Jamaicans.com columnist Philip Dinham looks at community service in Jamaica and proposes some ideas that can help to foster this concept.
Commentary Jamaica Magazine

In The Spirit Of Community Service

As Jamaica’s social fabric continues to fragment from a point of perpetual crisis and destabilization to anarchy, one has to beg the question of why hasn’t the Government through it’s social security and education departments not permanently instituted a work and study program.

This program would be able to help the micro-community by facilitating the integration of students with the greater subset of peoples, who are already involved in church based and non-governmental organizations providing multi-care services and support to the urban and rural areas of Jamaica.

Community service is usually a voluntary thing in Jamaica, yet as difficult times persist, voluntary help is hard to find and may well need to be boosted through a cost sharing and work study benefits/incentive program. This should be offered at high schools, colleges and universities to cushion the fallout in the absence of a civic and personal development curriculum. Encourage young people to appreciate the work that non-profits and other social development institutions are doing to help enrich the Community spirit.

The program should be so tailored as an opportunity act, which will count towards future grants and study dollars earned at higher learning. The government could, with the cooperation of the schools bursars office, student loans bureau, and guidance counselors, use a process of elimination to determine low-income families, allowing the student to finance their education through the community service program.

For certain jobs like tutoring of students at high and primary schools, a library reading service is needed and individuals could earn points as a matter of hours that would translate to dollars once the student registers to a tertiary institution or any program of higher leaning.

The re-introduction of National Youth Service (NYS) in the mid 1990’s, has enhanced the spirit of volunteerism. Hundreds who have participated in camps and training have been fully absorbed into careers or community outreach programs. This an alternative technical leadership program that has allowed for partnerships among youths from diverse neighbourhoods of the Island, allowing them a place and purpose for networking as more organized and strategic grass roots human development and skills are acquired.

The Social Development Commission and Ministry of Education Youth and Culture have been responsible for the development of this and other active work force practicum. While they should be commended for the foresight in re-engineering the program, we are reminded that many other countries smaller and larger, richer and poorer than Jamaica have more advanced and sophisticated work-study and incentive driven community service programs.

The private sector while trying to attract investments, maintain their infrastructure and quality profitable enterprises, along with specific foreign diplomatic and church missions, have always been excited about community empowerment programs involving work-study. The citizenry have also been appealing for not just micro investment loans towards entrepreneurship, but many want to have an active job corps operation on the ground in their community. Where old and young would have a better grip on their personal development, keeping inline with their socio-economic realities.

For the last two summers, 2001 and 2002, the government has offered peace meal summer jobs to graduating seniors of high school and freshmen-sophomores at colleges and universities. It’s a program that we all welcomed but which most youths think is too narrow and short termed. Its implementation was more like a knee jerk reaction to the upheavals and tribulation surrounding the high unemployment rate and has no real continuity or movement for mass mobility.

Undoubtedly the Ministry of Labours’ cry for setting up a database for workers is heard but seen as a sort of window dressing. Treating unemployment with programs that simply tinker with the problem is a hard blow to those in the line of fire, for to them joblessness is not a phase that kids will just bounce through. Months do turn into years that one has to account for on a job applications or explain to an interviewer why they don’t have any experience. Each day as the Jamaican sun rises many individuals are waking up to extreme considerations, rent, utilities, school fees, lunch money, bus fare, responsibilities and pressures that could be easily termed life and death, staring them dead in the face.

This is what adds fuel to the fires of desperate “yard” living. It’s not a ghetto problem as much as it is a national crisis and greater creativity and effort is needed to coordinate a program that serves the functions of volunteering & work-study among low income persons. They more than any other grouping understand the needs of the local community and what the spirit of an integrated micro-neighbourhood can achieve.

The policy drafts can start immediately, without the government, as I am sure they have for colleges such as UTECH, University of West Indies, Northern Caribbean University, Mico Teachers College and other higher learning institutions need to swap credits for hours of community service, providing tuition waivers, grants and scholarships to the several thousands for starters.

This can easily be enforced by law, making it mandatory for colleges and business to perform such a social responsibility and civil conscience gesture in the hope of wider democratization of the land.

With conflicts and disputes on the increase in the community it is integral, not just for government to waste tax-payers dollars funding a political ombudsman operation outside of electioneering madness. A 20,000-50,000 Jamaica job corps, resembling that of a domestic peace corps, could be assembled enlisting the youths from the community who have dropped out of school along with those who are currently enrolled in educational and skills training institutions.

The Church and Rastafarian sectarian interests have a large flock that should also be brought into the mix to help teach and lead the peaceful youth army of “Jah People”. Mentoring by college aged, adolescent, and successful achievers could be directed at minors of the primary and basic schools, as studies suggest that children soak up the attention of trend setting young adults more than they do mature adults.

Students already take part in extracurricular institutions and voluntary school life without any direct compensation. To most, engaging in the campus life and voluntary work as a matter of community service is a natural human trait that aids time management and socialization.

The high stakes of academic student life remain costly; government’s new contract of paying for 4 CXC/GCE subjects for students in the 2003 examinations and beyond is admirable. However it will not stop the futility of being full up of so much education, yet can’t own a payroll.

The PJ Patterson Government under the 1997 mandate started a Jamaica Values and Attitude (JAMVAT) work-study project in Jamaica. Since the academic year 2001-2002 there have been over 1500 participants. The project is open to tertiary students who are at least 17 years old and already enrolled at a community college or university. They demand that student complete 200 hours in a prescribed program of work and upon successful completion, 30% of their tuition is paid. This benefit is however limited to only one academic year and contribution is paid directly to the student’s Institution.

We will hope for if and when the Prime Minister expands the scope of the Jamaica Values and Attitudes project (JAMVAT), that it will include our recommendations.

For a broad based community volunteerism and work-study program can add to the civic and national pride, increasing overall participation and fostering an ethic and sense among most, that this is what honourable citizens should do as a matter of living successful and gratifying lives.

PJ Patterson has a third chance to change the culture, he has a chance to craft not just words into his legacy but by making servitude a trend, he will allow students to get to know more about their environment while setting their educational and job prospects on a faster track. These pursuits and activities as small as they may seem; efforts such as helping to tutor a fellow classmate or perhaps junior or older citizen, can only enliven and rejuvenate the community spirit, while holding back the barking guns in the near and not too distant future.

About the author

Sherry Southe