The Truth Revealed: Stemming Growth in the Inner City

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Think downtown Kingston, and for many, the wrong impression comes to mind. That impression quickly changes when you have the privilege of speaking with someone who lives there – in one of its communities. One discussion can literally be life changing.

So often, downtown Kingston is portrayed negatively in the media through stories about high crime, violence, low literacy rates and poverty. However, there are stories sweet enough to make you cry, and more of those need to be told.
Stories like Lorne’s. Lorne Phillips, now 25, describes his younger years as challenging. Though he always felt safe and secure in his own home, he avidly paints a picture ridden with turmoil and violence as soon as he passed through his front door. Growing up, his parents were also unable to fund his education in entirety, or always provide him with enough to eat due to their financial constraints. However, Lorne prevailed was able to finish high school and university with a Bachelor’s in Banking and Finance. He was also able to secure employment. But, though he was more than capable intellectually, financially he believes that he could not have achieved this success alone.

You see, downtown Kingston is also home to several big level corporations. Corporations that truly believe in the value of giving back to help communities which are underprivileged. One such corporation is actually the primary producer of Jamaica’s beloved Vienna sausages and Tropical Rhythm drinks. Under their Group falls a premier commercial bank, several insurance companies and two separate foundations. Now, if you are Jamaican by birth, then I am sure that you have guessed that I am referring to one of Jamaica’s favourite family friendly brands: GraceKennedy.

However, whilst much is known about GraceKennedy’s products, subsidiaries and services, not enough is revealed to the Jamaican public about the charitable work GK does. Every subsidiary within the general organization has a specific charity focus. GraceKennedy Money Services for instance, participates in a project known as I-PLEDGE which stands for “I Promise to Lend Encouragement to Develop Growth in Education”. Their specific aim is to aid in community development in underprivileged communities by highlighting the importance of primary school education.

Although each arm of the GraceKennedy brand has their own outreach focus, and all of their efforts are noteworthy, the one that stands out to me most is the work done by the Grace and Staff Community Development Foundation. Grace and Staff, as it is affectionately referred to, is entirely funded by staff members’ voluntary contributions, and matched two to one by the company itself. The foundation was started when staff members from GraceKennedy decided that they needed to do something for the individuals who were located in the general community around them.

Now, if you have been to downtown Kingston, you’re sure to see the benefits of an initiative like this one. Driving through the area, one can easily decipher that the communities could use more development and investment. It is with this in mind that the Grace and Staff Foundation saw the need to act, to alleviate the suffering of the very individuals that they were passing on the road after they left work. The very individuals exposed to crime, illiteracy and poverty.

The foundation chose to focus on educating children, adolescents and young adults from the communities for two reasons: to prevent them from turning to a life of crime and to aid in community growth by developing the very members of the surrounding communities.

Currently, the Foundation achieves these two objectives in several ways. They host an annual Education 5K Run in July with the proceeds going towards funding their secondary and tertiary school assistance programme. They have established Homework Centers in Barbican, De la Vega City, Savanna-la-mar and Majesty Gardens whereby staff and other volunteers are able to go and help students with their studies. They have created a mentorship program where they match students to current Grace Employees in order to provide them with support, direction and guidance. They have a full time counseling psychologist on staff, to deal with the emotional needs of the students and the parents to whom they cater. Lastly, they send individuals from the community into other organizations in the community and pay their salaries so that they will garner work experience in environments that are suitable to their proposed career path.

To date, the Grace and Staff Foundation has helped approximately TEN THOUSAND beneficiaries in all of the previously mentioned ways. Can you imagine that? And the number of beneficiaries is only growing each year. In fact, it is this very corporation that opted to help Lorne to achieve his academic goals.

Like Lorne, Kia Smith and Ozayne Campbell have benefitted from the Foundation. Listening to their stories also definitely helps to cement the profound impact that the Foundation has on their benefactors’ lives.Honestly, hearing the positivity that exudes her, one would never imagine the kind of life that Kia has had. For her, poverty and crime were daily experiences. After her mother passed at a young age, she was forced to work in order to help her step-father take care of her younger siblings. Many nights, they went to bed with very little to eat. At times, she was also unable to attend school due to lack of finances. But, the violence which she describes would make her financial difficulties seem minimal. From gunmen walking up and down the streets with machine guns, to actually witnessing crimes being committed; no crime imaginable was left up to her imagination alone.

Despite what she describes as dismal circumstances, she continued to persevere through all of life’s trials. Things would change for the better shortly after she was inducted into the “Grace and Staff family” as she refers to the Foundation. The Grace and Staff Foundation helped her to pay her tuition, and provided her with a weekly stipend so that she could go to school and afford food. They also enrolled her in the Youth Programme during the summers so that she could gain work experience whilst gaining an additional source of income. But for Kia, the financial support she received does not even begin to compare to the emotional support that she was given.

“Grace was my backing. They provided me with a family when I did not have a solid family background” she says genuinely. “If it were not for them, I would not have gone as far as I have today”.
Similar to Kia and Lorne, before Grace and Staff intervened, Ozayne lived a life laden with struggles. Growing up, his mother was not able to fulfill all of his families’ basic needs. At times he would have to go to school hungry because she did not have enough money to feed him and his siblings. When she passed away before his CSEC examinations, things grew even bleaker.
However, fortunately Ozayne was not weighed down by his situation. With the help of The Grace and Staff Foundation, the highly motivated and ambitious young man was able to complete his examinations up to CAPE level, and also attend the University of the West Indies to pursue studies in Radiology. Ozayne says the foundation went one step further and even opted to help his younger brother as well. Based on everything that they have done for him, Ozayne says that he now feels the need to help others, and as a result he has become involved at the new S.T.E.M Center Research facility that GraceKennedy has Downtown. There he helps to tutor individuals from similar backgrounds as himself. The main reason he says that he has decided to give back is that he does not believe that he would have made it as far as he did as quickly if it were not for the help of the Grace and Staff Foundation.

Listening to the beneficiaries’ stories, it is easy to see how their stories could have ended differently without the intervention and assistance of the Grace and Staff Foundation. Whilst it is impossible to determine whether or not they would have made it without the Foundation, one thing is certain. They are all convinced that the Grace and Staff Foundation is the best thing to have ever happened to them, and that they would not have made it as far in life without them.

Kia drives home this point when she states, “Grace and Staff is the best. They have not only helped me but hundreds of others too.”From speaking with the benefactors and looking at the Foundations contributions, it truly is impossible to ignore the significant and positive impact that they are having on the surrounding downtown communities. What is most profound to me is that there are over ten thousand stories still waiting to be told. Ten thousand individuals similar to Lorne, Kia and Ozayne, who the Grace and Staff Foundation has helped to achieve their full potential.


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