Alpha Boys' products attract manufacturers
The Alpha Boys' Institute is grabbing the attention of some Jamaican manufacturers with some of the finest pieces of wooden products out of its Service Bureau.
"We make things for individuals and manufacturers, too," says Dennise McGregor, who is in charge of operations there. "We make the crates for Straight from Yard, which they use for gift displays. They wrap them and put things in them, such as flowers. There is another company called Art Smart, and we make their boxes. Manufacturers are some of our biggest customers."
The Alpha Boys' Service Bureau produces woodwork items for about five organisations on a full-time basis, including the Jamaica Tourist Board, Florida. Asked how such a lucrative deal came about, McGregor indicated that it was completely by accident.
"Someone received a gift from the Montego Bay Club, and they were so impressed with it that when they looked at the bottom of the box and saw that it was made by us, they got in touch," she said. "We have been making boxes for the Jamaica Tourist Board, Florida ever since."
Woodwork is one of its oldest operations, and is therefore one it is extremely proud of. And yet, this secret at the South Camp Road institution, which some manufacturers are on to, is only a part of what they do in the Service Bureau.
Founded by the Sisters of Mercy, Jamaica from as early as 1880, the Alpha Boys' Institute remains one of the longest-running vocational schools in the country. Although the institution is no longer a home for boys, the Alpha Boys' School continues to provide its two-year training course to those who were housed there, as well as to recent intakes. Located on 26 acres of the 40 that the Alpha Institute is on, the boys' school provides training in various trades, including printing, woodwork, and music. Late last year, screen printing, landscaping and barbering were introduced to the curriculum in order to create more rounded young men.
The Service Bureau, which was formed in 2003, occupies a small building on the Alpha compound. It was the brainchild of Sister Susan Foster, who decided that it would be a good way to utilise the training given to the boys so that the institute and Jamaica at large would directly benefit.
As the person in charge of operations, McGregor oversees the printery, the woodwork shop located directly across the street, from it and a gift shop.
The printery has been around for about 40 years and is home to the latest digital and binding machines. McGregor disclosed that persons go to the printery to copy, spiral bind, laminate, among other things, and that they are paid to print anything from business cards to books. These are all done digitally, of course, on one of their state-of-the-art digital printers.
Engraving is another of their specialties.
"It is our largest income generator, and we even use a laser engraver to make exercise books," she noted. "One of the biggest myths is that we only work for the Catholic Church and schools, but that's not true. We can't afford to advertise, but we work for whoever requires our services."
Landscaping and barbering are not yet available to the public as training is currently ongoing, however, the barbering services are offered to staff and family members for now.
When questioned about the contribution that the Service Bureau makes to the Jamaican economy, McGregor pointed at the boys in the woodwork shop.
"We send them out on job experience every two years. Second-year students go out for between two and four weeks to different companies. We currently have 10 to 15 out of our second-year students who have found jobs from participating in the job-experience venture. Also, many can start their own businesses or work with other people. Their families benefit by extension as well. We are a social enterprise because we sell things for profit, but it all goes right back into the institution."
In addition, their music training has produced some of Jamaica's best talents.
"King Yellowman and countless others were at Alpha Boys' Home. Almost every band in Jamaica has an Alpha boy, the same for most printeries and woodwork shops," McGregor said.
The gift shop is another one of their income generators. They sell marked T-shirts, printed books, trinket boxes, curved clocks, pens, among other things, but McGregor insists that there is still an issue with funding.
"If we even make a 30 per cent profit, by the time we are finished with the training, tools, equipment and material, that profit is wiped clean, so we need funding. Heart Trust/NTA just came on board and are assisting us, so we get some sponsorship from them for some of the trades, but not all."
Forty acres may not be much, but the number of persons who have trained with Alpha over decades show the dedication and hard work of everyone there. The income generated by the Service Bureau is necessary for the daily running of Alpha.
McGregor said, "Since we opened, we have trained hundreds of thousands of boys. Back in the day, we used to house up to 600 boys. The juniors would stay in school, and the seniors, who were at least 15 years old, were the ones who learnt trade. Up to 10 years ago, we were housing 250 (boys). Currently, we have a population average of about 120. We have the capacity for more, but people don't seem to know about us, and we can't advertise on the scale we would like to, so it's more via word of mouth. Our admin department hands out recruitment leaflets in various neighbourhoods every year."