At age four, Newton Coote's father wrapped his hands with newspaper, poured kerosene on them, and set them ablaze.
This would see Coote being uprooted from his family home and placed at Maxfield Park Children's Home, where he stayed until he was 12. In 1985 he was transferred to the then St John Bosco Children's Home, now St John Bosco Vocational Training Centre in Hatfield, Manchester.
That period saw Coote struggling to accept that his parent would have done that and subsequently abandoned him.
“I was ashamed of showing my hands, and when people asked me about it I would cry. Sister Suzan Frazer told me that others have it worse and I said it's true. Others are more hard-knocked than me,” Coote told the Jamaica Observer.
Even then, Coote said adjusting to living in a boys' home was not easy, and he simply “hated it”.
“I was born in Kingston and I remember looking while driving here and wondering what is this bush. I wanted to go back to Maxfield Park. Over the years I tried to adjust. When I was at Maxfield Park I didn't have to do anything. The beds were made up for us, house cleaned for us. It was like night and day. Here you had to fix your dormitory, get up from 5:00 am before school, sweep the yard, and do your chores.
“It bothered me greatly that I did not know my family. For holidays, everyone would go to see their family and I was left back. I even went once with one of my friends, and while there his family went one side and I was left out in the passage. It was hard seeing people with their family and you don't know yours, but now it's easier for me to sympathise with the boys here in a similar situation. That motivates me to stay and help. There are still moments, even now, I break down because I know I wasn't born this way, but I don't dwell and become a prisoner to it because if I wasn't here maybe I wouldn't reach where I am today. But, eventually, I got the hang of it and accepted that I was going to make the best of my time here,” Coote said.
He told the Sunday Observer that his new-found confidence was further cemented from his daily reading of a sign in the dining hall which read: “If you can imagine, you can achieve it.”
“I said, 'Hey, why not?' and began having a more positive outlook,” he said.
From there, Coote would hang out a lot in the kitchen and help out a nun — Sister Noreen Grey — who taught him to cook.
“I started by greasing pans for her to bake and then from there I was taught to bake cakes. Over the years I was taught by the other nuns who have been here. Some of them taught me cooking. I was taught to cook Indian food through a nun who was an Indian and also to cook Chinese food from a nun, Sister Carmen,” he recounted.
These experiences would eventually inspire him to become a chef.
“I went back to Kingston, as the sisters ran a school at Laws Street. It was a training centre and that was where I went and acquired my other skills. Sister Benedict Chung operated it and I learnt a lot from her too,” he said.
Today, Coote, 48, is the manager for catering at St John Bosco and also the manager of a restaurant, The Falls, which is operated and based at the Hatfield, Manchester, centre.
“When we built the catering hall, we were looking to put in a garden for people to go and take pictures. I got someone to clear out the area and the rocks were nice and so we developed that part too. We have a benefactor named Butch, his brother Eddie Hubert had never given us anything before but I had a feeling it was going to be different this time, and he gave us a generous sum to start the project – US$50,000 and then another US$25,000. We turned it into a restaurant and it has been doing well,” he said. “We train several children who go on to get decent jobs overseas and on cruise ships.”
Further, Coote said St John Bosco means a lot to him and for that reason he remains true to the institution, and encourages the youngsters to make the most of opportunities.
“Sister Suzan pushed me so people didn't treat me like a cripple. Now I tell them [students] anything is possible. I don't have two good hands but I work as if I have two good hands,” he said.
St John Bosco is currently undergoing a renovation of the main building after a donation of US$249,000 from Digicel Foundation. Sisters of Mercy of Jamaica has also contributed US$60,000 towards professional fees related to the renovation project.
The current vocational training programme offers certification in various trades, including butchering, catering, animal husbandry, agriculture and greenhouse farming, as well as barbering. Cosmetology has been introduced recently, and is offered to both male and female students.
Further, the programme assists students in completing levels 1-3 for City and Guilds certification and, in some cases, Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) examanitions. Coote hopes the expansion of St John Bosco into a co-educational skills training institute will be successful and provide another avenue for youth to get trained.