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Kingston YMCA: 100 years of changing lives 100 years of changing lives

Published:Monday | November 11, 2019 | 12:07 AMJudana Murphy/Gleaner Writer
Jamiel Forrest (left) and Dr Howard Harvey at the launch of Kingston YMCA 100th anniversary at the YMCA on Hope Road in Kingston on November 6.
Jamiel Forrest (left) and Dr Howard Harvey at the launch of Kingston YMCA 100th anniversary at the YMCA on Hope Road in Kingston on November 6.

Despite having a budget that is constantly short of $7 million, the Kingston Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) continues to be a haven for unattached young boys and those in need of special help.

Throughout its existence, the association has overcome many adversities, having suffered two fires, the second of which destroyed the facilities at 21 Hope Road in 1996.

Jamiel Forrest and Howard Harvey are just two examples of transformation that have emerged out of the YMCA, which is on the cusp of celebrating its 100th anniversary.

Forrest grew up with both parents in what he described as a stable home. He was often ridiculed by children and adults alike because of his inability to read,up to age 15.

He suffered from dyslexia and hopped from school to school in a bid to find one that would be best able to tailor learning for him.

“The thing with dyslexia is that you might see a word and some of the letters switch, so when they switch now, you have problems with literacy, but you have a good memory. My teachers used to say, ‘If this boy ever learn how to read, he would be unstoppable ’, ” he said.

After passing through four primary schools, Forrest sat the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) and was placed at Red Hills All-Age School.

“My parents heard about the YMCA, and they brought me here. I did a reading assessment, and from that reading assessment, they placed me in a suitable class at my reading level. I was reading below the grade-one level,” said Forrest, who was 12 years old at the time.

He said that during his first couple of classes, he was just going through the motions.

“I would just write the work off the board because I was saying to myself, ‘It’s gonna be the same old, same old. Mi jus ago move to a next school ’, ” he said.

Things would change for the youngster when he was enrolled in the intensive literacy programme.

He was asked by a Miss Hunter to read the word ‘huge’, which she had written on the board. His first attempt was pronounced ‘hug’, but after an explanation about how vowels and consonants worked, he got it right.

Covering up Dyslexia

“I used to carry around the Gleaner paper trying to read whatever I see on it. They used to keep some old Gleaner in the auditorium, but I didn’t care if it was dated. I just wanted to read it to improve my skills. I practised and practised, did the reading assessment again, and I was reading at the grade-three level,” he recalled.

Forrest was proud of his improvements but yearned to do much better. By the time he sat the Grade Nine Achievement Test, he was reading at his grade level, and he secured a place in high school.

At St Andrew College, he sat seven Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate subjects and matriculated to sixth form at Quality Academics.

Today, the 22-year-old is an assistant in the same programme that helped to improve his literacy.

“I’ve seen children move from not being able to call their names to pronouncing big words like ‘capitalisation’ – children around my age when I was here, 12 and 13,” he said.

He harbours dreams of going into astronomy, a field he has long been fascinated with.

“Ever since I was a little boy, I used to watch Discovery Channel – even before I learnt how to read. I know what I want, and I am aiming for it,” said a delighted Forrest, who has done research on the various international universities that offer astronomy programmes.

Street Corner Boys’ Programme

Harvey’s entry into the YMCA was a little different. His family valued education, but they could not sustain it financially.

Being the eldest of 10 children, he would sacrifice a portion of each day’s schooling to seek an income in the 1970s and ‘80s.

“I was going back and forth – school and hustling. Initially, it was like begging and trying to get some sympathy,” he said.

Soon, he gave up begging and started wiping windscreens, which was a more profitable venture.

He was told by a lady one day that the streets were not for him. He took a glance over at the YMCA and observed instructors teaching swimming and convinced himself that he could do so as well.

After several attempts, he and a few others were accepted into the YMCA and were among the first set to be admitted into the Street Corner Boys’ Programme.

He was taught how to be customer service-ready because the staff knew that he was in the business of wiping windscreens and wanted him to get the necessary skills.

“I learnt about six to eight different physical-education programmes. I can teach aerobics, badminton, table tennis, all these things. What was most important was the morals and the social structure and values that everybody walked around with; I just pulled from observation,” Harvey explained.

He said that his parents were unaware of what the programme at the YMCA entailed.

“We would go out and earn our own little money so it was less burdensome on them. They were pleased in the latter part when they learnt that we were involved in the programmes, and we became catalysts for the community of Maxfield,” he said with a broad smile.

YMCA acted as his springboard and compounded his desire to enter teaching. He pursued an undergraduate degree in career development and now holds a Doctor of Education degree from Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Harvey’s dealings with the YMCA are still ongoing as he is an executive member of the Y’s Men Club with a portfolio in recruitment.