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Successful US-based Jamaican gives back to his roots

BY RENAE DIXON Sunday Observer staff reporter dixonr@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, April 20, 2014    

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IT was a celebratory atmosphere at the Mount Waddy Primary School in Friendship, Moneague, St Ann last Monday, for the launch of the Melbourne and Michael Folkes Foundation, more popularly referred to as MIC (Mighty in Character).

The foundation, which is expected to empower the children at the school, as well as community members, was launched by Michael Folkes in honour of his grandfather, Melbourne Folkes. Folkes said that he launched the foundation in order to share his success with people from his roots.

Michael Folkes, a successful businessman in the United States, said that it was not an easy journey to success but he believes that his early years at Mount Waddy, influenced by his grandfather Melbourne, prepared him for the life that he enjoys today.

Folkes, from humble beginnings, was born and spent his early years in Mount Waddy. Although from a poor community, he always wanted the best. Running his business for 17 years in the United States has brought Folkes success and he believes that he should give back to the place where his life started.

"Over the years I have been blessed, very fortunate, but as I think back to my childhood, my grandparents, my upbringing ... it all points back to my roots at Friendship," he explained.

Folkes, who moved to Kingston as a teenager and who later emigrated to the United States, believes that the foundation he received at home, school and church in Mount Waddy, Friendship is the biggest influence on his outcome in life.

"It didn't happen when I left for Kingston. It didn't happen when I left for the United States," he stated.

Folkes, who faced abuse while living in Kingston, said that his happiest years were those spent in the small farming community of Mount Waddy.

"Even when we didn't have shoes on our feet or had holes in our clothes, we had love and I found out over the years. That's why I was so happy. They were the happiest years of my life. The foundation for me started there," he stated.

Folkes went on to explain the reason behind his decision to give back to his home community.

"Because of my blessings, it's only natural. I believe in God Almighty and I think that's the right thing to do, to go back to my roots where it all started.

"The sense of giving back is one of peace. I call it happiness, fulfilment, satisfaction. You get all of that when you see you can touch people's lives in ways which changes them," he added.

Folkes said that during its initial stages, the foundation, while providing support to the school, will be assisting two students with tuition, transportation, books and other necessities. The Foundation will also be seeking to empower the community through farming. According to Folkes, he intends to set up a farm which will give community members a source of income. He also intends to assist them with the exporting of their produce. This he believes will result in major development in the community which has practised subsistence farming for several years.

Folkes promised growth for the foundation. According to the philanthropist, he intends for the foundation to expand nationally, and eventually internationally.

"I would like to see it go beyond the boundaries of Jamaica. I never really want to put a cap on anything," he said.

"I see us being able to create leaders better than the leaders I see today so that Jamaica can be more respected on a global scale as well as on a local scale. It all starts with the future generation and that is the children," he said.

With the belief that everyone has a part to play, Folkes thinks that the Foundation is a start for making a difference in the place where he spent his early years.

"We all sit around and we say 'one person can't make a difference'. It's true, but if one person starts, it's like the ripple in a pond. You throw that pebble out there and that ripple starts and it just expands," Folkes stated.

According to him, he believes in giving the best.

"If it is not good for me, then it is not good for you," he stated.

The community also believes that the foundation will create change for the community.

Retired educator Frances Steer, former acting principal of the Mount Waddy Primary and Folkes's teacher said that she was happy for his giving back to the school and the community.

"We are thankful for those who remember," she stated.

Principal of Mount Waddy Primary Inez Hawthorne also expressed joy for the foundation which will assist students from the institution.

"Michael Folkes Foundation means a lot to us," she said.

"One of my greatest issues is financial. Sometimes, when we are to move the children from one location to another we don't have the money to transport them," Hawthorne stated.

The Foundation, she went on, will help to address that problem.

"The parents don't have the money to pay the children's bus fare, even to give them lunch. They don't have it because they live on subsistence farming. Most of them are not employed. It is mostly unemployed parents that we have," she explained.

Hawthorne said that based on discussions with Folkes regarding the Foundation, many of the challenges the school has had to deal with over the years will be no more.

"I am so happy for this foundation," she said. "The resources that we will get from the foundation will help us to deliver better teaching and learning activities to the students. Our students are going to excel."

Hawthorne also welcomed the agricultural aspect to the foundation, which will be seeking to empower students who will be better able to care for their children.

"We are excelling, and this foundation is going to help us to do better," she said.

Folkes is admired by many for his hard work, dedication and care for others but those who knew about his past appreciate him more. According to him, his life story has been an inspiration to others and so they have encouraged him to write a book and that he has done. The book captures his struggles and success, giving his story from poverty to success.

Folkes explained that at age 15 he left Friendship and went to live with his mother in Kingston. There he attended the Donald Quarrie High School for three years and from there to catering school and then to the United States. The transition was not a smooth one, but after only eight years in the United States, Folkes started his own business.

"It's a third party logistics and contract manufacturing company. This month is the 17 year that that company has been up and running and it's still going strong. Thank God," he said.

"It's because of that success why I am able to come back. I am giving back to the United States so what about my roots? What am I doing for them? So that's what allowed me to come back here," he said.

While he is now a successful businessman, Folkes is not afraid to talk about his past, which he has found to be very inspirational for others. This drove him to write a book which has not only told his story but has been therapeutic for him overcoming some of the pains of the past.

"People who have known me and know my stories would always say 'Michael why don't you write a book. Tell your story it is really inspirational, motivational. People would really get something from it'," Folkes said.

"I suffered. I really suffered the three years I was in Kingston but I didn't want to be a farmer in terms of the way we farmed back then in a hot sun with a machete and a pick axe. It just didn't make sense," he said.

"I suffered humiliation, starvation at the hands of my own mother because I was a stepchild to her husband," he said.

Folkes said that he and his sibling had a rough time. "We had a hellish kind of life," he reflected, explaining that living near mango trees was a saving grace for them many times.

"I went from love -- although I was really poor in Friendship, to Kingston where I tried to get ahead -- to starvation, humiliation, abuse," he added.

Folkes suffered for years, but according to him, he knew God and knew how to pray.

"I didn't turn to anything but prayers and I prayed really hard and God got me through it. I prayed for knowledge, courage and understanding," Folkes stated.

Folkes, who got a job with Carnival Cruise Lines, left for the USA shortly after. Life began to look better but according to him, "it was no bed of roses".

"I had to work really hard," he said.

Folkes said that he had to work up to three jobs doing between 104 and 108 hours a week.

"Eventually, because of my good work ethic and the quality and consistency, companies would take notice, and eventually I managed to gain enough experience and knowledge and respect to start my own business and I never looked back," Folkes said.

His company provides logistics services and value-added type services to large companies such as Xerox in the USA.

Although during his teenage years Folkes's mother was not very supportive, when he became successful, his kindness was also extended to her. Folkes forgave her and through his arrangements, she went to the United States to live.

"The energy that you project, that you put out there, your action, attitude, if it's positive it is going to come back to you," he said.

"I could have looked the other way, but even before I migrated, her husband left and the responsibility fell on my shoulders and my sister's, and we put our few pennies together to make ends meet," he stated.

Although Folkes has achieved in the US, he believes that if he had stayed in Jamaica he would not have chosen crime and violence and pointed out that young men had a choice.

"I am no stranger to hunger, abuse, neglect, all kinds of things. You have to be strong, you must have courage," he pointed out.

As a strong believer in God, Folkes believes that prayer is a powerful tool.

"When you have the tough times, when you are hungry and it looks like it is the end of the world, you have to get down on your knees and reach out to God," Folkes said.

While Folkes is passionate about business, he also enjoys relaxing. He however admits that he cannot relax for more than two days at any one time. Folkes admits that the challenge of business is fun for him and so he is always active. However, he loves ballroom dancing and loves working out. He also enjoys fishing.

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