‘Cry and laugh with the people’
"SOMETIMES YOU can't sleep at nights," confessed Dr Andrew Wheatley, a first-time Jamaica Labour Party member of parliament who is by no means a political neophyte but concedes that being a representative of the people at this level is not an easy job.
He cites a litany of stories of despair and hopelessness from his constituents that have had a harrowing effect on him.
"You can't sleep at nights when you remember this man with one foot. He suffers from sugar so he was unable to treat the sugar. He could not buy medication and eventually lost his foot and his wife is a housewife who is not working," Wheatley said, relating one of many heartbreaking stories of residents faced with severe hardships in his constituency.
"It is not an easy job - you have good times and bad times - you have to cry with the people and you have to laugh with the people," Wheatley asserted.
Three years have elapsed since the South Central St Catherine MP romped to victory in the December 2011 general elections defying what was then a national swing for the People's National Party (PNP) when he set aside the challenge of the PNP's Vincent Morrison and booked a ticket to Gordon House as the elected representative.
The euphoria and excitement that accompanied Wheatley's election win have long been overtaken by the reality on the ground mid-term into the five-year election cycle. The Gleaner sat down with Wheatley at his constituency offices on Old Harbour Road in St Catherine recently to discuss with him his experience and achievements as a member of parliament and how he has fared in the face of overwhelming challenges.
Unemployment is the most pressing concern for Wheatley in his constituency which comprises a mix of middle income, lower-middle income communities and areas beset by crime and poverty. The South Central St Catherine MP says he is struggling to come to grips with the loud cries from his constituents for job opportunities.
He said the majority of persons who are seeking assistance from him want a referral for a job or financial support to start a micro business.
"You cannot detach yourself from this thing here completely. You have persons come for burial assistance. It is cheaper for people to live now than to die because you have to find all of the money one time to bury the person and there is nothing known as a pauper's burial anymore. So if a person could not find food to eat before and your mother die how are you going to find at least $100,000 to bury her," he asked rhetorically.
Wheatley said the Constituency Development Fund, amounting to some $13.5 million which is allocated to MPs for work in their constituencies had to be stretched to meet the demands for various projects covering infrastructure, social and educational programmes.
The MP revealed that he has had to dig into his personal funds on many occasions to assist his constituents while at the same time embarking on fundraising activities and receiving donations from sponsors to deal with the growing demands.
But it's not all doom and gloom for Wheatley whose countenance sparked with excitement as he picked up a picture on his desk with the portrait of a young woman, an apparent graduate from the University of the West Indies, Mona, who he proudly declared had established her own business and was doing well.
Wheatley says his gratification comes from her success, knowing that he played a part in helping to finance her studies through educational programmes at the primary, high and tertiary level.
"This girl now starts her own business and that is just one example... things like these drive you. I invest in the people. I am not here to trick anybody. I am here for the long haul. I am rooted in this constituency and with the people."
He added: "I am the godfather for a lot of children in this constituency so you must go to dem christening. Some people invite you to their wedding - you must go all of the funerals and the nigh nights."
On a tour of the constituency, The Gleaner requested an impromptu stop at the Homestead Primary School where the MP was greeted enthusiastically by a polite group of grade-six students who interacted with Wheatley, sharing with him the schools they want to attend after sitting the Grade Six Achievement Test.
With support from the MP the school is adding two classrooms to accommodate an increasing number of students who want to attend the institution that has shown dramatic improvement in the percentage of students who show mastery in literacy and numeracy since a new principal took over in recent times.
The JLP MP, who once held the job of mayor of Spanish Town for many years, said as an elected representative of the people it was his job to debate issues that impact his constituents in Parliament.
However, he said those who only speak articulately in Parliament and neglect their constituents have betrayed the people.
"You don't watch a lot of those people who go to Parliament and just talk, talk, talk. If you are not connected with the people and understand the real issues affecting the people and try your best to give them hope then you would have denied them proper representation."
Wheatley said he works closely with his three councilors to address the various needs in the constituency.
According to him, the constituency is divided into three divisions - each councilor takes a day and spends time at the constituency office from Monday to Wednesday and he sits in on Thursday.
He also hosts quarterly meetings with the executives of the 24 active citizens association in his constituency.
Wheatley said all the communities are given the opportunity to make suggestions on projects to be pursued in the constituency using the CDF.
Not mincing his words in relation to MPs who "take the people for granted", Wheatley said whether they belong to his party or the PNP he eschews them.
Commenting on his chances of retaining his seat in the next general election, the first-time MP said he was planning to double his margin of victory at the next national polls.
MPs achievements since 2011
* Biennial grants of $50,000 each to 22 citizens' associations for selected projects
* Infrastructure improvements
31 St John's Road
Dempster Road in Sydenham
Section of Hill Run Road
Renfield Avenue in Homestead
Major work on drain between Renford Drive and Lawrence Avenue
* Social programmes
* Homework centre at the Homestead Community Centre
* Sponsorship for Cromarty Community Development Council
* Allocate $5 million annually for educational assistance
* With sponsorship from GO-GSAT $3 million worth of software given to primary schools and two high schools
* Finance the cost of some prescription drugs not obtained at hospital by constituents
* Partner with sponsors to fund some feeding programmes in schools
* Assist constituents to start micro businesses