Mr Downer's advocacyMonday, November 18, 2019
BY CANDIECE KNIGHT
JAYSON Downer's father was behind bars for most of his childhood. His mother told him that his dad was overseas, and she, along with his relatives who knew him, only spoke well of the mysterious father figure who little Jayson yearned to meet.
“But when you are a small child and you are told that your father is abroad, you expect to get goodies, and I didn't see any goodies coming forth. It was when I was about seven or eight and I kept asking, my mother told me that my father was in prison,” Downer, who is now a male youth and adolescence coach and the dorm manager at Jamaica College, told All Woman ahead of International Men's Day.
Downer's experience with puberty, wherein he felt isolated during a period where his body was going through rapid changes, led him to develop an interest in the role that fathers play in their sons' lives, and seek to be a mentor to boys going through similar experiences.
“I had no male figure to sit me down and say, 'this is what you are going to experience'. All I heard was the beat down of the church,” he shared. “I was a pre-teen who was interested in naked women, and I was having strange new feelings and nobody was telling me how to manage it but to go and have a cold shower and have self-control. I need more than that but I never had that, so I take the opportunity very seriously to mentor these young men here.”
Downer, who is also a minister, is the president of Men of God Against Violence and Abuse (MoGAVA), which he founded in 2013. His intention when he founded the group was to change the narrative of Jamaican men, and the often lamented issue of fatherlessness which seemed to me more prevalent than ever.
“I too believed the argument that Jamaican men are not good fathers,” he admitted. “But then as I delved into the area of advocacy I realised that the narrative is not accurate. Yes we have deadbeat dads and sperm donors and men who don't stand up to their responsibility, but on the flipside we also have really good fathers.”
Downer realised this when he became a father himself and noticed that men quietly attended clinic appointments, PTA meetings and the like. He recognised, too, that fatherlessness did not have so much to do with physical presence, but the emotional connection between father and child.
“I think traditionally we paint the role of men as protector and provider so a man feels as if once he is providing for his child, and if he is in trouble and he goes and protect him, then he is playing his role as a father,” Downer explained. “That's old school. The narrative now needs to be protector, provider and also nurturer. Especially this in generation the children require not just your finances, but they need your presence. Yes we have a fatherlessness problem, but it's not so much the absence from the home, but absence of the quality relationship between a father and his child or children.”
Downer is convinced that he is living his divinely ordained purpose by being a guiding beacon to not just youngsters but also parents who want to have better relationships with their sons. Before he realised this purpose, however, he had to knock on a few wrong doors.
“I first started working at the St Aloysius Primary school as an assistant teacher, then I had a brief training stint at the Jamaica Constabulary Force but I had to resign” he retraced.
Having to drop out of police training because of severe depression was a devastating blow to Downer, who wanted to become a police officer since he was a child.
“I was from a very super conservative church and I dared not tell them what I was going through because I did not want to be demonised. I kept in what I was feeling also because I did not know what I was feeling. I lasted only two months. When I came out I was bitter,” he said grimly.
While working on a delivery truck to make ends meet, Downer visited the Emmanuel Christian Academy, and on a whim asked if they were hiring. His background in teaching got him a job as the only male teacher on staff at the time. There began his first foray into male mentorship – Mr Downer's Drumming and Mentoring.
“From then I moved on to putting on conferences and talks about 'understanding my son' and things like that. I studied guidance counselling and theology and did other courses and training in fatherhood overseas,” he recalled, coming full circle to now being at Jamaica College.
The 38-year-old has been the dorm manager since its inception three years ago. Along with his wife, who is the assistant dorm manager, and his biological children, Downer uses his family as a model for the nearly 70 boys who reside on the school campus.
“It's an opportunity to impact and mould lives. That for me is even better than preaching. It's teaching,” the minister smiled. “Mentorship to me is not trying to make boys like me. It is about helping each boy to be the best version of himself.”
One of the projects of which Downer is most proud is MoGAVA's Fathering from Behind Bars programme, which targets inmates with children and seeks to facilitate them having a meaningful connection with their kids even while they are locked away. This, he said, was born out of the positive aspects that he now sees in the relationship he had with his incarcerated father.
“In those days it was said that if you're under 18 you couldn't visit the prison. Now that I work with prisons I know that is not the case, but at the time my older sister used to go to visit him and he would send messages through her to me saying, 'Son, I love you', and things like that, and it made me feel good,” he beamed.
He recounted the day he finally met his dad, and the positive relationship he had with him after that point.
“At 12 plus I was next door playing with some children my age and I saw a man peep over the fence and asked, 'Any of unnu know Jayson?' And I said, 'I'm Jayson'. I don't know how him reach over the fence, but I felt this man embracing me and kissing me,” Downer shared animatedly.
“The relationship blossomed from there. He had been in prison because of an implication in a robbery that he did not know about but when he came from prison he never ever complained about the system. He did a basic job and lived in a little one room shack in Golden Spring. He talked to us about prison and was very real with us. I understood why everyone spoke so highly of him.”
What Downer remembers most about his dad, who is now deceased, however, is that he was emotionally present for his children, even behind bars.
“He was never afraid to say I love you, and that meant so much to us. I realise that I possess many of his qualities, and I truly believe that our young men need to hear that more.”
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