Lessons from the Re-Birth Project
Melody Cammock-Gayle, Contributor
After reading our article 'Brand Jamaica needs Backitive', a prominent businessman invited our team to a meeting. Like us, he sees Brand Jamaica as a multidimensional, resilient brand, but laments the country's inability to capitalise on its brand equity. Recognising the missed opportunities, the article called for government support, public-private partnerships, political integrity and better parenting to address, particularly, the deterioration of values, attitudes and the spiralling crime rate, which are major setbacks to developing Jamaica's brand equity.
This gentleman's challenge: "How are you going to take action?"
In response, the team crafted the Re-Birth Project, an intervention initiative designed to influence positive attitudes and reform behaviour of 20 at-risk high-school students aged 13-15. Over nine weeks, these teenagers from the Tivoli Gardens and Norman Manley high schools, along with their parents, attended developmental workshops which employed protective/preventative strategies to build personal resilience, encouraged the youth to strive for excellence, and provided parents with the resources to best support their children towards being positively different.
As we prepare for the second phase of the Re-Birth Project - Phase One ran from March-June 2014 - I'd like to share some insights we gained from the experience:
1. One person CAN exert change.
At December 2013, Jamaica's population was 2,717,991. When one thinks about 'rebuilding' Jamaica by changing values and attitudes, reaching 2.7 million people seems such a mammoth undertaking, it paralyses and regulates you to remain on the sidelines complaining. Yet the challenge from one man propelled our team from Maverick Communications & Associates (MC&A), plus a team of caring resource persons to touch 40 lives, who continue to influence their community. A small corps of committed persons can make Jamaica's well-needed difference.
2. Any intervention programme for children must include parents and teachers/schools.
Our initial planning included only the children. However, after a discussion with Dr Patrece Charles-Freeman, CEO, National Parenting Support Commission (NPSC), we were encouraged to take a tripartite approach that included the children, parents and school/teachers. This, she explained, was now the ministry's method. It made sense. We realised it didn't matter how much we taught these teenagers if they returned to a home and community that portrayed contrary values and attitudes. We needed reinforcement from the home and at school.
When a child is exposed to risk factors such as maltreatment, poor parenting, violence and poverty, he or she is more likely to be propelled on a trajectory towards poor academic, social and behavioural functioning. Still, some adolescents develop into productive aspiring young adults despite challenging circumstances. Others constantly struggle with depression, behavioural issues, anxiety or lack of self-confidence. Studies show, however, that many external and internal factors, including good parent-child relationships, a positive school climate, self-esteem and self-efficacy in at least one domain of life, and a warm, close personal relationship with an adult, can help to determine resilient functioning.
Researching and determining the mechanisms behind resilience, we knew we needed the best behaviour-modification facilitators and the most impressive motivational speakers who could stir our student-participants to aspire to greatness, change their trajectory, and instead be self-directed into a more positive direction.
4. Not to be so judgemental
Admittedly, we began the Re-Birth Project with certain assumptions. We had designed a programme for children who were brilliant but troubled. We expected the issues. What we didn't expect was to meet children who genuinely wanted to do and be better, but lacked the motivation and support to achieve it.
5. There is a need for good parenting education.
As early as the press launch, two things were painfully apparent - these parents loved their children, but were at their wits' end. At the briefing session, the parents almost brought us to tears as they relayed their struggles and frustration in dealing with their children. They were anxious for help.
During the project, the parents eagerly participated in their sessions, asked questions, took notes and shared openly about their failures and progress. Recognising the parents' genuine desire to do more for their children, Parent Places - an NPSC initiative - were implemented at the Tivoli Gardens and Norman Manley high schools.
6. Need to break generational cycle.
Living in low socio-economic, violent communities, almost all parent-participants were adamant they wanted better for their children. This, many times, was the root of their frustration. The children refused to see that their current lifestyle was leading to a road the parents were all too familiar with. The stories of teenage pregnancies, absentee fathers, relatives who died in their prime, and constant child-parent conflict were common debilitating struggles. These are cycles that must be broken if these children, and many like them, are to grow up and become productive citizens.
7. Leadership is important
Working with both high schools underscored the value of good leadership. From the outset, Norman Manley High School set itself apart. The Guidance Department was present, concerned, engaged, more organised with information being processed and feedback communicated in a timely manner. At least one teacher attended every session - with apology rendered ahead of time for absence. One of the school's deans of discipline was even assigned to the project, attending many of the sessions on Saturdays and showed great hospitality when the project relocated to the school.
8. Change takes time.
After working with the students for nine weeks, with regular assessments from the teachers and parents, regrettably, some children have shown no signs of change. Two fell out along the way, while three boys were referred to the Ministry of Education and Child Development Agency (CDA) for counselling.
There were weeks we were ready to throw in the towel as we just couldn't see our efforts making a difference. On occasion, Carol Narcisse, a veteran social development advocate, consoled us. But, slowly, change started. No big leaps, but tiny, sometimes microscopic steps. Still, change was made and continues to happen. Some parents report that children are more obedient, relate better with siblings, are more respectful, spend less time on the streets, and are more focused in school. They haven't transformed, but slowly, steadily, change occurs.
9. Jamaica has corporate companies and people who genuinely care about our children and country's development.
The Re-Birth Project costs. When we began the project we had big plans and $100,000 from a singular sponsor - Grace. Yet weekly expenses were in excess of $250,000. Companies/organisations we approached had already made budget allocations but some were willing to assist when we outlined the project. We must, therefore, pay special tribute to companies that caught the vision and supported in one form or another. So, too, the facilitators who contributed their time and expertise.