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Giving back

Whitehall Primary past student adopts alma mater

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, January 20, 2014    

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IT took the vision of one past student of Whitehall Primary in St Thomas to make a world of difference in the lives of the 178 students and six teachers at the rural institution.

Through the formation of the Only Protecting Another Life (OPAL) Foundation, Opal Robinson has made it her life's mission to raise funds to purchase much-needed supplies for the school and its students.

Over the last three years, Robinson, who resides in Canada, has not only brought cheer to the students by presenting them with gifts, but has outfitted the school with computers, an overhead projector, a scanner, a laminator and a public address system.

But her generosity has extended beyond just donating items, as she is now seeking to raise funds to construct a perimeter wall at the institution. There are also plans to build a resource centre, a computer room, a library and an office for the principal.

The fence cannot become a reality soon enough for the school officials who have been clamouring for this added security. Robinson's niece, Tresha Passley-Powers, who is a teacher at the school, explained that not having a perimeter fence leaves the children exposed to several dangers and opens the school's property to vandalism.

"Insane persons sometimes wander onto the compound and throw stones and once it hit a child," she explained. "We [also] can't plant or put up anything because there are several footpaths to the school."

Principal Icyline Davis-Taylor added that even with the employment of five security guards, the school's security continues to be compromised.

"Safety is an issue that most schools face and so if the area is fenced it means we will be better able to manage the children where discipline is concerned and vandalism would be lessened," she said.

The foundation's assistance, she said, is particularly meaningful given that it is coming from a past student who felt the need to say thanks by investing in the lives of current and future students.

"My passion and drive for doing this comes from watching my mom; how she would give back to the community and the way she raised us to always be giving," said Robinson, who is a teacher in Canada.

In addition to that, the benefactor, who was also taught here in Jamaica before migrating 23 years ago, explained that she made a promise to God that she would give back to her community if she made something of herself.

"I prayed about it and I got this vision and I spoke to my mother about it. I went back to visit (Whitehall) one year and single mothers kept coming to ask me for a $100 here and there to give their children for school as they had no money or shoes for the children to go back to school and so I decided then that this is how I could help," she told the Jamaica Observer via telephone from her home in Canada.

Robinson said she immediately started by distributing plastic bags to some co-workers asking them to donate whatever they could for a child.

"It was overwhelming to see how they were giving and so that first year I was able to pack a couple barrels," she recalled adding that her mother, who has since died, was there to see her vision become reality.

Robinson said her friends Szussana Vass and Carol Hamilton, her husband Clive and their adopted daughter Deidre Smith motivated her to make the initiative even bigger. As a result, in the second year she solicited donations within her community and was again blown away by the generosity. She also gets inspiration from the children themselves.

"Just to see their faces and to hear them say, 'thank you, miss'. The second year we didn't have things for everyone and so when the things ran out one little boy came up and I could just find a few little things to put in a plastic bag for him and he was just so thankful for that little bit and that was just heartbreaking," she said.

For last year's donation, Robinson said she organised a fund-raising dinner to ensure that every child would be able to get a backpack consisting school supplies and toiletries. This year, Robinson said there are people who are lining up to come to Jamaica with her to assist with the construction of the fence.

"I am so very immersed into what I am doing. I am so passionate about this vision. Every spare moment I have is spent thinking about something bigger and better," she said.

Passley-Powers explained that the donations have been extremely beneficial. Last December's staging of the event, she told the Observer North East, was the biggest as all 178 students received a new backpack of items, compared to previous years when only the most needy would be gifted.

"The children were so happy because come January morning all of them were able to come out to school with their new bags," she said.

Some of the students were also presented with items of food and clothing after being fêted at the annual treat. The teachers also received gifts and the recently retired former principal was presented with a plaque in appreciation of her more than three decades of service to the institution.

"This year, she even ended up giving food and backpacks to some community members, as she came with a total of 250 backpacks," Passley-Powers said.

In addition to the backpacks and supplies, top performing students in the grade four General Achievement in Numeracy test Tyrick Powers and Tamarly Laing were each awarded a $10,000 scholarship.

"This scholarship will act as an incentive to push the learning of maths even further," Passley-Powers said.

Guidance Counsellor Hazel Richardson said she hoped the project will continue to expand because of how helpful it has been to the children.

"This is a farming community and a lot of people are not working and so the financial needs are very great," she said.

Meanwhile, Davis-Taylor, who noted that some parents sent their boys to Whitehall and their girls to other schools, said she welcomed Robinson's appeal to parents to enrol their children at her alma mater instead of those miles away in Morant Bay and Seaforth, for example.

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