MONTEGO BAY, St James — After word spread in the gritty inner-city community of Norwood about how a social programme was changing participants’ lives, other youngsters from the community started to show up, trying to get in.
“Recently, we had two young people show up to the skills training centre and sit in the class and I had to say to them, ‘You just can’t come and sit in the class like this. You have to be a part of the project’,” said St James Youth Development Project Manager Adenike Stephenson.
“They were interested because they heard from the participants how good it is, all they are benefiting and how it has changed their lives. So they wanted to be a part of it but it is too late, unfortunately,” she added.
Stephenson was speaking with the Jamaica Observer last Friday during one of the sessions for the Transforming Our Perspective (TOP) — cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) programme. It began in April and ends next year.
Through TOP CBT, 86 at-risk youngsters between 17 and 29 years old are benefiting from a wide range of services. These include training in vocational and business development skills, providing small grants for them to start their own ventures, and ensuring that they have the licences required for their chosen path. Those that need it also have access to a psychologist, and counselling to address substance abuse issues.
The aim is to find a solution that works for each individual. For some participants it may mean vocational skills training, or helping them get back into school. For others it may be helping them access paid internship opportunities.
“For those who want to own and operate a business, we provide them with business development training, assign them a mentor and they get a grant of $150,000 and we work with them one on one to start something,” explained programmes specialist at Local Partner Development (LPD), Natalie Wheatle. LPD is funded by USAID and implemented by Family Health International 360 (FHI360).
In addition, 40 youngsters from the community are registered with the Human Employment and Resource Training/National Skills Training Agency (HEART/NSTA Trust ) to learn all about food preparation. Wheatle said they will be placed in jobs and their first two months’ salary paid for by the programme.
“We are not going to ask the employers to pay them. What we are asking the employers to do is to give them the opportunity and the space. We will pay them, but what we want the employer to say is, ‘If this young person performs well, then we will keep them’,” she stated.
“The approach that we are advocating is a targeted behaviour modification programme that deals with the individual risk factor for each young person,” she added.
Norwood is just one of the country’s crime hot spots deemed most volatile and vulnerable that have been earmarked for transformation through TOP CBT. This is not the first initiative in St James. Some 40 youngsters from Flankers and an equal number from Salt Spring participated in a similar multidimensional intervention initiative between 2020 and December 2021.
The Norwood project is one of many being implemented under the wider US$16-million LPD project which started in February 2017 and will come to an end next year.
Consultant project coordinator for FHI360/USAID Kyle Schloss said the level of commitment from participants and trainers within the community has been exceptional.
“I remember one situation where one of the participants was ill and even though they weren’t able to [provide] sessions physically, they video called in, even against the hospital’s regulation. They called him because they did not want to miss the session,” he said.
He recalled another incident in which a participant required hospitalisation that would mean he would not be able to participate in a session. Arrangements were made to have him treated without being hospitalised.
“This is the level of commitment that I saw from these participants. Even when it was against their better judgement in terms of their health, they did not want to miss out on what was being done in the group. That shows the impact of what was done in the group on a weekly basis,” said Schloss.
“For me, that was very outstanding; that was basically telling us that there is something good that is happening. There is something that is taking place that is changing their lives,” he added.
As an associate clinical psychologist, his role is to provide guidance and address psychological issues from an emotional standpoint that may occur within the group.
As outsiders, it is often difficult for those providing help to be accepted. In a culture that frowns upon openness it is not easy to get people to engage, and flare ups sometimes make the area inaccessible.
“It is challenging… asking them questions, talking to them and getting them to choose a different path… The level of violence in the community prevents you from accessing the community… So, you have to be careful where you go, what time you go in and how you go in,” explained Project Manager Stephenson.
She believes the programme is effective and can be even more so if they had more time.
“This group that we have now doing cognitive behavioural therapy, I think that it has been really impactful for them. It has been successful in terms of changing their mindset and behaviour; giving them a different view of life and themselves. I think putting more effort into providing that kind of therapy for young people like these that we are targeting can be very effective,” she said.