Anastasia Cunningham, News Coordinator
"When I see your face
There's not a thing that I would change
'cause you're amazing
Just the way you are
And when you smile
The whole world stops and stares for a while
'cause girl you're amazing
Just the way you are ..."
Sprint queen Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce led the chorus of beautiful voices as the young ladies at Homestead Place of Safety in Stony Hill, St Andrew, passionately belted out Bruno Mars' hit single Just The Way You Are.
The well-groomed, bright-eyed girls were overwhelmed with emotions of excitement, tears, laughter, pride, modesty, awe, confidence, hope, appreciation, as the world champion captivated them in a compelling, motivational, intimate chat.
"Believe in yourself and know that when you look in the mirror you are beautiful. A person's view of you is not important. What is important is what you view of yourself, so be confident," declared Fraser-Pryce.
"You can be whatever you want to be in life, as long as you work hard at it. I am who I am and God has blessed me the way that I am. Accepting this gives you the confidence to take on the world and dare to dream and dream big, and to achieve those dreams," added Fraser-Pryce.
The sprint sensation, UNICEF Jamaica's national goodwill ambassador since 2010, and members of the UNICEF team spent last Wednesday afternoon with the young ladies of Homestead Place of Safety as part of efforts to raise awareness about issues affecting adolescent girls.
Gravely concerned with the major challenges that continue to face young Jamaican girls, UNICEF partnered with the Child Development Agency and the National Family Planning Board to implement a two-year life skills and empowerment programme for young women at places of safety, including Homestead.
The aim of the programme is to equip girls with knowledge and skills to prevent sexually transmitted infections and HIV infection, unintended pregnancies, build self-esteem and improve their ability to resolve conflicts.
Fraser-Pryce's personal experience of growing up in poverty and difficult circumstances, and her passion for youth, have made her a powerful motivational speaker with the ability to impact the lives of young ladies in a positive way.
You could hear a pin drop inside the classroom at Homestead as the teenagers listened intently to the 26-year-old track star as she shared her story of being so poor, her family of four - including her mother Maxine Simpson and two brothers - lived in a small board room in a tenement yard in the inner-city community of Waterhouse, St Andrew, with a small bed that they all slept on.
She spoke of how embarrassed she was when her mom would send her to the shop to "trust" (credit) one quarter of a bread with butter, and she would run home with the item wrapped in paper so no one could see her.
Fraser-Pryce further told the story of being targeted by the 'corner youths' who were adamant that she would "deh wid them or she a guh get rape".
Of never believing in herself because she was often told she would never amount to anything.
Shelly shared that she got her strength from her mother, who was one of the strongest, most influential forces in her life.
"At the end of the day, your circumstance doesn't define you. Not because you were born in a poor situation and experienced really rough times, it doesn't mean that is the end for you.
"Dare to push yourself to the limit. Don't be overcome by fear of not being able to achieve great things. Dare to dream and dream big, and start from now," she charged the young ladies.
"I used to tell myself a lot that I can't, but I stopped. Now I tell myself not yet but one day I will. Take control of your actions, because the choices you make will determine your future."
JUST LIKE ME
The thrill of spending the afternoon with the 'Pocket Rocket', whom they had only ever seen on television, was an incredible experience for the adolescents.
But they were even more fascinated by the realisation that the world record holder, Olympic gold medallist and darling of world athletics was just like them.
The girls saw another side of the diminutive young woman who, to them, was always 'larger than life'. And they identified. Connected. They found a new sense of hope.
"Shelly has helped me a lot today. I have been through what she has been through. I have been in homes from I was four. I had a lot of people tell me I can't make it in life, and usually I would cry because I would say I don't have anyone. But I will try my best to show them that I will make it in life," shared an emotional 16-year-old Meg.
"It was really a great experience with Shelly being here. It was my first time seeing her. I loved her being here, because I can relate to what she shared with us. To now be so exposed to the world and to know where she is coming from is not really a nice place, I know what that is like," said 17-year-old Ann.
Sixteen-year-old Dawndeclared: "She has boosted my confidence in a lot of ways. Knowing that she has been through some of the things I have been through makes me feel I can do anything, and anything is possible."
"I have enjoyed every single word she has said, she uplift me, I was so motivated. I will put them to practice," noted Trisha, 15.
Homestead caters to the needs of 68 girls between the ages of 12 and 18 with several challenges, especially behavioural issues.
The home provides not only a safe place for the girls in state care but also academic and vocational training.
Sophia Walters, interim manager for Homestead, said the girls really needed this.
"This was one of those visits that was absolutely fundamental to the girls, building their self-esteem and encouraging them and showing them that it does not matter where you come from, it is where you end up, how you end up there.
"It showed them that determination, hard work and just applying yourself will get you there. That they have to be able to grab the opportunity that present itself, make the most of it and don't waste your life," shared Walters.
AFTER TRACK AND FIELD
With a degree in Child and Adolescent Development from the University of Technology, Fraser-Pryce said after track and field she intends to dedicate her life to youth development and empowerment.
"This is something that I really love. It is a passion for me to have young people hear my story, because a lot of them would see us on TV and believe that we just got there overnight.
"But I need them to understand that I am coming from circumstances just like them, and the UNICEF group has afforded me that opportunity to just spread the word the way I can and impact the lives of the young people," Fraser-Pryce shared with The Sunday Gleaner in an exclusive chat.
As Shelly's visit drew to a close, getting hugs, kisses and autographed photos from the world's fastest woman was the icing on the cake for the young women.
It was an experience they didn't want to end. But Fraser-Pryce left them with a sense of pride and belief in themselves.
[Names changed to protect identity]