Words by Serena Guen
As the plane’s wheels screeched off the tarmac of Port Antonio’s airport, I felt a very complicated mix of happy and sad. Trying to process my emotions, I thought back to the few very intense days I’d spent in Treasure Beach for the annual NEXTGen Summit. I recalled with fondness the vibrant culture, the programmes which UNICEF had put in place that were having an incredible impact and some of the very special people who I met leading them. However, I also knew that there was still so much to be done. Rome was not built a day and in Jamaica change will certainly not happen overnight. I was more determined than ever to help UNICEF achieve their goals.
Working with UNICEF has always been very special and I knew hypothetically about its life-changing results but seeing the work first-hand was something else. Around 30 NEXTGen leaders and committee members flew in from around the globe – Washington, Atlanta, LA, New York, Toronto, London. NEXTGen has raised $5million in the US and over £500k for UNICEF but we knew the capacity was almost limitless. Led by the Head of UNICEF Jamaica Mark Connolly and VP Of UNICEF’s US FUND Lynn Stratford, we brainstormed the impact that UNICEF’s NEXTGen could have in Jamaica and beyond, as well as participate in some of the local programmes to witness UNICEF’s impact first-hand.
Jamaica is a simultaneously very beautiful and terrifying place. I’m going to give you some stats which may be hard to process:
- Close to 18% of the population live in poverty.
- 9% of girls aged 15-19 are mothers.
- 0.4% of adolescent girls and 1% aged 20-24 are HIV positive
- 25% of adolescents aged 15-19 years are overweight or obese
- 21.1% of female and 23.1% of male students (13-15 years) attempted suicide one or more times during the past 12 months
- 80% of children aged 2-14 experience some form of violent physical punishment as discipline
- Increasingly children are involved as perpetrators as criminal activities. If your read Rochelle’s story below you may understand why.
A question, I often receive is why UNICEF? Why not support another charity? Witnessing UNICEF’s work in Jamaica UNICEF, I now truly have an answer. UNICEF is not a ‘giant monster’, its size means that it has the infrastructure to respond very fast, forecast, research and implement extremely effective long-term strategies rather than just sticking a plaster on the problem. Contrary to popular belief, it does not ‘eat up’ other smaller NGOs, if an NGO or charity has an effective programme in pace UNICEF will fund and power that instead of setting up a ‘competing’ one.
To highlight a few of the programmes that we came across:
EduSport is a UNICEF led initiative (via BREDs) that promotes physical activity for children while fostering other key skills such as maths and teamwork and gives the children confidence. UNICEF has helped fund a huge sports complex in the parish of St Elizabeth that includes various pitches, obstacle courses and other learning facilities. It is one of the few places where children from violent and very poor communities – some of which are even at war with each other – can come together, feel safe and have the opportunity to be a child again.
Eve for Life – we’ve spent the past three days with some very incredible ladies from Eve For Life. Eve for Life is an organisation which supports and empowers young women and girls in Jamaica that have been victim of sexual abuse and living with HIV. This is very important work given the stats above. The charity founded in 2008, uses an integrated approach to women’s empowerment that involves the provision of comprehensive information and training in sexual and reproductive health and rights, life skills and vocational training services/ psychological support. Young women victims enter Eve as mentees for 1-2 years before becoming ‘mentor mums’ that provide peer-to-peer prevention interventions and mentorships to other HIV positive young women. Apart from the founders, Hortense (Co-Chair) and I befriended four girls in the programme – two mentors and two mentees.
UNICEF also supports local schools including the only secondary school in the parish of St Elizabeth, Newell High School. Hortense and I went there on Friday and led a workshop with students aged 15-20 who were part of an extra-curricular entrepreneurship class. They were extremely keen to implement entrepreneurial ideas with a positive local impact rather than just an every-man-for-themselves attitude. We were blown away by the creativity and the dynamism of the students and the pride that they took in their various school and extra-curricular activities.
BREDs – a national charity in Jamaica founded by the owners of Jake’s Hotel. It helps to empower and enrich the local community through education, sports initiatives, employment opportunities. It also promotes environmental mindfulness and eco-tourism.
A few moments in particular stood out to me that I’d like to share …
On the second day of the Summit, I was taking part in the obstacle course that UNICEF had funded as a safe space and area for development for children and young adults in the local community. I was standing on top of the extremely tall and terrifying climbing wall and one of the sports coaches turned to me and just said: “Thank you so much for what you do.” I responded that I couldn’t take credit for this but UNICEF is an amazing organisation. He said just look around you, look at how many lives UNICEF has changed. Even mine. He told me, “Keep doing what you do.”
On the final night, we had a dinner on the beach at Jake’s with the UNICEF representatives and partners including the Eve for Life girls and founders. The four girls Laura, Kate, Savannah and Mary* were aged 16-24. Laura was the youngest at 16 and had a small and very beautiful son called Leighton. They were laughing and teaching us how to dance to Jamaican music. I couldn’t help thinking of their stories which they had told us the night before. They were all victims of extreme sexual abuse, Mary had been abused by her step-father and discovered she was HIV positive at the age of 9, only after her mother had told the entire community first. She was then blamed by her mother and shunned from school and her community. She spent her teens shoplifting in the hopes of getting caught. Sadly, her step father escaped and was never caught and in the Jamaican justice system there aren’t huge repercussions for rape. She has to live with her community and the fact that her stepfather is still living life normally. It’s very hard to express but it was just amazing to see how Eve for Life had helped her get her confidence back and the possibility of having some kind of normal life.
It was truly unbelievable to see UNICEF’s impact on one small area of a country, I can only begin to fathom the impact it has on the rest of the world. But instead of waiting to see what UNICEF can do by itself, I decided that I need to be part of that change. And that, is why I’m so grateful to be part of UNICEF’s NEXTGen London.
*names have been changed to protect identities