica to realise our goals. Empowerment for us meant learning to identify resources within the person and their environment that can be operationalised to make life easier. We knew there were other groups doing this sort of work, so our ultimate question was, “How will we do this?” Simmonds explained.

The answer to their question came quickly — through the arts, Jamaican culture and a stronger appreciation for nationalism.

But as a first year student still trying to figure out where his classes were, the cheapest food options on campus, and what practicum meant, making things work was a challenge.

“It never felt like a burden because the work I did with JAYECAN and in practicum all overlapped. It was very draining sometimes and that was only because we never always had the results we wanted and the capital was not readily available,” Simmonds explained.

Things started to improve when influential people — chief among them Governor General Sir Patrick Allen, and the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission — started to endorse JAYECAN and its work.

Today, one need not look much further than the size of the team for an appreciation of the organisation's growth. What started out with six members, is now over 40 members strong, with some 200 volunteers spread across the island.

In addition to JAYECAN's various projects, Simmonds is keen on changing the perception of volunteerism in Jamaica. Young people need to be shown that volunteerism can provide a dynamic relationship that has a benefit for both the giver and the recipient.

“We need to get to a place where we are able to demonstrate how people can volunteer to improve lives in higher orders such as policy reform/development, education and community development. This can add value to a person's professional development as well and simultaneously contribute to the improvement of the lives of other people,” the young man said.

For all his efforts, Simmonds has won a string of awards/recognition. Most recently, in June, he was one of 60 young people from across the Commonwealth who flew to London to receive a prestigious Queen's Young Leaders Award. The awards recognise and celebrate exceptional young people, aged 18 to 29, in the Commonwealth who are driving change within their communities and transforming people's lives. He was received by Her Majesty The Queen on June 29 in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

His other titles include Youth Caribbean Representative for the UNESCO Global Alliance on Media and Information Literacy, de facto Youth Ambassador to the Commonwealth, Associate Fellow of the Royal Commonwealth Society, Teen Vybz Magazine's 20 under 25 awardee, and the Kiwanis Club of Kingston Youth Leader awardee.

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