KALISHA Richards is today a strong, independent woman who is passionate about youth development. But for the 26-year-old who hails from Brown’s Town, St Ann, her passion for youth is a result of hardships she experienced in her younger days.
Richards told All Woman that at age 10 her mother left the island for a while, to seek better for her and her two younger brothers. But while they hoped for a better life, it was the beginning of misery.
“I had to take care of my two brothers. One is two years younger, the other 10 years younger than me. I was in grade five but even though my father and grandmother were present I had to step in and be a parent to them. Most of the responsibility was mine. I was a child with children. I was ‘just visiting’ primary school and had no one to [even do things like] comb my hair. Even though I lived in a big yard, everyone was on their own. I did my own back-to-school shopping, did my own laundry, cooked, bought groceries, had to go to school on my own, and when it was time for high school I had to get registered by lying. I was forced to grow up. I later learnt that my mother had sent money to my father for us but we got the impression that she just left as that’s what he told us,” Richards said.
She added: “During that time I was sexually abused. This is how my mom will know about it as I have never told anyone but my spouse. As a child I thought I couldn’t report this man. He was there when my father was supposed to be there and I felt like if he wasn’t there looking out for my brothers they would have no one. There were times when we cooked — we had an outside kitchen — and my grandmother would come with her husband and kick off the pot. My father was there but he was not present in our lives. I knew my mother meant well, so I couldn’t put her in a position to make her feel that she was the reason this was happening, so I kept silent for years.”
But during her tenure at St Hilda’s High, though she was also ‘just visiting’ school because of a lack of books and sufficient money, Richards found hope in the students who excelled and held leadership positions.
“At St Hilda’s they pushed you to be more. I wanted the badges and the authority my other schoolmates who were performing well academically had. It was then I knew that my escape from everything was getting an education, keeping my head up, and being virtuous. I also wanted to help other persons get through similar situations,” she said.
Subsequently, when Richards passed all her CSEC subjects she decided she wanted to go to university but again, she met road blocks.
“I applied to local colleges and colleges abroad and got accepted to all. There was a programme of reduced tuition in Canada at the time. I did the exam and got the reduced tuition. My father was required to pay CAD $1,500 and the scholarship would have paid CAD$15,000. I thought after going through all this he would get it together as despite the challenges and not having books I’d kept my head up and did well. But he didn’t come up with the money,” she said.
Still not deterred, Richards decided to go to HEART Trust/NTA College of Hospitality to pursue a course in massage and spa therapy, but once again her progress was cut short.
“My mother paid half as that’s all she could find. The school fee was $30,000 and I had to stop going as my father didn’t pay his half,” she said.
But this time Richards decided she had had enough and left home to seek a better life.
“Based on things he said, I decided I was not staying. I said to myself, all the conditions I have been put through I still got my subjects, still did well, so I decided I had to do it on my own,” she said.
And so in 2010 at age 18 she left St Ann and went to live in Portmore, St Catherine, where she worked at a bar until she landed a job in promotions at Red Stripe.
Eventually things began looking up financially, and she met her spouse and later gave birth to twin girls, now four years old.
“I was following my spouse around a lot. He is into marketing and sales so I learnt tricks and trades from that. I created plans for business owners and sold it to them to transform their businesses or clientèle. But deep down I wanted to be a psychologist. I knew that was not possible at the time so I kept looking for avenues to help at-risk youth,” she said.
That’s when Richards decided to pursue a degree in social work at Northern Caribbean University (NCU).
“When I got there I saw a programme with the list of graduands and I crossed out the valedictorian’s name, wrote mine, and said ‘I am coming’. In three years with a set of twins and a home to run I completed my bachelor of science in social work and was on the dean’s list,” she said.
While at NCU, Richards said she wanted to do a programme that would cater to the emotional and mental health needs of young individuals and that led to the concept of her now registered non-profit youth organisation called STRIDES.
Currently the executive director of the organisation, Richards said she uses it to help keep youth on the right path and promote academic growth, cultural enrichment, personal and professional enhancement, psycho-social development and life skills improvement.
This is done through art, mentoring, recreation, leadership training, wellness and personal development, career education, summer programmes, community outreach and group dynamics and counselling.
STRIDES also partners with the Eltham Park Primary School to help improve the literacy rate, start a remedial reading programme, mentorship programme, and implement a computer lab.
The organisation also works closely with the Child Protection and Family Services Agency, the Child Guidance Clinic and the National Council on Drug Abuse where collaboration on programmes are done. More information on STRIDES can be found at www.stridesja.com
In addition, Richards is seeking to pursue a master’s degree in gender and development studies to broaden her scope in the services she provides.
Her message to young women and youth in general is to know they have the capacity to do anything without compromising their values.
“Even though I have been through a lot of hardship and situations which you would think I would cling to a man for money, it wasn’t so. I never once lost my dignity; I struggled, kept my head up and did what I needed to do without sacrificing my morals and values in the process. But for me, holding down my abuse as acceptance for a parent not being there hurt far more. So speak up if something is wrong. Focus on your talents and live your childhood years,” she said.
By: Kimberley Hibbert