Country – Antigua
Mentoring young people is at once fulfilling and daunting but “somebody has to do it”. That’s how Petra Williams looks at it as she continues to go all-in on her seven year old Point Westham Soccer Academy.
Born, raised and resident in the Villa/Point community, the football fan, mother and business woman took note of the kids hanging around the field while the Point Westham Football Club practiced. Mindful of the delinquency and dropout trends in her community, she decided to direct their energies more purposefully.
“Growing up in the neighbourhood, people looked out for each other,” Williams said, noting that what she does is just a continuation of that and a manifestation of the priority her own mother placed on education. That’s right; her programme isn’t just about football. Though they have experienced success on the field, it’s worth noting the priority Point Westham Soccer Academy places on keeping grades up as a condition of play and other rewards. It provides after school classes in many subject areas as well as assistance with exam prep; it even sponsors private education for two of its members. Right now Williams is hoping to attract the services of a specialist reading teacher. Plus she brings in guest speakers from different disciplines to help get her charges ready for the world. As for the world beyond secondary education and Antigua, Williams said the Academy is working on building relationships with two universities overseas so that her boys can access scholarship opportunities.
“It’s not something that is critical to the area,” she said of education in a clear-eyed assessment of the economically depressed community that seems to mostly attract crime-related headlines and hands-off parenting. “A lot of the parents don’t get involved with the kids,” she said; “that’s all they know.” Despite these odds, Williams is determined to see more than the “odd” child make it. I was about to type ‘make it out’ just now but it gave me pause because while she was that odd child, Williams who lives nearby the Villa Primary School where the classes are held and Dredge Bay where the team practices, isn’t interested in ‘making it out’, clearly. Nor, she stressed, is she staying and putting in the time to pave a path to political ascendency, a trend that’s repeated often enough for some to be skeptical. “It’s very difficult for people to accept I’m doing this because I’m doing this,” Williams said. But the often outspoken economic and political commentator insists she has no political ambitions. “I don’t have the temperament, I don’t have the drive to do that,” she said.
Instead, her devotion to her programme, she said, is about the promise she sees in the kids, who just need something “to give them a little oomph!” What she wants to overcome is the self-defeatism that she feels feeds the poverty in her community.
Sixteen kids answered her initial call and now the programme boasts 74 kids, with 20 to 25 on the field on any given day. They range in age from seven to 17.
On the day of our interview, it was raining persistently but her Under-10s were out on the field at a different venue locked in a muddy match against Swalings – a somewhat comparable but pricier programme; while her older kids were down at Dredge Bay, also uniformed and in practice with a coach she’d brought in from Jamaica for a two week stint. Pricier is relative since the kids in Williams’ programme don’t pay to participate and wear gear contributed or procured on their behalf. How does she manage to do things like that with no political and limited corporate support, that and bring in a specialist coach who will in addition to working with the boys on the field assist in the restructuring of the programme? She leans on her own reserves a lot, more specifically that of her company Crystal Business Solutions which even covers the stipend for someone to assist with the programme, and on fundraisers.
“Last October I sent out 36 letters,” Williams said. “We heard back from two (saying) they will get back to us.” They never did. She was asking for a $200 a month commitment.
This is not to say that there has been no help. Access to the Villa School and the IT labs for classes is a help; coaching assistance is a help; volunteer teaching assistance when she can get it is a help; Brownies, a business rooted in the community, covering the stipend for the coach and providing breakfast twice a month is a help as are courtesies extended by equipment supplier Heritage Sports and Australian Ice Cream where she takes the boys for group outings as a reward.
But support is often more miss than hit and Williams, at times frustrated by it, pulls no punches in calling out the state, political, business and community entities which have either ignored, rejected, or bluffed their way out of helping. There is, she said, “a lot of lip service”. She feels as well that the Academy is branded by the community’s reputation, the very thing she’s trying to help these boys overcome. She speaks of taking the team to away-games but facing obstacles when it comes time for them to host “because they (the other teams) didn’t want to come here.”
But if the programme is striving to prove anything is that people are not defined by their community rather they have the power to re-define their community. As a mentor, Petra Williams is working to prove just that.
This article was written a while ago. The decision to post it here (originally posted on http://wadadlipen.wordpress.com) , now, is partly influenced by a recent facebook update on the programme by Williams. She was “In a celebratory moods on behalf of the young men of Westham Soccer Academy on so many different levels: We have our first group of 5th formers who have come through the program from Grade 4 right through, a few of whom made honor roll; we are particularly excited for the grade 6 boys who successfully transitioned via the National Assessment (Grade 6) to Secondary School – AGS (Antigua Grammer School) and PMS (Princess Margaret Secondary School) here we come (yes, we beat the odds stayed on course)…As a team, working with each other, helping each other along. They have done well.” That sentiment and the intent and achievements of the programme seemed to me something worth celebrating.
Joanne C. Hillhouse is a freelance writer, journalist, writing coach, and editor. She is the author of several books including Oh Gad! and The Boy from Willow Bend. She is founder and coordinator of the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize in Antigua and Barbuda.