Ambitious service and dedication to community and nation building have been hallmark of Ricardo Burke, founder and president of Youth for Change Foundation operating from the St Catherine community of Gregory Park.
The Jamaica Observer caught up with Burke at Gregory Park Basic School recently, where he and members of his foundation were setting up equipment for a movie day put on for the little ones. Riding in on a bicycle he had been using to transport laptops, a projector, speakers and a popcorn machine, Burke explained that this was an initiative he and his team had embarked on with schools in the community.
“What we do is, whenever the schools in the community having anything like a movie day, we supply them with the equipment for free. Last year we had a summer school for the children, because at some underserved schools the children don’t get exposed to computers at an early age. By tomorrow when they see me on the road they are going to be saying see the movie man there,” Burke said with a laugh.
Principal of the basic school, Jennifer Ferguson praised Burke as someone who has been a part of the “backbone” of the institution.
“For a very long time now, over the years, Ricardo has been a tremendous help to us. Any function we having, we can call on him. He and his group, they always come in and help us to beautify our school. The last thing that he did was to repaint the building, cut the lawn, and do the gardening areas. From time to time they have given us gifts — they donated an electric kettle one time. He is very involved in our school. As a matter of fact he is one of our backbone; and to know that he doesn’t even have any relatives at the school and he is always here to help us. Mr Burke is basically our main man,” Ferguson said.
A son of the Gregory Park community, Burke spoke enthusiastically about providing the basic necessities for children to be able to go to school and helping parents become self-sustaining, things to which he said he and his foundation had dedicated themselves.
Giving the Sunday Observer a tour of the Youth for Change Foundation centre just a stone’s throw away from the basic school, Burke shared more about the many other initiatives the foundation has embarked on.
“We open from around 5:30 to 6:00 am for breakfast, which we serve to the children in the community by 10 minutes to seven. After that, we close at eight and clean up and open back by 10:30 when persons in the community come to do resumes, application letters, and so on. By 2:30 when school over, we have the Homework Assistance Programme for children to come in and get assistance with their homework. In the evening we have board games for the children, which get them to socialise more. On average about 40 persons, children and adults, pass through the centre on a daily basis,” Burke said.
A fully operational hub though, is a far cry from where the group has come.
“When the foundation started in July 2014 we started out under a tree; then we ended up under a light post where we used to keep meetings. Then we were in a basic school, then we went to the Gregory Park Primary School. We got the building in July 2016 and the centre was officially opened in November of 2016,” Burke said.
He added that, “currently we have a kids’ group for children ages six to 11 (22 members), which is called Kids Connection. We have a youth group called Youth Arm for persons 12-24 years old (33 members), and then we have a Parents Club with 15 members and also six executive members”.
In total, Burke said that there are about 76 active members of the Youth for Change Foundation. But again, these numbers are nowhere near what they used to be. In fact, as Burke explained, he started the foundation at a time in his life when he was alone and depressed.
“Amazingly, it was when I was going through the worst time of my life that I started the group. At that point I was going through a phase of depression, walking and talking to myself at nights, and smoking,” Burke said
It was during that time, he explained, that he used to see a little boy and a little girl who were always asking him for money.
“One day, out of curiosity, I asked them why they were not in school and they said their mother don’t have any money to send them to school. At that point I said to a friend of mine that I needed to start something now to help children go back to school, because I didn’t take my education serious and I know that it is the same thing that is going to happen to them. And that was basically the start of Youth for Change Foundation”, Burke said.
But, with little or no resources to start, Burke explained that he had to walk and solicit money to fund their initiatives. But as could be expected, this awoke the suspicions and distrust of community members which, as Burke said, proved to be an even greater challenge.
“I remember one time there was this little boy we wanted to send to school and we didn’t have any money, and what we did was go into a party with a pan and we put it on the selector board and tell him the situation, and ask him to ask the people when ‘money pull up’ come, to give what they can.”
“But in many underserved community there have been persons who have come with promises and trick us, so at first they will pull aside. Persons would pass certain remarks, saying I’m a scammer, I’m a thief, but I grew and learned that there are persons who will always have their opinion. And those are things that push me to go further because for me, positive criticism that’s all good, but negative criticisms make you want to do better,” Burke said.
Asked about the root of his desire to help others, Burke explained that he grew up seeing his mother helping other people, which translated into his personal initiatives at school.
“She normally have a cook shop and every time I would see mad people, or regular people come and beg her food, and she would give them — and I always say to myself that I would like to do something to help people like that. What I did one time when I was attending Heart Trust was ask the administrators which training programmes youth could come in to for a two weeks and get some training. And I got about 15 youth through those programmes.”
Also a vocal leader and member of National Integrity Action (NIA), Burke elaborated on how community-based interventions could have a wider national impact.
“I always say that our Government don’t realise how the crime we are seeing now is caused by lack of development and lack of resources and empowerment. So in terms of a national scale, community projects like these can pull young people to give them hope and give them something tangible that they can see where they can grow from it. In my case, I was a delinquent youth. I got expelled from school, I left school with one CXC subject, and I am now attending Excelsior Community College doing an associate degree in social work,” Burke said.
The aspiring social worker spoke about some of the initiatives the foundation has undertaken that get him excited.
“The initiative I am most proud of would be our food drive, because it gives the youth arm and parents an opportunity to see the living conditions of people who are struggling or worse off than them. It is a more emotional journey when, every two months, we journey to a rural parish to give food supplies, toiletries and clothing to persons living with disabilities or persons with families who just want a push to go ahead. So sometimes when we go out there, there are persons who will break down and cry when they see the living condition of other people,” Burke said,
He added: “It’s a really emotional thing, and for me it was a life-changing experience, being that fact that I wanted to help persons in other parishes and not just my community. So it gives me an opportunity and the group as well to get more exposure and to see the wider Jamaica, and create some positive impact in persons’ lives.”
By: Sharlene Hendricks