Western News

John Matthias Brown... building communities

BY MARK CUMMINGS Editor-at-Large, Western Bureau cummingsm@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, August 30, 2012    

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PETERSFIELD, Westmoreland — WHEN John Matthias Brown steps on the dais to collect his Badge of Honour for community development on National Heroes Day, he will not be collecting the prestigious award for himself. Instead, the lanky and charismatic community stalwart will be doing so on the behalf of the people of Petersfield, Westmoreland.

After all, it is that district in the Westmoreland sugar belt that had welcomed him with open arms when he took up residence there in 1981, and has allowed him to transform many lives and to change the image of the once crime- riddled rural community.

"I am honoured and humbled to be getting such an award and I will be receiving it on the behalf of the community of Petersfield -- not as John Matthias Brown per se," stressed the very vocal and articulate Brown.

On the occasion of the country's 50th anniversary of Independence, Brown was named among the 123 persons appointed National Honours and who are scheduled to receive their awards at a ceremony at Kings House on October 15.

Last week, in an interview with the Observer West, he recalled that when he took up residence in the deep rural community many residents branded the district as "Killersfield", while some tried to discourage him for living there, pointing to the high crime rate and the general hopelessness, particularity amongst the youth.

Not wanting his young children to live in such an environment, Brown -- armed with his vast knowledge and training in community development -- quickly got to work to change the imagine and the stigma that was attached to the community.

"I did not want my children to grow up in 'Killersfield', so I set out to change that perception in 1981," said Brown, explaining that it was said that "there were a lot of murders in the area and none has ever been solved".

"My first move was to engage the people of the community in something progressive and so I started the Petersfield Sports and Community Club (PSCC). I did not want a cricket club; I did not want a football club... I wanted a community club that would encompass everything cricket, football... everything would be a part of it. I wanted a club that would be sustainable and so I formed the PSCC and it has been going strong now for 27 years," he explained.

Brown, who served the organisation for two years in the capacity of president, boasted that since the PSCC's inception, a meeting has been held every Thursday night.

Three years after its formation, Brown spearheaded the creation of the Association of Clubs (AOC) and has been its facilitator since.

That group, he pointed out, is the umbrella organisation for several clubs in Westmoreland.

He recalled that after the passage of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, the PSCC was one of the few organisations in the parish which was prepared to render assistance to affected persons.

"We had disaster preparedness committee ready and so when the hurricane came, we were able to organise other communities and give them assistance," he noted.

He added that in the aftermath of the hurricane, the Association of Development Agency, gave the PSCC $200,000, intended for disbursement to affected residents, mainly in the form of housing assistance.

But Brown said acting on the suggestion of Frank Morgan, a club member, a decision was taken that the money should not be disbursed in the form of grants, but instead should be placed in a revolving loan fund.

"That revolving loan fund, called the Frank Morgan Loan Programme, is still going and has disbursed over 500 loans to members valued at several million dollars. To date, we have had only one delinquent loan," he stressed, pointing to the success of the initiative.

He added that although the loan ceiling is $60,000, eligible persons can be granted up to six loans annually.

Meanwhile, the AOC, Brown said, has developed six programme areas:

* the Frank Morgan Loan programme;

* Video animation and advocacy;

* education, training and environmental sensitisation;

* village tourism;

* culture and sports; and the

* Jamaica/Cuba Friendship Association.

Through Brown's commitment, influence and guidance, the AOC won the 2007 Michael Manley Award for Community Self-Reliance, using its education, training and environmental sensitisation programme.

Then earlier this month, the group again snagged the prestigious award, this time with its Village Tourism project.

Under the project, which began 11 years ago, university students mainly from the United States of America, spend time in Petersfield where they undertake a raft of community projects.

The initiative, Brown said, has helped to boost the local economy, as well as to instil discipline in the residents who see the students as "role models".

In another five years, the 71-year- old Brown said, the AOC is expecting to win the Michael Manley Award for the third time, when it enters with the Frank Morgan loan programme.

Prior to his involvement in the Petersfield community just over three decades ago, Brown had worked as a tractor operator at the Frome Sugar Estate in Westmoreland.

In 1976, when former Prime Minister Michael Manley began the Sugar Workers Co-operative, Brown was transferred to that unit as a member service officer. Two months later, he was sent to Israel where he observed the operations of co-operatives in that country.

Then, in 1981, he worked with the Social Action Centre with a mandate to organise community groups.

Brown has also travelled to Bangladesh, Tunisia, Algeria, Cuba, Panama, and Grenada where he studied various aspects of community development.

And earlier this year, he travelled to the US where he made presentations on community development to University students.

".... So I have been training to build communities. I believe in community development; I believe that the way to go is to have communities developed in such a way that they can sustain themselves," he argued.

He noted that his organisation has contributed significantly to the development of Petersfield and adjoining communities.

"We have done a lot in Petersfield... we have put in a lot of social amenities. We have constructed several bus sheds, organised health fairs, created a park, helped hundreds of persons to acquire a skill, held summer camps, back to school programmes... and so the entire community is behind us," he emphasised.

He noted that the building that houses the video training laboratory, the computer laboratory and other equipment has never been burglarised even though there is no watchman at the facility.

"Nowhere in Jamaica could you find all of these equipment in a building and nobody tries to steal them. The reason it has never happened is because the community believes that what we have here is theirs. There are several young people here who depend on it," he stressed.

Over the years, Brown's hard work and dedication to the building of the Petersfield community and adjoining districts have not gone unnoticed.

He has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards including the:

* Foundation of International Training Award;

* the Jamaica Solution to Youth Lifestyle and Empowerment Award;

* Western Union Award for outstanding community service;

* Westmoreland Cultural Development Commission for contribution to culture;

* Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce and Industry Award for community development, and the

* Rotary Club Award for outstanding community service.

The National Award he will collect on Heroes Day is a testament to his hard work and exemplary leadership.

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