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Run Free project gives at-risk youth a second chance

Published:Thursday | August 6, 2015 | 12:00 AMKeisha Hill
The parkour training project, 'Run Free', in action at Emmet Park, St George's College.
A dance battle ensues on the set of 'Run Free'.
Teammates cheer each other on at the preview of 'Run Free'.
Matthew Walters and Sydney Lawrence skilfully navigate the set, putting their Parkour training into practice.
The cast and crew of 'Run Free' pose for a photo op.
Mentor and coach L Cpl Odien Williams from the Jamaica Defence Force commends the young men on a stellar performance.

Tears flowed freely from the audience. "We are boys no more - we are men!" they said, ending the hourlong production which gave everyone a glimpse of the struggles and overbearing challenges that have surrounded their lives over the years. The harsh reality of the challenges these young men encounter on a daily basis manifested itself through prolific rhythmic expressions and the spoken word.

Inspired by the bravery of these young men, the audience was captivated by the way in which they expressed themselves without fear, weaving and twining their emotional scars, reopening many wounds that, through artistic expression, they have now learned to heal.

Men are often considered to be weak when they express their fears and emotions. However, given the myriad circumstances surrounding their lives, there was nothing puny about these boys.

Of the 22 young men who participated in the Run Free Project, headed by the British Council, Manifesto Jamaica and National Theatre of Scotland, 90 per cent of them had committed some misdemeanour or had a traumatic experience that has been difficult to deal with. At least 50 per cent of them do not have a stable home or know where their next meal will come from.

Each welcomed the Run Free Parkour & Physical Theatre Project which utilises a type of free running style - parkour - to share their personal stories and discover their strengths and weaknesses. Going through their paces, it was obvious that these men were hopeful for a change from their already difficult circumstances. Society, it seemed, had given up on them, and as a unit, they were able to forge an alliance with renewed energy and strength to conquer the world.


For 21-year-old Nickalas Japp, a resident of Parade Gardens, better known as Southside, it was important for him to share his story and he welcomed the opportunity to join with the others in highlighting the difficult road they traverse daily. "Many of us have had a hard life - no home and very poor. We have been going through life the hard way. It has been difficult for us to live down certain things and clear our minds. Now we are able to share our thoughts and represent how we feel in an artistic way," Japp said.

It's no different for 17-year-old Marlon Pedley, who was introduced to the programme by his cousin Oraine Campbell. He has learnt to effectively deal with his emotions. "I can talk about anything that is bothering me now. At the end of the day, it is a good day and I am more positive about my future," Pedley said.

Simon Sharkey, director of the National Theatre of Scotland, said his team which has been on the ground intermittently for more than 18 months and was able to develop a profile of the group that helped them to create a model that was similar to their JUMP production in Scotland. Working with Manifesto Jamaica which recruited and maintains regular contact with the group, they were able to engage the youth and resonate similar themes through music and dance.

"With their daily challenges, we want them to move forward. But in order for them to move ahead, they need the right tools to begin to make the changes. We were able to test their character throughout the process and they have been able to move beyond the failures," Sharkey said.


Most crimes committed by youth at risk are done in urban areas with gangs in the community. Their behaviour is fuelled by a variety of factors, including having a family member who has been in conflict with the law, being affiliated with a gang and using drugs such as marijuana. Disconnect from family, school and society are also emerging as leading factors contributing to delinquent youth behaviour in Jamaica.

According to the World Bank, effectively reintegrating at-risk youth into society requires carefully targeted programmes designed according to the evidence of what works. One such intervention is mentoring, which has proven to be a cost-effective means of affecting a range of risky behaviours, including crime and violence, substance abuse, and school dropouts. When compared with other successful risk-prevention programmes, mentoring consistently shows high rates. The Jamaica Defence Force is one of the supporting partners who provide mentorship to the young men.

The Economic and Social Survey of Jamaica said three per cent of persons arrested for major crimes were in the 12-15 age group, and 21 per cent of major crimes were committed by those who were aged 16-18 years. These crimes include murder, shooting, robbery, rape and carnal abuse. Victims of these violent acts were also young persons.

Morland Wilson, project manager at the British Council, who spearheaded the intervention, felt it was necessary to reach out to these young men because they needed a positive avenue to tell their stories. "We are about the whole idea of inclusion, and this also incorporates the youth who are a vulnerable group. We think it was a captivating performance and the boys have told their stories well," Wilson said.

Brian Heap at the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts said it was a privilege for him to see these young men share their stories. "For them to publicly acknowledge their vulnerability, it is sheer bravery. Such an effort has to be supported by the private sector in Jamaica. We would also like for them to show it at the (University of the West Indies), in their own communities, other communities. It needs to be seen by the right people," Heap said.

Those invited to the premiere included relatives and friends of the performers and partner organisations, prospective partners from the private sector and delegates from Venezuela and Haiti, invited by the British Council.