Tue | Nov 20, 2018

On a mission to empower - Peace Corps volunteer helps in recycling, improving literacy at Newstead Primary

Published:Sunday | August 5, 2018 | 12:00 AMArmitabh Sharma
Eleanor Nelson, Peace Corps volunteer (second left), and Clovis Menzie, principal of Newstead Primary School, St Mary (right), with some of their students
Elanor Nelson (in th middle), Peace Corps volunteer at the Newstead Primary School, St Mary, with some students who helped her create a pavement from soda bottle caps.
Jadon Smith, Grade 5 student of the Newstead Primary School, St Mary, shows a globe he made from recycled material.
(From left) Aleya White, Victoria Henry, and Brianna Morgan, students of the Newstead Primary School, St Mary, practise a Bob Marley song.
Clovis Menzie, principal of Newstead Primary School, St Mary shows off the medals and trophies won by the students in vairious disciplines
Amitabh Sharma
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Eleanor Nelson need not hoot any whistle to marshal her little troops; from marching around the community, collecting PET bottles, making art from bottle caps, to lugging suitcase loads of books as her check-in baggage, teaching music, promoting literacy - she and the students of Newstead Primary School rally to get the job done.

She takes multi-tasking several notches up. Nelson is so much potency, vibrancy, and diversity packaged in a single human being - and her energy levels are on a constant crescendo.

Since this Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) literacy adviser came to this hamlet in St Mary of lush greenery and milky rivers in May 2017, she has striving, with the help of the students of Newstead Primary School, to do just that: keep the environment pristine.

She went around the community to collect plastic bottles. From July 2017 to March 2018, they managed to collect a whooping 132,000 of them. This effort won the school 10 computers and J$100,000 after they were placed first in the 2017-18 LASCO Releaf Environmental Awareness Programme (REAP).

It was a collective effort, a long road to travel, but in the end, it was worth it.

"At the end of last school year, my school decided to embark on a PET bottle collection," Nelson said. After their summer school classes, the students went around the community to help collect plastic bottles.

But some parents were afraid that their children, who did not know how to swim, might drown in the strong currents of the White River that flows through the community.

Necessity becomes the mother of all inventions, it is said, and during their mission to collect the PET bottles, Nelson heard her students' desire to "swim like the people dem from foreign", she recalls.

The incentive programme began with Nelson teaching swimming to three students after the bottle-collection exercise.

One of her students, Travis Fairclough, came to her one day and said: "Miss, miss! I did a tour. I got $500!"

"From then on, he described himself as a tour guide in training and actually would accompany guides and get tips," Nelson said, adding that this skill can be transformed into a viable career option.

"They have the skills needed to become tour guides and make money bringing tourists around," she said.

The PET bottle collection has become so popular that the businesses in the community are still keeping the bottles for her, but Nelson said that they need help to transport the bag loads of bottles stored and spilling over in a room in the school compound to the recycling plant in Spanish Town.

Incentives apart, the students are aware of the implications of plastic waste to the environment.

"Fishermen depend on fish for their livelihood, but if the fish eat the plastic, and the fishermen catch those fish, they will end up in our food," said Sishara Mignott, who is in Grade 5.

Students of Newstead Primary are also encouraged to plant trees.

"We planted 1,500 pepper plants and reaped 309lb of peppers, which the principal sold to jerk centres," Nelson said, adding that they planted 168 different indigenous fruit trees.

 

HIGH POTENTIAL

 

These initiatives are reaffirming and renewing the faith that Clovis Menzie, principal of Newstead Primary, has in his students and their potential.

"These (recycling and growing produce) are not merely extra-curricular activities," Menzie said. "They are enhancing the creativity, problem-solving abilities, and avenues to developmental skills."

He said that the school would like to take on agro-processing as one of the options for the students, which he said is value added as these products can be sold to the tourists visiting the community.

"Our students have won awards in JCDC culinary arts competitions," Menzie said as he clutched and raised a bunch of medals.

He said that he was grateful to the Peace Corps and Nelson for helping the students realise and tap their potential. Nelson has transformed a computer laboratory into a reading room and a library.

She said that she was able garner funds and a donation of books stocks, the library, and she said that the project got a shot in the arm through Massachusetts-based education charity Reading Owls International.

 

WARM AND SUPPORTIVE

 

On her part, she Nelson is not averse to paying for excess baggage to the airlines.

"Only thing I carried when I visited home was two suitcases of books ... around 300 of them," she said. This Chicago girl has found a breath of fresh air coming from the Windy City to a laid-back hamlet in rural Jamaica.

"I am loving it," she said. "The people are warm and supportive."

Nelson, who has been a classical violinist since she was 12, is also teaching music to the students, and her next project is to implement Girls With Goals, an initiative that she attributes to her idol, former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama.

"It is about empowering the girls, giving them a purpose in life, and reiterating that they are strong and second to none," Nelson said, adding that it was her dream to work with the Obamas one day.

There are some fundamental expectations from the Peace Corps volunteers: "Commit to improving the quality of life of the people with whom you live and work, and, in doing so, share your skills, adapt them, and learn new skills as needed."

Nelson, like her colleagues in the Peace Corps, is checking those boxes and more. She said that she would like to see her initiatives will be about change.

Principal Menzie is hopeful that Nelson's initiatives are sustained.

"We have to and need to sustain these best practices," he said. "We are encouraging staff members to learn what Miss Nelson is putting in place so our children can appreciate and benefit."

There is perhaps not a trait she doesn't possess - from classical music to fine arts and add Arabic studies ... the parting greetings exuded just that.

"Shukran (thank you in Arabic), Eleanor," to which she responded, "afwan (you are welcome)."

amitabh.sharma@gleanerjm.com