Conversation with Leo Gilling, of the Jamaica Diaspora Education Task Force, on Camp Summer Plus & Education in Jamaica

Life was humble and simple but this did not deter his impetus to succeed; regardless of the challenges or setbacks, he was determined to thrive and stand out.  Leo Gilling, a self driven individual, born in Stewart Town, St. Mary Jamaica, grew up in Oracabessa with his parents and three sisters. His Primary and Secondary Education were acquired in St. Mary but he journeyed to the parish of St. James, where he boarded for three years while pursuing his Tertiary Education at the Sam Sharpe Teachers’ College. Immediately after college he got married; he is the proud father of four children, now adults – Casey- Ann, Chandi, Stephan and Tremayne. On migrating to the United States in 1984 he encountered numerous hardships and hurdles; he became close to being homeless more than once, he had failed business ventures, financial challenges, a bout with brain hemorrhaging (stroke) in 2008, yet he remained a steadfast risk taker and was able to become a successful restaurateur and attained his Bachelor of Business Administration degree, majoring in Accounting from the National University in the U.S.A.

Balancing is a critical factor of Leo’s existence; priorities change, so the right balance for him today will not necessarily mean the right balance for him the next day. He aptly balances his life and is actively involved in community service and charity in the United States and Jamaica. In no way did the hardship he endured cause him to become selfish, it taught him the importance of preparation, hard work, kindness and respect; these values are applied to his personal life, community service and charity undertakings. Presently, Leo is the Jamaica Diaspora Board Member for West/Midwest U.S.A., Agency Principal of Allstate Insurance in Florida, Board member of BACE (Broward Alliance for Caribbean Educators) and   Leading the Charge for Advancing Education for Jamaica through the JDETF (Jamaica Diaspora Education Task Force). Improving Education and Health in Jamaica are high on his priority list. Among his positions, participation and contribution are: Founder and Chairman of Sam Sharpe Teachers’ College Past
Students Association, Founder and Chairman Oracabessa Reunion Homecoming, Founder and Director/Coordinator of Celebrate Jamaica LA, Alternate Advisory Board Member, Compẻre/Singer at concerts, banquets, brunches, weddings, parties other general events, and West Coast Representative for Air Jamaica – Community Relations and Marketing.

Presently, at the top of Leo’s agenda is (CSP), Camp Summer Plus in Jamaica. This is where our conversation starts with Leo.

What is the Camp Summer Plus (CSP)?
Camp Summer Plus is a specialized program that is geared at raising educational achievement levels among low performing students at the Grade Three level.

When did the project start and who started it?
Camp Summer Plus was started in Jamaica July 2011 by the USAID in collaboration with the Ministry of Education. Its success led to the program being supported in 2012 and 2013 but was on the verge of being cancelled, because of the lack of funding. While I was in Jamaica with the Jamaica Diaspora Education Task Force, Hon. Arnaldo Brown, Minister of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, brought the need to my attention. Meetings between the JDETF and USAID resulted in the Diaspora accepting the challenge to take over the program for 2015 in partnership with the Ministry of Education.

What are the main goals of the project?
The main goals of the project are to improve the Reading and Numeracy Levels of At-Risk Grade 3 students, thereby helping them to master the Grade 4 Literacy and Numeracy Tests, and provide the students with equal access to well-rounded, high-quality summer learning experiences.

Can you tell us about the some successes of the project?
Based on Reports I have read, the students selected for the camp read below the Grade Three level — some as low as Kindergarten level. I have been told of instances where students have improved one or more grade level and the Grade Four Literacy and Numeracy results for most of the participants have also spiraled to Mastery.

What is the core focus of the camp? Is there a reason for this?
The core focus of the camp is to raise the educational achievement levels among low performing students at the Grade Three level; basically, the camp is in support of the Ministry of Education’s goal to achieve one hundred percent literacy in 2015.

Tell us about the Camp Summer Plus (CSP) project past challenges and your involvement to secure funds from the USAID?
This year is the first I will be working with CSP. Initially, I have been involved with Education Camps during the summer in Jamaica through the Sam Sharpe Teachers’ College Past Students Association (SSTCPSA) and Jamaica Awareness Association of California (JAAC).

Will the new funds allow Camp Summer Plus (CSP) to reach more children in Jamaica?
Camp Summer Plus which is funded by USAID through the Ministry of Education will be conducted this year by the Jamaica Diaspora Education Task Force. Our aim is not to increase the number of students, but rather improve the components of the camp. It is not new funding, but an extension of what was done in the past. Unfortunately the USAID will not be funding this project any further, so we have to be as efficient as possible.

You have a passion for education in Jamaica. What are your personal beliefs on education in Jamaica?
Education is the way forward for Jamaica. The success of our country depends on educating and empowering our youths. It means that the tripartite effort of parents,
teachers and government must be promoted and directed for the sole purpose of getting our students to be successful. We must empower our teachers and create conducive learning environments. Our schools must prepare our students for the job market. Alumni Associations must be actively involved and continue to provide support for the students. Of great importance too are intellectual remittances, infusion of continued education for teachers, enrichment for principals and the widespread use of technology as a teaching tool.

What are the other Jamaican education projects you are working on?
The projects that I am involved with are:

  1. EXSEED – Excellence in STEM Experiential Education is an innovative and collaborative program designed to enhance Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. (STEM). -  It is a project among Loma Linda University in California, JTA and JDETF. Five teachers from Jamaica were immersed in workshops including iPad integration in the mathematics classroom, studying sound and light, physics, and 3-D printing in the classroom. The sessions provided information and ideas for creative projects that can be implemented in the classroom. This project will be sustained.
  2. JAGCE – Jamaica Association of Guidance Counselors in Education – Just recently, two members of the Diaspora were presenters at the Annual Conference of  the JAGCE  in Jamaica.
  3. JDETF – Jamaica Diaspora Education Task Force – The Jamaican Diaspora Education Task Force joined forces with the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) to stage the first ‘Advancement in Education Summit’ in Jamaica during February of 2014. The event identified ways to immerse the Diaspora into the education system from childhood through to the tertiary level in order to assist in the advancement of education. JTA will again collaborate with us in 2016 for the second staging of the ‘Advancement in Education Summit’

What do you do to relax from a hard day?
My response may be unorthodox, but I do relax every day. My relaxation comes through my engagement in work and empowerment. Both are fun for me, hence I get paid to have fun and while giving back I am having fun. Going to Jamaica as often as I do is relaxing because I’m home doing things that I love to do. Listening to music relaxes me too.

What’s your favorite Jamaican food?
Callaloo & Salt Fish and Ackee & Salt Fish are my favorite Jamaican food.

The one thing you love about Jamaicans is…
Jamaicans always rise to the occasion. Irrespective of difficulties or struggles, Jamaicans achieve whatever they set out to attain.

Thanks for the interview. Any final words for the readers?
Never cease to help others. The joy of helping is beyond monetary value.

About the author

Xavier Murphy