A life-line for Balaclava
BY GARFIELD MYERS Editor-at-Large South/Central Bureau MYERSG@JAMAICAOBSERVER.COM
SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — For most of the last century, Balaclava in north east St Elizabeth — close to the three-cornered meeting point of Manchester and Trelawny — was a thriving, bustling town.
All that changed in the 1990s with the collapse of Jamaica's passenger railway service.
All of a sudden, Balaclava which - for as long as anyone could remember — had been a vital cog in the rail link from Kingston to Montego Bay, found itself short of economic and social relevance.
Finding ways to boost educational, entrepreneurial and job opportunities for young people in particular is a constant challenge for local leaders such as Gareth Irvin, pastor of the Balaclava Baptist Church and politicians, not least Member of Parliament for North East St Elizabeth Raymond Pryce (PNP).
It was against that backdrop that Irvin approached the Lime Foundation seeking assistance to set up a facility with Internet access that would serve as a community study/homework, research and communications centre.
The Errol Miller-led Lime Foundation responded by equipping a small building adjacent to the Baptist church with 10 computers, high speed internet and Wi-Fi convenience at a cost of $1.2 million.
According to Miller, the facility dubbed 'The Link' is the 10th to be set up in "under served" communities.
"In the main cities and towns people have fair access to the internet but somewhere like in Balaclava it's hard to find and you have students and schools here just like everywhere else," Miller said.
"When we can afford to and we find communities off the beaten track then we make sure we go in and help," he added.
Speakers at a recent ribbon-cutting function all pointed to the value of the centre for neighbouring schools such as Balaclava high, primary and basic schools. But Miller also emphasised the value of the Internet for adults in their daily occupations, even in remote Balaclava.
"If you are farming you can get the prices of products just by going on the 'net..." he pointed out.
Pryce, who observed that schools in his constituency will benefit from the government's planned 'tablets in school project', mused that the Lime model rolled out at the baptist church, could be followed elsewhere including the small Balaclava Library.
"One of the things we are going to do is to ask them (community stakeholders) to come and look at how The Link was done," Pryce said.
He emphasised that the move to Internet and computer technology was inescapable.
"One tablet which weighs 20, ounces if so much, is able to hold far more than anything (traditional school books) hold," he said.
Nichol Jackson, principal of Balaclava Primary said the Internet facility will be of invaluable use to her students.
"This is first and foremost a way of bringing the rest of the world to them (children) at their finger tips," she told the Jamaica Observer Central.
"There is no doubt that it is going to enhance their learning not just by giving them exposure and experience, but also giving them the ability to research, to learn new things," she said.
"It's a homework centre, which is very good since many parents are having challenges in helping with homework. So here we have children getting reinforcement of what they learn in school, exposure to the wider world... they are becoming global Jamaicans...," Jackson said.
The centre will be managed by the Baptist church's education committee and Irvin stressed that any cost to users will be very minimal.
"If there is a charge it will be a small cost, just in terms of upkeep or printing or something like that," he said.
The youthful pastor also says there could be room for expansion.
"We have 10 computers right now, so we are hoping to see what the future brings. We would expand if the need is there because we are here to serve the community, so we look to see what the future holds," he said.
The need for young people to find jobs means there is now an alarming brain drain, Irvin told Observer Central.
"It's an ageing community ..." said Irvin. "Just over the last six months I have seen the migration of about five of our youth from this church all due to job opportunities outside of the area, more so in Montego Bay," he said.
Shanna-Gay Ellis, a 17-year-old graduate of Maggotty High who says she is on the job market described the The Link as "an amazing thing for Balaclva ... and it's available for everyone."
Father Darren Evens of St Matthews Anglican Church in Santa Cruz, who led prayer at the start of the function hailed the initiative as being in sync with Christian ministry. "Education is very important and Jesus was a great educator. I like the link between the church and the community," he said.