Latoya Fry — the perfect imperfect person

Sunday Observer staff reporter

Sunday, December 09, 2018

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Latoya Fry admits that she started life on the wrong path.

“I did a lot of wrongs. When I became a teenager, I got into teenager problems and became an at-risk youth. But I did not know at the time that I was an at-risk, unattached youth until now when I look back,” Fry told the Jamaica Observer during a visit to a training session at the Children First centre in Spanish Town, where she was imparting craft jewellery skills to other women.

Project coordinator at Children First, Jovane Blagrove, explained that Fry has been playing a crucial role in their WAKE (Women Aspiring for Knowledge and Empowerment) Project, an initiative funded by the European Union through Rise Life Management Services.

“The project hopes to empower women who have been faced with gender-based violence or who are susceptible to gender-based violence, and equipping them with candle-making or jewellery-making skills, which is where Miss Fry comes in. She has been a huge part of this project,” Blagrove said.

“Through her initiative she is able to not only teach them a skill, but to also give them the tools and combine it with some psychosocial aspects to ensure that they can overcome their challenges and see their way through fears, and just get through life better,” added Blagrove.

She said that Fry, who is executive director of Forward Step Foundation, has a reputation in the NGO sector for her quality work, especially in jewellery-making.

“When we reached out to her, she never even gave it a question or thought, she just said 'yes', and since then, even when she is unavailable, she still ensures that she puts things in place to make sure that persons from her foundation are here to help with the project,” Blagrove added.

But this line of work — empowering and transforming lives — is nothing new to Fry, who operates a base in Gregory Park offering training and empowerment to youth.

“The foundation has been paving a platform for youth in the inner city and around Jamaica in different skill areas, including life skills, and as you know, life skills are very important. It helps them to pave the way and set the foundation for their future,” said Blagrove.

“We not only teach them a skill, we also create employment for them, which was one of the common needs in the community,” Fry explained.

“We have also created entrepreneurs. There are four persons who have gone through our programme and have started their own business, and they have evolved to the level where we train them to become trainers. So they are now training other youth as well,” Fry said.

“What we have also done is that we have created a family, and that's one of the things that we saw was also needed. A lot of them did not have a place to call home, they did not have people to relate to, and they did not have people to give them hope,” she said.

Fry also said that although she made some bad choices as a teenager, she always wanted to make a difference in the lives of others.

“As a child, I always thought about ways I could help persons, because I guess of how I was grown. I grew up the eldest of six children, so I was always expected to be the way paver; always expected to be doing the right things, so I became a caregiver before even coming of age to be a caregiver... I always had to be there for my younger sisters and brothers. Every time I would see a child in need, my heart would ache, but I did not necessarily realise that that was my calling,” Fry told the Sunday Observer.

But Fry's calling soon manifested when she joined Forward Step Foundation, founded by youth advocate and spoken-word poet Miguel “Steppa” Williams.

“When I journeyed into Forward Step, my eyes were opened to what was really happening with me, and what the different phases I was going through meant. I began to realise that I was on a journey of finding self and purpose”, Fry said, explaining that she not only became active in the foundation, but eventually took up training responsibilities.

She recalled the moment her purpose became clear to her.

“In one of the skills training we were doing, I had to take over a session and by doing that I realised that the universe started to call me, and was leading me in the way that I was supposed to go. I did not have any certificates at the time in that area. I did not even know what I was doing, but when things happen the way it should, everything just falls in place,” she said.

“I started to connect with these youth in a different way because I started to see myself through them. And I began to realise that this was my purpose. How do I not help him or her through what I have been through? How do I help them steer themselves through a situation so that they can have a more meaningful ending. So it became therapy for me, because I was sharing my experiences with them and I could relate to them because I knew exactly what they were going through,” Fry said.

Her fulfilment from her work was visible as she conducted her training session, with the able assistance from two of her advanced students from her foundation. One of them, Tajair Francis, calls her “Mama Fry”.

“That [is] supposed to show you the kind of influence she has on me,” Francis told the Sunday Observer. “She deals with us like we are her own kids. Any little problem we have in the streets and we go to her, she always gives us the right advice and she always makes sure we do the right thing.

“From I got introduced to Miss Fry, is just a lot of good things happen for me. I started doing craft jewellery and that's where Mama Fry help me as well. I started travelling with her to do workshops all over Jamaica. Last summer we facilitated about 1,500 youth from all over,” Francis shared.

“This kind of experience changed a lot of things in me. It made me more focused and more driven toward my craft because when I go out and go so far and see so many persons interested in what I am doing, it makes me want to put more effort and interest into it, as the person training them,” the young man said.

Fry's other student, Yanique Thomas, explained with a smile that Fry is one of her role models.

“I have been in the foundation for about three years and it has helped me in terms of my mindset. Miss Fry, who I am around very often, has helped me to better handle certain disadvantages and advantages in life. She is one of my role models. I admire her in the movements she has been making. Being around her is very motivating. She teaches us how to encourage ourselves,” Thomas said.

“Even doing the craft jewellery, we go with her to places like juvenile centres and teach other children, adults, teens, and it really helps me. In terms of life skills, I have improved a lot in work skills, how to deal with various circumstances and how to help others. And she is a very good mummy. She has also inspired me to be a better mother,” added Thomas.

This is the impact that Fry said she lives for — to see the transformation in the lives of her students through what she regards as not much to give. She recalled other moments like these.

“I remember speaking with one of my students during a session, just giving them advice about life, and two weeks after I got a text from that individual who said that on that particular day I did not know what they had in mind, and that the kind words I had uttered caused that person to change their life for good. I don't even remember what I said, but I know we were having a deep conversation about life,” Fry related.

“When I got up and saw that text, I felt my purpose. Everytime I step into a training session, whether it is youth or young adults, at the end of my sessions I realise that this is what I am really called to do because the look on each individual's face is something that money can't buy,” she added.

“I remember another of my students saying to me, 'Miss Fry, thank you for believing in me when nobody else did. If it was not for you, I don't know what I would be doing right now.' It is moments like those that I live for. When you come in contact with people in situations like these, and the mere fact that what you are giving of yourself is not much, but it is so much more for that person, the feeling is massive,” Fry said, adding that while she makes her livelihood from craft jewellery, her joy is really to help others do the same.

“I manufacture and design handmade jewellery, and that's just the part that makes the money, but what I really love from doing this is training others, and passing on the skill to other persons. Because I believe that if I can teach someone else how to fish, so that they can take care of their family, the world can be a better place. A lot of artisans say that only saturates the market, but at the end of the day, everybody has to eat. So my entrepreneurial journey is not just about making jewellery, but also teaching the skill,” Fry said.

As a full-time mother, mentor, business woman at IndiLyphe, and head of a foundation, Fry explained that she has learned to strike a delicate balance.

“It's not easy at all. It's about discipline and being able to separate the different hats. You have to learn how to balance yourself as an individual before managing anything else,” she said.

“What this journey has done for me is that it made me the perfect imperfect person to be the executive director of this foundation because I can relate to them on their level, I know what's happening, and I know how to deal with it, and even if I don't know, it brings me on another journey of exploring how to deal with that situation. This journey chose me,” Fry said.

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