Fiona's FlourishSaturday, July 25, 2015
WE see altruism in many forms every day: big companies throwing money at young athletes to purchase gear; doctors embarking on health care drives; service clubs building schools and libraries in communities.
But for freelance communications specialist Fiona Burke, the project is much closer to home.
Inspired by the generous nature of her father and the symbolism of her high school motto --Virtute et Sapientia Floreat -- she launched Flourish, a mentorship programme deisgned to steer vulnerable girls in her hometown of Red Hills, St Andrew, from peer pressure, teenage pregancy, and other forms of societal disease.
The programme is largely an out-of-pocket venture, with support from family and friends.
"My interest to mentor these girls heightened when I saw the types of pictures that girls post online, their attire, disregard for social etiquette and unhealthy conversational practices that they engaged in," the Queen's School alum explained.
The Queen's motto means 'May she flourish in virtue and wisdom'.
Every Saturday afternoon for seven weeks, Burke and her group of 11 girls between the ages of 12 and 16 met in the church hall at Red Hills Methodist for lessons in speech, etiquette, hygiene and grooming, self-worth, career choices, among other activities. A highlight of the programme was a dining experience at a Kingston restaurant, which, according to Burke, was the first time several of the girls had sat down for a formal meal.
They also got the opportunity to meet Olympian Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn, actress Camille Davis, and educator Dr Renee Rattray.
Flourish is an extension of the Gordon Miller Community Development Foundation which Burke started in her father's honour in 2011, a year after his passing.
"Our house was like a community centre," she said, referring to her father's abiding love for the people of his communtiy. "Anything people wanted they knew they were always welcome to come by and they wouldn't get turned away."
To date, the Foundation has donated $60,000 towards repairs and development at Red Hills Primary School (2011), provided scholarship grants for two students who performed exceptionally well on the Grade Six Achievement Test (2012), donated school supplies to Red Hills Basic School (2013), given medical supplies to the community health centre (2014), and paid graduation fees for two students at Padmore Primary School (2015).
Tamarnie Tavares, one of the girls who benefited from Flourish, and one of the first awardees of the Gordon Miller Community Development Foundation had nothing but praise for Burke and the programme.
"She is creative to come up with a programme like this that has not only helped me, but so many other girls who require guidance and support. She never just thinks of herself, she is mindful of others in the community, always supporting them so that they can excel. I wish there were others like her; I wish they could see the challenges that young girls face, and be willing to support them in the same way that Aunty Fiona has been doing. I can imagine that it is quite a challenge for her to find the resources necessary for us all by herself. If only others had a heart like hers," she told the Jamaica Observer.
Another of the girls, Melissa Reynolds, sent a text message to convey her gratitude.
"Aunty Fiona, you will never be able to understand what you did for me. I have always wanted to meet Camille Davis and now I can cross it from my bucket list. This is all because of you and I can't thank you enough," she wrote.
The girls aren't the only ones who have taken notice of the impact of Burke's work.
Tamarnie's mother, Andrea, described the experience as "a breath of fresh air" in the community.
She said the programme had united girls from different social and economic backgrounds to ensure that they will not only become exposed to social and educational development, but that they will share important life lessons among themselves.
She also said the programme was the perfect guide for teenagers traversing the challenging years of adolescence.
"Before going to Flourish she was very shy, very reserved and very uncertain about the career path she wanted to take," she said of Tamarnie. Now, she says her daughter is more aware of her purpose, and where she desires to be.
Tavares isn't the only parent who expressed gratitude.
"If you see something in someone else that you would love to see in your child, only then should you not be afraid to leave your child in their company," said Carlene Pitt, aunt to Jada Howell, another of the girls who was part of Flourish's first cohort.
Pitt said she enrolled Howell in the programme because she believed that it would have been the perfect opportunity to help her niece to grow and come to 'hold her own' in this 'big scary world'. She said all she wanted for Howell is what she has become.
"I wanted her to become more outspoken, to be exposed to a programme that encourages mental growth, self-love, respect and self-control," she added.
The journey to establishing Flourish was not without its challenges. Burke told the newspaper that she struggled to secure the necesary funding to begin the sessions, which commenced on February 14. However, not long after she started, small contributions from family and friends came in to supplement funds she took directly from her earnings.
Burke relaunched the programme this summer with older girls ranging from 16-18, but she fears that this set of girls won't get the exposure and experience that they need as a result of the lack of sponsorship.
"It is sad that they may never be able to experience all that the girls before them did. They may never get to dine out or be rewarded for their exceptional work in group activities because I don't have the money to see it through," she explained as a look of disappointment settled on her face.
Still, the 36-year-old, who holds a bachelor's degree from Northen Caribbean University, remains undaunted. She has big dreams for Flourish and harbours hope that it will be replicated in more communities in as many parishes as possible. She is willing to share her ideas and has committed to creating a template for others who may be interested in saving the girls of Jamaica.
"I don't think any 9-5 or any amount of money could give me that much satisfaction. I love what I do," she said.