SHE is peaceful, passionate, happy, and always trying to change something or herself.
Born in Guyana and raised there for a short period before moving to Trinidad and then Jamaica, Onyka Barrett, an activist, volunteer and change agent, told All Woman that she witnessed her grandmother care for everyone around her.
“In the house I had my great-grandma who was bedridden, my grandmother’s two daughters, and their children. She [my grandmother] took care of everything. She was the centre of it all. My memory of her is someone who was always doing something for someone or the family, so subconsciously I was looking and noticing but never realised the impact it had on me,” she said.
Subsequently, like many children, Barrett dreamed of becoming a doctor, lawyer or pilot. But when her family relocated to Trinidad and she met Barbara Jenkins — her environmental studies teacher in secondary school — her career focus changed forever.
“She organised a field trip to Greenpeace, The Rainbow Warrior II that was visiting Trinidad at the time, and when I went to that ship that’s when everything about me changed. I never wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer anymore. I was interested in being an activist and trying to save the earth.
“They took us on a little boat out to the ship and they took us down in the hull and straight around the perimeter. They had pictures of different campaigns they had been fighting for, different issues they were trying to deal with. One man in particular was telling us the stories behind the campaigns and I became conscious of a lot of things outside of my narrow scope. He showed me directly things happening in other parts of the world that never connected to me before,” she said.
And so, with this newfound interest, Barrett, at the age of 14, became involved in volunteerism and joined her school’s Duke of Edinburgh programme, which required voluntary work in order to matriculate to higher levels.
After leaving secondary school, Barrett worked in the corporate world for approximately 12 years, but did voluntary work on the side on human rights issues and the rights of the child through non-governmental organisations and government agencies such as Is There Not A Cause? and the Ministry of Social Development, Trinidad, as well as CUSO International, through the Ministry of Justice, Jamaica.
“I’ve always been volunteering and I’ve done it at different levels. I’ve done the Hands and Feet from working in Haiti, I’ve done it at the national level, there was CUSO International where regionally we looked at how to ensure that volunteerism lived and people were still interested in it and felt it was still a good thing to do. Getting involved helps me actualise the dreams I have to drive it across the Caribbean.”
Barrett, who holds a bachelor’s degree in human resource management from Anglia Ruskin University, UK, and an international diploma in humanitarian assistance from Fordham University, USA, has also volunteered in Kenya and Ghana, which she says gave her a greater appreciation for the field of volunteerism.
Given the name Furaha, which is Swahili for joy and happiness, while in Kenya, Barrett is currently the partnerships and development manager at Jamaica National Foundation, where she is charged with connecting with the right people at the right time to create change, which she says coincides with her own values.
Also a self-proclaimed globetrotter, Barrett said her interest in travelling comes from the need to understand people in order to build her own empathy and be part of their change process.
“If I’m going out into the field to help, I have to appreciate that this person is coming with their own ideas. From a young age I had desired travelling, and every time a plane passed my home I would run to the window to see the plane, but I never imagined being on that plane. My first trip was coming to Jamaica through the Duke of Edinburgh to hike the Blue Mountains. My dad made a sacrifice and sent me and I thank him each day, as it made a huge difference in how I understood myself. I wanted to go places, see people, understand people, and not just live it through a book,” she said.