Country – Antigua
It was a quiet time of day as I sat under the canopy of a local restaurant waiting for the young man I was about to interview for this article. I pondered what he would be like, what struggles and hardships he had endured and what impetus had led him to seek out the GARD Center, in hopes of making something of his life.
The reality is that for most, if not all the young people who pass through the tutelage of the GARD Center, they have had to bear a lot in their young lives. Many live on the fringes of poverty and are subject to the socio-economic fall out of this – most fail to complete school, and are unable to find work or if they do, make wages that cannot sustain them; some in hopelessness tread the path of delinquency and many girls become single mothers. They are what is often termed as ‘at risk’ youth, who are among the most vulnerable in our society. They face a myriad of complex issues brought on by peers, family members and difficult socio-economic environments. Many can move pass this or at the very least improve their circumstances if given the opportunity to learn market based skills and trades to enhance their economic viability; have positive role models to look up to and mentor and have the support of government and non-governmental organisations, the private sector as well as communities as a whole.
Finally my young interviewee appeared – of average height, small in frame, hair neatly corn-rowed, crisp white T shirt and wearing a smile to light up the world! His smile at once puts you at ease and you almost automatically become endeared to the young man. Before even hearing his story I felt that herewas someone who embodied hope not only for himself, but for all struggling young people in Antigua and Barbuda.
His name is Shaquille Mathias. And this is his story.
Shaquille describes himself as a quiet person who does not like to talk much, listens to what people have to say and loves to have fun. He comes from a single parent household headed by his mother and which includes five other siblings – four brothers and one sister. At age twenty, he is the second of his mom’s six children. He has never met his dad and although this troubled him, making him unhappy at times, he has let go of these feelings, intent on not making an absentee father, an emotional burden. He loves and admires his mom whom he says has tried to give him and his siblings everything within her means. He describes her as being supportive and very strict – he had to reach home from school on time, do his chores and ensure that everything was in place and ready for the next school day. Not just him but all his siblings, for she is intent on molding them into responsible individuals.
However, things at home were financially tough and getting tougher by the time Shaquille was in his early to mid -teens. He would often miss school because he didn’t have anything to eat or enough money to catch the bus. Eventually, his will faltered and he quit school entirely. He was fifteen years old and in third form. Having left school, he spent most of his time at home where he enjoyed the company of his many pets – one horse, three goats, two sheep and two dogs. All which over the course of time were given to him as gifts, everyone knowing how much he loves animals. He also hung out with his friends and although they were a mix of ‘the good and the bad’ as he described them, he stayed clear of the bad. Despite having so much time on his hands, he did not seek to simply live a life of idleness and tried to get work, but it was hard to come by and when available was varied and inconsistent. It included him cutting yards, doing construction jobs and painting buildings. Shaquille soon realised that he faced a major dilemma – his inability to find full-time work. He realised too, that this was in large part due to the fact that he had not completed his secondary schooling. But, what was he to do?
The answer came when Shaquille’s aunt approached him one day in early 2012 and told him about the GARD Center. He was immediately interested. Three weeks later, he was able to make his way to the institution. Always interested in boats and wanting to know how they work, he was delighted to learn that he could take up a course in Yacht Maintenance. He enrolled and started the course in June of that year. A man of few words, smiling, he describes the whole experience as being “NICE” and recounted that he had learned so much about various aspects of yacht maintenance – fibre glassing, engineering, fabrication, welding and carpentry; and also non-related courses that are equally important such as math, english and IT. He liked the balance between ‘desk work’ and practical experience, having been given the opportunity to intern at a number of yachting related establishments like Wood Stock Boat Builders, Marine Power Services and Seagull.
Shaquille took his training seriously and made an impression. After taking his course, Shaquille successfully gained employment at Woodstock Boat Builders, one of the very same establishments he had interned at to gain practical know-how. He says,“ I am learning more everyday about everything I
was taught in the course” And, he is coming along so well and is so dependable that he describes himself as ‘the call-on guy’ – no small feat for someone who just over a year ago didn’t quite know where he was heading in life!
Woodstock Boat Builders is a business that specialises in the re-fitting and refurbishment of boats, especially large vessels. Located at English Harbour, it is owned and operated by Andrew Robinson, who has been in the business since 1990. He took Shaquille on as an intern in 2012 and later employed him to provide assistance to the skilled tradesmen the company sub-contracts. Shaquille works under the supervision of the Project Manager, Michael Coddington, who describes him as being “steady and reliable” – a person who shows up on time, follows instructions and is well liked by customers. Coddington points out that these traits are critical and auger well for Shaquille’s development and future with the company.
Being in the yacht maintenance business provides the opportunity for our young people to become skilled in a number of areas. Having this particular skills-set also provides them with a potential gate- way to see and experience other parts of the world by accompanying yachts and boats as repairs- men (or women) on their journeys to different international ports. Having the option to travel is also ideal on another level as, given the seasonality of the yachting industry in Antigua, it allows for income generation, during what would normally be the island’s slow period. Shaquille has already been approached to travel on a vessel doing repairs, but turned down the offer, wanting to acquire more experience before venturing out. However, as he says “I would love to travel the world doing yacht repairs” and I have no doubt that he will eventually succeed in doing just that! In the meantime, he continues to aspire to one day owning a yacht services business specialising in the repair and maintenance of engines and generators – a goal which I am also confident he will accomplish once he remains focused and dedicated, gains experience and has sound mentoring such as what he receives from Andrew Robinson, Michael Coddington and the entire team at Woodstock Boat builders.
As our interview wound down Shaquille rendered a heartfelt and earnest sentiment. He warmly expressed his gratitude to the GARD Center for giving him a second chance stating: “Thanks to all the teachers, Mrs. Humphrey’s (Principal) and Latoya Jackson (Job placement Officer) for ensuring that we were well taken care of.” His final remark was directed to the all the youth in Antigua and Barbuda. He offered this advice: “Stay in school. Don’t drop out like I did. Finish school and get you subjects. It is important, very important.”
In 2008, the Gilbert Agricultural and Rural Development Center (the GARD Center) joined forces with the Caribbean Youth Empowerment Programme (CYEP), an initiative of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the International Youth Foundation (IYF). Under the CYEP, the GARD Center has been delivering a number of courses to vulnerable and displaced youth between the ages of 17 and 25, providing them with the knowledge and skills set they need to improve their job prospects or start their own businesses.
The story series, GARD/CYEP Changing Young Lives will, every week for the next four weeks, showcase young men and women who have successfully completed the programme and are making positive strides in their lives.
This is the second story in the series, written by Brenda Carrott, Marketing and Communications Specialist.
Originally published by Antigua Chronicle