GROWING up in a stable environment in no way shielded Norma Rhoden from understanding the plight of those from broken families, but it instead fuelled her passion to do all she can to assist them.
She has for the most part dedicated her life to working with at-risk youth and children whom society has shunned. Among her clientele are street boys who have often found refuge on the nation's streets and for whom she has been carrying a burden since she was a teen. In fact, they are part of the reason she made the decision to become a social worker at an early age.
Meet Norma Rhoden
"The first time it really dawned on me was when I looked on the streets and there were a lot of street boys. At the time I was about 17 or 18 and there were a lot of them on the road begging and having nothing to do and I was most disturbed. I just couldn't understand why they were doing that," she said.
"When I talked to them, they said they can't find anything to do, they can't find any work and I just found that strange because I can do so many things as a woman. I could sew at the time and I was doing screen printing," she said.
"I could make bottle juice, I could make bag juice, I could make syrup, all these types of manufacturing things... out of that it really dawned on me that I need to reach them, I need to teach them, that they don't have to be begging on the streets. There are things that they can do, they can use up the talent that they have, even if work is not out there in the sense that the government doesn't provide a job, you can create your own employment and that really pushed me to start working with these boys at the street light," she said.
Rhoden currently manages the St Andrew Care Centre where the younger street boys are educated and counselled during the week. She also worked as the director of the government-operated Sunbeam Children's Home, and at a teen centre in Parade Gardens, Southside, as well as at New Horizon, which is a half-way house for adolescent boys.
Her passion for youths has also seen her organising several camps and community outreach projects aimed at improving the skills and academic levels of youngsters.
"As a social worker, my main focus in life is to work with individuals, families and communities in order to facilitate personal and community empowerment. My objective is to help the target groups — children at risk, the weak and needy, and community members — to become less dependent on state assistance and for these groups to utilise the available mechanisms for sustainable self-sufficiency and community development," she said.
Although the desire was always there to become a social worker, Rhoden didn't pursue formal training in this area until 1990 when she enrolled at the Caribbean Christ for the Nations Institute. She also got a diploma in teaching and completed discipleship training at Youth With A Mission (YWAM) before joining the staff at the Mandeville-based institution as a secretary and then as a kindergarten teacher. She eventually left YWAM for two years to work at Sunbeam Boy's Home, but then went back to the training institution in 2003.
"Over the years that I was with YWAM, the Lord used me to minister to people in different nations across the world by using social, practical, judicial, and spiritual intervention," said Rhoden, who also has a certificate in small business management as well as an associate degree in social work from the University of the West Indies.
Why we love her
Apart from mentoring and counselling at-risk youth in communities such as Flanker and Mount Salem in St James, Rhoden has also impacted youth in other countries. Among the countries she has been to work have been Gambia, Malaysia, Singapore and Tokyo.
"I am so excited about the call to work with children of every nation. I am very much interested in learning and understanding different cultures. I am fascinated by the diversity of mankind — why people do what they do, their way of life, their beliefs and how these experiences affect the whole man," she said.
The mother of two currently serves as the president of the Parent Teachers' Association at Westchester Basic School, and is the founder and president for the homework centre in that community. She has worked with HEART Trust/NTA as an instructor, and later served as the centre manager for the programme in various communities which allowed her to work with adolescents who are generally stigmatised because they are from volatile and vulnerable communities.
"I believe in the man called Jesus Christ. Needless to say, I am confident that through him, I will witness amazing transformations of the lives of the people of this nation, Jamaica," she said.