A three-month skills-building programme, dubbed Out of School Youth, has given several young people in the deep rural community of Wheelerfield in St Thomas a new lease on life.
Young men and women who once roamed the streets or idled their time away on street corners now spend their days at the community centre learning an employable skill under an initiative co-ordinated by the HIV/STI prevention arm of the South East Regional Health Authority (SERHA).
So every day they cram into the tiny community centre where they are instructed in areas such as electrical engineering, construction, tiling, music, literacy, and numeracy. They are also exposed to presentations on grooming and etiquette, HIV and other STIs, sexuality, as well as conflict resolution from members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force.
Denise Grant, community peer educator with SERHA, said while the programme can only afford to offer a cooked lunch to 30 persons it does not turn anybody away.
"The need here in the community is so great the programme is oversubscribed," Grant told the Jamaica Observer North East during a recent visit to the facility.
In fact, the programme is extremely oversubscribed, but the prospect of graduating and receiving a certificate is too much of apull for the participants, many of them high school dropouts.
The programme in its present form does not meet the varied needs of the citiziens of Wheelerfield; so much so, there is need to consider a similar programme to include persons outside the current 15-24 age group.
A major plus of the programme is the wide access it offers, since it meets the youngsters where they are, thus eliminating the challenge of transportation costs.
"We normally travel the distance to take the programme to them and we even keep it at a central place in the community to allow for easy access," she said.
Just two months into the Wheelerfield programme, Grant said there has been a marked improvement in the competence of the participants.
"Generally, what I notice is that there were some persons who can't even form the letters in their names, and you can see the improvement," she said.
This is the third skills-building programme for the parish; the first two having been in Bull Bay and Bramble.
Grant explained that the communities are chosen based on targeted intervention, where a baseline study is done to determine the needs.
"Based on the level of interaction, we realised there were a lot of school dropouts in this community and so the objective is to empower them in these skill areas which they chose for themselves," Grant said.
She explained further that the areas of training offered to the communities is in accordance with what the participants themselves are most interested and this is usually borne out of a focus group prior to the start of the programme. She said, too, that consultations are had with stakeholder groups like the Registrar General's Department, the National Insurance Scheme and the HEART Trust/NTA with a view to defining the the programme offerings.
Those who successfully complete the programme have the added incentive of being granted automatic enrolment to a corresponding HEART programme.
Shamar Palmer said he has been sitting home with seven CSEC subjects ever since he graduated from Morant Bay High School as his parents just could not afford for him to continue his studies.
"I really want to be an accountant, but mi get a setback because mi just never have the push," Palmer said.
He was only too happy to be a part of the programme and hopes to get accepted to HEART to pursue an electrical course.
"Nothing not here for the young people as we normally just get up and mainly sit on the street, but now the programme change that," he said.
Fellow participant, known as Anna-Gaye, a 22-year-old mother of two, said her education ended at the grade nine, thwarting her dream of becoming a soldier.
"When mi hear bout di programme dem say is ah boy pickney thing, but mi say anything boy can do me can do it too, and so mi come," she said.
Like Palmer, Anna-Gaye hopes to get accepted into a HEART college to pursue studies in the electrical field.
"I now feel empowered to make something of myself," she said with a smile.
Jelisa Brown, who dropped out of school in grade 10, said there was never any other opportunity for her to continue her schooling. Now, however, she has developed a new-found love for music and enjoys learning to play the keyboard.
"I want to go back to evening class and get my subjects," Brown said.
Another participant, Bromson Forbes, dropped out in grade nine because his parents couldn't afford to keep sending him.
"There was nothing for young people to do here but just sit down with friends and talk and idle," he said, adding that the programme has helped to get the young men off the corner.
"I really hope to be one of those persons who get to go to HEART because mi love electrical and music," he told the Observer North East.
One of the oldest participants, Kadeen Dunn, had a similar story of financial challenges preventing her from completing a high school education.
"I had to look a work and do like bar work that I didn't want to do or just hang out on the road because there was nothing else to do," the 24-year-old said.
She acknowledges that the dream of becoming a nurse will have to be put om hold, but in the interim, the young woman hopes to pursue a career as an electrician.
Grant, meanwhile, pointed to the successes of the previously staged programmes in the parish.
According to Grant, a student from the programme in the Ramble community was later employed at a garage, another went on to become an electrician, while four others received financial assistance through the National Insurance Scheme to sit CSEC exams.