Ann-Marie Richards reshaping lives of her nearly 50 children
If you ask Ann-Marie Richards how many children she has, she will tell you, straight-faced, she has nearly 50. But before you call the Guinness Book of World Records, only three are biological.
Richards, through her Stars of Hope programme in May Pen, Clarendon, cares for less fortunate children, giving them a second chance at life. Why? Her childhood wasn't ideal.
Growing up in Cedar Valley, St Thomas, the home was blissful until her mother migrated, promising a better life for everyone. It didn't happen.
"My family went into just a big ol' breakdown," she said. "I saw my dad take it very hard. I can remember vividly seeing my father taking off his shoes and selling them to send to the store across the street to buy stuff for us."
Richards said her dad became an alcoholic, but he still encouraged his four children to go to school. And it was one of her teachers who helped the children anyway she could. She always encouraged Richards, telling her she was special. But life was still tough.
ROUGH CHILDHOOD YEARS
"It was very hard growing up without your parents together," she recalled. "Sometimes we had to hunt for food, people would stone us, run us away."
Richards vowed she would never get married or have children because of this, but years passed and when she met her future husband, Elricka, her outlook on life changed.
"He has been that man. Him protect, him tek care of me, he's an excellent dad," she said. "What he brought to me was what I didn't experience, which is family. He brought stability."
She said Elricka noticed her heart rested on helping children.
"He was a police officer at the time, and he would just drive the radio car, take up the children, and bring them home to me," she laughed. "One day, I saw him come in with three one time!"
The children taken in over the years have various issues. Some have been molested, never been told they are loved or even hugged.
John, for example, was a former extortionist and gunman, who was buggered, abused, contracted HIV and was intent on spreading it before Richards' intervention. He was able to turn his life around, helping others before passing away.
Then there was Marie, whose father molested her and her sister, then killed the sister when it was reported to the police. Nervous breakdowns and low self-esteem were pushing her to an early grave before Richards found her. Esther is now married, a mother, and mentor to others. It's stories like these that spur her on.
But in the beginning, Richards was trying to help these children without any formal training in psychology or grief counselling, and with just money from pocket. She started sewing and using skills she picked up from her primary-school teacher to gain the cash to help the children they were bringing in.
Velia Espeut introduced Richards to the USAID/Ministry of Health youth programme, Ja-Style, and got things rolling. After the programme ended, Richards started selling products from Unicity, a multilevel US marketing company, whose primary product offerings include weight-loss and health products.
"Every box I sell earns money to help somebody," she said, but the needs still threaten to overwhelm the resources. Richards utilises those resources as best she can, encouraging those who have passed through the programme to help care for current children.
The Stars of Hope Elite Squad are young people who mentor troubled youth. A wider family programme counsels persons of all ages. Stars of Hope has worked with people from all over, school administrators sometimes calling them in to speak.
The immediate need is for a container to house a computer lab and homework outreach programme, as well as a marching band.
Richards is adamant, no child should be left behind.
"You can't take people for granted that nothing good can't come out of what you see," she said. "I know that they are diamonds, and they are in the rough, and if someone can just take the time and polish them, it will work."
Stars of Hope can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, 560-5819 or 392-2044
I can remember vividly seeing my father taking off his shoes and selling them to send to the store across the street to buy stuff for us.