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Bosco Boys' Home is more than just a shelter

Manchester institution roundly prepares young men for the future

BY DONNA HUSSEY-WHYTE Sunday Observer staff reporter husseyd@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, December 08, 2013    

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WHEN Marsham Ingram was 12 years old he witnessed his mother shoot his father to death and then turn the gun on herself.

So traumatic was the impact on the child that since that day Ingram has not spoken a word.

With no one to care for him, he was taken to the Bosco Boys' Home in Manchester where he found the love and sympathy of director Sister Susan Frazer, from the Religious Sisters of Mercy.

In an effort to get the child speaking again, Sister Frazer took him to a number of speech specialists across the island, but to no avail. Still Ingram would not talk.

Today, at 32, Ingram is back at the home working unofficially, doing whatever he finds around the compound to do. This comes after efforts to get a job and survive in the outside world, after leaving the home at 18, proved futile.

But Ingram's story is not unique to the boys' home, as each of the 130 presently housed at the institution, and those who have passed through its gates over its 50 years of existence, have their own story to tell.

"Bosco Boys' Home is a security facility to help turn around boys from a negative way of life to a positive one," administrator of the facility, Margarett Russell, told the Sunday Observer last week.

"Sometimes we are asked to take six-year-olds by their own parents, which we find very strange," Russell said.

"We have children here who have been abused by their own family, physically and mentally. We have children who are neglected, abandoned and have nobody in the world who has ever claimed them, some who are in problems with the police, and they are brought to us through the Child Development Agency (CDA) or through the courts," she said.

The home, which is licensed to accommodate 160 boys, presently has a staff complement of 41 to include seven full-time childcare officers and nine teachers.

The Catholic Church-run institution caters to the educational needs of the boys, similar to that of a regular school, to include a fully-equipped laboratory with 45 computers all hooked up to the E-learning programme and complete with monitored Internet access.

"We have to invent classes because sometimes we will get a 14, 15 or a 16-year-old child who doesn't know his alphabet and has to start at the bottom," Russell explained. "Because when they leave here they must be able to write their names at least," she added.

Ideally, the institution accommodates boys from ages seven to 18.

Administrators are constantly looking at ways to earn money to keep the institution going, because it is privately operated.

Two such are the recently built auditorium that is rented out for functions, while the newly landscaped front yard with creatively shaped rocks is available for weddings, and other types of functions.

Then there is the retail butcher shop, which was busy with activities in preparation for Christmas ham sale when the Sunday Observer team visited.

"We sell meats to help raise funds," Russell pointed out. "We grow chickens, and we grow pigs. It's part of our trading. You will find a child who is not academically brilliant, but he is an excellent farmer; we teach him animal husbandry and farming. Now we are selling ham, that's our big calling now for Christmas and we have to open on Saturdays."

In fact, Russell said that they do anything pork-related -- ham, bacon, smoked pork products, sausages, and chicken ham for people who do not eat pork but like the idea of ham.

"We do things here to prepare the children for the outside world," Russell said. "We teach them a trade. They either learn catering or they learn meat-cutting in the butcher shop. But you have to show a certain amount of maturity to get into the trades. You have to learn to read and write, because you have to be able to see and understand danger. You will see some of the boys in trades, they are very anxious to get into that area for one simple reason: when they leave here they go into restaurants or hotels and get jobs."

Russell explained that the butcher shop is the tail-end of the training for the children. With catering, meat-cutting and marketing being a part of their curriculum.

"Sometimes they go out on the truck to meet customers," she said.

She said that the home boasts a greenhouse, which was not profitable this year, due to the high volume of rain.

She noted, too, that a number of the boys aspire to work on ships, but this cannot be done until they are 21.

"They really want to get on the ships, but they have to be 21, and they leave here at 18," Russell said.

"It started with one boy applying to the cruise ship, and based on the skill and attitude he brought, he was employed. We have about 15 now working on cruise lines," the administrator said proudly. "They work for eight months sometimes, and they always head back here. They call us from exotic places like Brazil, Dubai and Egypt. They are all over the world on cruise ships enjoying it. And of course, because they were brought up in institutions, the life on a ship as an employee is akin to this so they fit in quite well," she stated.

Like Ingram, some of the supervisors are products of the home, who have returned to work.

"Some of our supervisors are graduates of the programme -- the manager of catering, Newton Coote, he came to us from he was about 10 from Maxfield Park Children's Home. His story was that when he was four, his father came into the house -- I don't know the circumstances -- and said to the two children 'do not touch the food.'

"He was only four. He picked up a piece of bread and his father wrapped his hands in newspaper, soaked them in gasoline and lit them. His hands are damaged, one worse than the other. But when he came here he was told -- 'you can't do anything, your hands are damaged'. But Sister (Susan) said, 'Then how you going to live?' So she worked with him from there and today he is one of Jamaica's best chefs," said Russell.

However, she said, Coote's family has never tried getting in touch with him to this day, and the people at the institution have become his surrogate family.

The boys will go through their daily routine of attending school, moving from classroom to classroom doing various subjects, learning trades and doing various 'theatrics' as taught to them from visiting nurses from Catholic universities overseas.

The compound has its own complete medical office, while a team of dentists visits once a year to attend to the boys.

The 130 boys are all uniformly dressed in clothes donated to them by institutions -- some days they wear purple, others green, and khaki.

But with so many boys from varying situations together on a daily basis, things aren't always bright at the home.

"We tend to think that children are saints," Russell said. "This was taken from a boy in the dorm last week -- he has run away since," she said, holding up a rusty pickaxe.

"If you ask them, they will tell you they found it. I have had a policeman come in here and almost put me in jail, because I had something leaned up in the corner that I thought was quite creative. They had made a home-made gun, and I had it there leaned up in the corner saying 'Oh this is so creative'. And a policeman came from Montego Bay and he nearly nailed me to the wall when he asked what I was doing with that and I casually responded, 'Oh my boys made it'. He said, 'you try call the Mandeville police and tell them to take it now because that is a handgun.'"

Principal of the school, Barbara Turner, said that sometimes up to four weapons are confiscated from the boys in one day. They include sharpened toothbrush handles, dinner knives inserted in pen casings, wires inserted into pieces of wood, among other things.

"So when these boys do these things and when they are caught, they run way," Turner said. "And they are not going to tell the public why they run away. They are going to tell the public something that the public wants to hear. And what they say is that 'staff members molest me or staff members hit me'," she said.

"It's the easiest thing for them to say. They take toothbrushes and sharpen them down and use as weapons," Turner said. "So we don't give our boys sharpeners, because they take the blade and cut each other. One boy got to go to his mother's funeral and he came back with that," she said, pointing to a transparent plastic bag containing ganja.

And while community members admit to being told by runaway boys that they are being molested, the administrator, principal and a staff member strongly refute the claim.

"Boys will run away for different reasons. If they have stolen things, if they know they are in trouble," Russell said. "We have no staff members here who molest boys. I don't know in what way we can molest them. Children tell lies. This is my own observation as a parent. They tell lies to support whatever story they want. It is the easiest thing that the public will believe. Because whatever allegation is there, the CDA representative comes and investigates them. They sit down and do their own interviews," the administrator said.

"Last week (two weeks ago) we had three boys who just decided to walk off the property. And we cannot stop them because our gates are wide open," she said.

But, she said, they do this because they do not want to conform to the discipline at the school.

"School is from nine to three (at the home), then they must be in a trade, because we teach them so that when they leave here they can fend for themselves on the road and get jobs and are in a better position than begging on the streets or wiping windshields on the roadside," she said.

Russell said that the institution is under the constant watch of the CDA, and each child is assigned to an officer, thus eliminating cases of alleged abuse.

"We have to be licensed. Every single member of the staff has to have a police record which has to be renewed every year and we are thoroughly investigated," she said. "Along with that, the CDA has officers assigned to each child. If you are from the Southern Region (Manchester, Clarendon and St Elizabeth) and, depending on where you come from, you might get an officer from one of those parishes for those children.

"If you are from St James, then it's the same thing," she explained.

But while there may be accusations of abuse, the administrator noted that there are children who have been returned to their homes by the courts but who will run away from their home back to the boys' home.

"If we were abusing the boys, they would not be coming back," she noted. "We just had a boy walk through the gate yesterday evening -- dirty, filthy and unkempt. He claimed that the police dropped him at the gate. But that's not true, usually they (police) phone first then they come in and talk with us, then we accept the child. If we were abusing children, then you would not have them walking to us, and that is just one of several examples," she said.

There is also the recent case in which two boys from Spalding allegedly attempted to set their parents' house on fire, and ran away to the institution.

A tour of the dorms revealed at least two closed-circuit cameras inside all the neatly kept rooms. This, Russell said, is checked as often as necessary, more so if there are complaints of irregularities.

Workers at the institution said that boys have stolen chickens, bags of chicken feed, and live pigs and run away with them to sell to willing community members after hearing their various stories of various abuse at the home.

"And when they steal they sell it and come right back," Russell said. "And they are very remorseful, too, you see. They will write you some long letters of apology," she chuckled.

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