Up close and personal with Lorna Stanley, founder, Operation Restoration, Trench Town. Lorna Stanley had it all. An educated, professional woman in the field of Journalism, she had worked successfully as a Researcher for NBC News, Editor’s Assistant with Newsweek Magazine, as an Aide to Congressman Dan Mica and even operated her own Public Relations business.
Interviews

A Divine Calling

Lorna Stanley had it all. An educated, professional woman in the field of Journalism, she had worked successfully as a Researcher for NBC News, Editor’s Assistant with Newsweek Magazine, as an Aide to Congressman Dan Mica and even operated her own Public Relations business.

It therefore came as a shock to family and friends, including her own brother who strongly suggested she seek professional help; when she turned her back on all she had accomplished and returned to Jamaica or more specifically, the mean streets of Trench Town to follow a personal calling, to work with the young people. Today after seeing all his sister has accomplished as founder of Operation Restoration, Lorna’s brother became a believer after hearing the testimony of one young woman whose life was radically transformed through Lorna’s program. The young woman, then the Acting Principal told about the dramatic changes in her life including having gone from being a high school drop out, to becoming a role model in the community. As a direct result of Lorna’s intervention she had passed four CXC subjects including a distinction in English, and had gone from being called derogatory names to being greeted as “Miss Principal.”

“For 12 long years, I have tried to find a way to get my sister to see a psychiatrist. I just could not understand how, when she had so much going for her, she could have sold out and gave up everything to go to a violent place like Trench Town, but now I am convinced and I am sure most of you will agree with me that my sister is not crazy, but that she has a divine calling upon her life.”

To understand Lorna’s Stanley passion is not easy, given the fact that she was not even born in Jamaica and did not arrive from Panama until the age of eight. That has, however, not deterred her love for Jamaica and it’s people, most especially the young people in Trench Town, who are born into a type of urban caste system that has not changed much since Marley first penned his rebuke to the social order in Jamaica, “Can anything good come out of Trench Town?” Lorna clearly believes in the young people of Trench town and when questioned about her commitment this remarkable woman points only to the faith that has emboldened her to undertake the challenges: “There is absolutely no way I could ever endure the continuing hurts, pain, hardships and sacrifices, without the supernatural empowerment of the Lord.”

Jamaicans.com sat down with Lorna Stanley for an in-depth interview we hope will be an inspiration to the many Jamaicans and friends of Jamaica around the world.

1. WHAT ARE THE DAILY CHALLENGES YOU FACE WITH THE SCHOOL BEING IN THE AREA THAT IT IS.

The greatest challenge is my concern for the emotional state of the students who, more often than not have, close relatives and friends that are being murdered. This is most traumatizing for the students and extremely emotionally draining for me.

I will be attending the funeral next Sunday (01/28/06) of one of my former students, who did so well in our school that he went on to pass the Grade Nine Exam enabling him to attend St. Andrew Technical. Upon graduation last year he participated in the National Youth Service program where he was trained in Early Childhood Education. He was “accidentally” killed the night before he was to have started his very first job at a Basic School. This has been extremely painful for me and I cried and cried because he really was a very promising young 19-year-old young man.

I have no concern whatsoever about my personal safety because, first of all, I have a very strong belief in the Word of the Lord who has promised “No weapon formed against me shall prosper.” I have had guns pointed in my face and when I told the gunman to fire, he merely brushed me off, told me I was an idiot and walked away.

Also, the folks in Trench Town have come to know, respect and protect me. Of course, there is always the concern that one might be caught in the crossfire so I never act in a reckless manner. Whenever there is an upsurge in violence and the tension is high, I usually avoid traveling through certain sections, and there have been a few times, not many, when I have not gone into school at all.

The stigma of violence and depravity, as you can imagine makes it extremely difficult to convince people from outside that it will be safe for them to work or visit the community, which only perpetuates the cycle.

Students in our school usually feel unwanted and isolated and wrestle with inferiority and poor self-image. Many lash out at the world by becoming rebellious. It seems hard to imagine, but right here in Trench Town there are kids who have no idea of what life is like in the rest of Kingston, it might as well be a foreign country to them. On one occasion, I took a group of students to the lookout in Red Hills. Upon arriving there I overheard one of them saying “How you fi tink we de a farin. You ever hear say car can drive go a farin?” Another was overheard to say, “I didn’t know Jamaica was like this. Trench Town is not living. I’m going to listen to Miss and work hard and become something in life.” Today, she is a second year student at Teachers’ College and the Principal of a Basic School in Trench Town. Sometimes I take the youngsters home with me just so they can see that there is life outside of Trench Town and that they too can shed the stigma that still exists today. When I look at these kids I realize a lot of what I see is just a tough exterior and as soon as we reach out to them, show them that we care and start working with them, we see remarkable changes.

Discipline is also one of our greatest challenges. Because of the violent environment in which they have lived all their lives, students tend to react in a violent manner at the least provocation and there is always the concern that they will do great bodily harm to other students. They are extremely angry children who lash out at the world by becoming rebellious and many demonstrate violent tendencies and severe emotional problems. Many have been found with knives, sharpened files and other harmful instruments as they feel a need to protect themselves.

In addition, the violence in the community greatly hampers the attendance of students, as they frequently cannot “cross invisible borders.” When factions are at war with each other, which is quite frequent, it becomes unsafe to move from one section to another which may be just across the street, and even though children may not be directly involved, many are sometimes killed in retaliation.

The majority is eager to learn and many become frustrated when violence curtails their ability to attend school regularly. For many, the breakfast and lunch we give them, are oftentimes the only meals they have had for days. Unable to access our nurturing, many become frustrated and become fatalistic as they lose hope and, as a means of survival, some eventually resort to immoral or criminal activities.

2. WHAT IS A TYPICAL DAY FOR YOU?

Thank God I have now been able to hire a few additional persons so that I no longer have to start my day at 6:30 a.m. making porridge and breakfast for the students.

Now, I begin at 8:00 am when, upon arriving at the school, I am usually met by a few students from other schools or their parents asking for assistance with bus fares and lunch money.

Being a Justice of the Peace I am constantly bombarded by persons requesting recommendations or wanting to have documents signed. This is particularly exasperating when persons become abusive when I tell I cannot do so when I don’t know them, especially when they are requesting confirmation of their ability to stand bail. Because of this, I sometimes regret being appointed as a JP.

The days are few and far between when I don’t have to spend a great deal of time counseling or disciplining extremely disruptive children.

Apart from two teachers who are from Portmore, the rest of the ten-member staff is from the community, and most were never employed before. I spend a lot of time supervising staff, training them in office procedures, running the canteen and catering to the needs of the children.

From time to time, it becomes necessary for me to walk through the community talking to the powers that be in an effort to maintain some measure of peace.

My day continues at home into the wee hours of the mornings when I try to catch up on administrative work, which is impossible to do from the office.

3. HOW ARE YOU ABLE TO MAINTAIN YOUR DRIVE FOR THIS VISION?

I am deeply encouraged by even the smallest achievement from a 22 year-old learning to spell and write his name for the first time, to the many students who have turned away from criminal activities. When I see these successes, I am encouraged because I know if I positively impact the life of even one student then I will have indeed accomplished something.

I know that the Lord is faithful to his word and the vision He has given me is that He will “Change our community to impact the nation, the Caribbean and the World. I am encouraged by the many, many lives that have been transformed and, in particular that of a most notorious gunman whose life has been transformed after converting to Christianity and who, for the past two years, has been striving to live a constructive life.

I hold on to the Biblical promise that “though the vision tarries, it shall come to pass and I believe this with all my heart.

4. WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU ARE DISCOURAGED?

The very first thing I do when I am discouraged is take time out and find a quiet place, usually a quite spot at a secluded beach where I can cry my heart out and pray for strength, guidance and comfort.

There is also someone that regularly calls me, reassuring me of the concern there is for me and who has always encouraged me to hang in there. This person, who must remain anonymous at this time, has been my greatest motivator and source of inspiration. I honestly feel I would have packed up and left a long time ago, had it not been for this human source of support and encouragement

5. WHAT IS YOUR PROUDEST MOMENT

My greatest moment was after spending four hours with a boy in our after-school program, who was unable to read, and he suddenly jumped up throwing punches in the air and shrieking with joy, he said, “I get it, I get it, I get it.”

This boy was broken hearted because he was about to be kicked out of high school because he was unable to read. I was truly surprised that someone was able to learn how to syllabalize words and pronounce them in such a short time. This was the push that led me to the start of remedial education. I do believe that “I can do all things through God who strengthens me.”

6. CAN YOU TELL US A STUDENT’S SUCCESS STORY

One that comes to mind readily is that of Andre Annakie whose story is posted on the website. He used to be involved with gun-toting gangs and after learning to read he no longer does so. He has also influenced another student to return to school and he is now being perceived as a role model in the community. There is also Dwight Spence who tells about coming to the school for five years without paying fees or buying lunch and now, he has learned to read so well that he assists with teaching at a basic school and will be taking two CXC subjects next year. There are so many that it is really difficult to single them out.

7. HOW SUCCESSFUL HAS YOUR STUDENT SPONSORSHIP PROGRAMME BEEN?

This has not been as successful as I would like it to be simply because I have not had the time to write proposals or to properly promote it. However, I am now pursuing that vigorously because there are far too many students who are unable to attend school because they cannot find the J$6,000 or US$90.00 for the annual fees as well as the weekly $J500 weekly or $US $8.00 weekly for breakfast and lunch.

8. DO YOU PROVIDE DETAILS ON THE STUDENTS’ PROGRESS TO THE SPONSOR?

There are just a handful of students being sponsored and for the most part, persons have not requested sponsorship of a particular student, but merely contribute to the overall program.

We are more than willing to provide details of a particular student. We have prepared profiles on all our students and some are so heartrending. Only yesterday a teacher told me of a student who asked for a pass to go home each day for lunch not wishing for anyone to know he didn’t have anything to eat. However, she told me that most times when he goes home, he doesn’t even have a slice of bread to eat. Our volunteer/counselor tells me that she realizes that he is going home with the hope that one day there will be something, but, alas, there rarely ever is.

Another was seen hunching over and writhing in pain because stomach was hurting so badly. When we realized he had not eaten anything for four days we asked him why he had not come and asked for something to eat. He replied “Me neva come school fi ask fi food. Mi come school fi learn and come afa de street even if mi no have ave anything to eat.

When we accepted this student in school a few days ago, with only a small portion of his fee, he hugged and kissed me and wept for joy and said “You tink is now me waan fi come off the street and come to school.” I gave him a uniform but now, he needs a pair of shoes.

9 WHEN YOU ARE NOT BUSY THINKING ABOUT IDEAS FOR THE SCHOOL, WHAT DO YOU DO?

When is that? This is all I think about. Even when I take a trip to the country, I take along one or two students for the exposure. I always think of them. This is my passion. My life. My priority. I have been doing this for nearly 13 years and I have absolutely no regrets. There is nothing else I want to do.

10. BEING BORN IN PANAMA DO YOUR SPEAK SPANISH? IS IT PART OF THE CURRICULUM?

Yes I speak Spanish. But, right now this is not part of the curriculum because mastering
English is already a most difficult task for these children.

11. IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE THING ABOUT THE JAMAICAN EDUCATION SYSTEM, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

I would never promote students to a higher level before they master their basic reading and writing skills.

12. WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO TELL SOMEONE WHO IS READING THIS STORY AND ADMIRES YOUR COURAGE BUT CAN’T IMAGINE WHAT THEY CAN DO TO HELP?

I know the Diaspora feels a sense of hopelessness about what is happening in Jamaica. But, all is not lost. I returned to Jamaica because I believe in the power of one; that according to the Bible, “One can chase a thousand and two can put ten thousand to flight.” I have seen a significant number of lives being transformed to know that this is true.

We may not all be called to do what I have done, but we each have a purpose in life. I believe that there is no greater feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment that we can experience than reach out and show that we care. There is no greater reward than to see the changes in the lives of persons because of our help, guidance and support.

For more information please visit the Operation Restoration website.

About the author

Pauline Ford-Caesar