At 17 years old, Michael (not his real name) is very optimistic about his future and he has vowed to make himself an honest man and to be a real father to any children he might ever have, even though all of the odds seem to be stacked against him.
For starters, six months ago Michael was a resident of the New Opportunity Corps (NOC) and at present he lives in a very unstable home environment. If that were not enough, he has no contact with his parents and only sees one of his four siblings; he is unsure as to the location of the three others.
Michael’s life as he knew it was torn apart at a very early age when his mother and father separated and his mother decided that she would place her four older children in an orphanage and the youngest, who was a baby at the time, with a relative. The reason? According to Michael, his mother became a mule for drug traffickers.
“I can’t really remember much, but I know I use to see cocaine in the house and then she put we in a orphanage,” he told the Sunday Stabroek in a matter-of-fact manner.
Michael’s mother has been caught trafficking in cocaine twice and has served two three-year sentences in prison. As far as the teenager is aware she left the prison about two months ago after serving her last sentence but he has not seen or heard from her.
But Michael does not have any anger towards his mother, all of his resentment seems to be directed at his father.
“He make me do things I didn’t want to do… Is he make me do some things. He was never really a father to me and when I come out of boy school I did want do he something but I thank God for ChildLink,” the child related.
While he is still angry at his father, Michael said that he has now turned his attention to finding a permanent job even as he attends computer classes.
‘The Red Project’
Michael is one of 15 children who would have been recently released from NOC and are part of ChildLink’s pilot project which aims at assisting them with reintegrating into society and bonding with their parents and other relatives.
According to ChildLink’s Kean Chase the ‘Red Project’ is being funded by a businessperson who approached the organization and expressed willingness to assist children who were in conflict with the law. That businessperson prefers to remain anonymous.
Chase said the project is for six months, after which the organization will submit a report with the aim of having the businessperson or a donor agency fund it further.
Chase pointed out that young people are released from NOC and “are just left to fend for themselves” and the project aims guiding the children and ensuring that they do not make the same mistakes and join the same groups they would have been part of prior to being sent to the institution. She pointed out that when children are sent to NOC many of them do not see their relatives and their families “just continue and sometimes get new children and when the children come out they are the older children; they find it hard to fit back in.” She cited the example of a 14-year-old, who is one of the 15 the organization is working with. He had wanted to return to school upon his release but his mother wanted him to go into the interior to work. “His mother said no school, you are big man go into the bush,” Chase said. ChildLink intervened and started working with the mother, and the child, with assistance, is once again going after academic pursuits.
While the project is in its infancy stage, Chase said it is the opinion of all involved that Michael has come a far way.
“He is one of those who is progressing, he has some ambition. He is really trying, he is attending classes,” Chase said.
She noted that Michael would have come out to very poor conditions and he immediately got a job in an effort assist at home. He is at classes now but he would still do the odd job so he can earn some money. He was very angry when he left NOC but the organization has helped him to deal with this. “He is not giving up and we at ChildLink are going be there for him; he is one who can come even if it is just for a talk and we are going to assist him with money to go to classes, ensure that he is well groomed, that is from us to him,” Chase said. She pointed out that instead of crying over his dire circumstances, Michael is very resilient and the potential is there.
“I really feel that he is one of the children who is going to go somewhere because he has the willingness and has shown what he wants,” Chase said.
‘Does not operate like a father’
For Michael, while today is Father’s Day he would not be celebrating with his father. “Not that I really want to see him; he does not operate like a father,” he said, adding that while he would call his father’s girlfriend, he does not speak to the man he calls ‘Daddy.’
Growing up in Berbice, Michael recalled, his father and mother would at times take their children for outings. He was the youngest at the time and while his memory is a bit foggy, he said “it was not all bad.” According to how he remembers it, his father later left the home and started a relationship with another person and life as he knew it, went downhill.
He said his mother had another child, who was not his father’s, and shortly after, she placed the four eldest children in an orphanage and left the youngest with a relative. Michael is not clear how long he remained in the orphanage but said he was later removed from the institution by his father.
However, things did not get better for him. “He make me do some things. I really don’t want you to print it, but he make me do certain things and then I get put out,” the teenager said. He also recalled that his father use to severely beat him and at one time the police got involved “and you know what he tell the police? ‘I create the monster and I will kill it.’”
Michael later started living on the street and survived by helping vendors in the market. “I liked living on the street because nobody was not nagging and bother, bother me,” he said. He also lived briefly at the house of a friend, whose mother was not interested in sending him to school, but wanted him to work for free with her in the market.
In the end, Michael was arrested and sentenced to two years in NOC for trespassing and wandering.
“I want to say thanks to NOC. If it was not for them, I would have still been trying to kill my father. But right now I am going to classes and looking for a job,” Michael said.
At this point, he also expressed thanks to those at ChildLink who are working with him since while he is still angry he no longer has a desire to harm his father.
While in NOC, Michael said, he found stability and because of his good behaviour he was one of the children who attended a school in the area.
“To be honest, I don’t mind if I still was in boy school right now. You use to get you nice sweet mouth thing to eat and when you work they use to save the money for you and I believe I was getting better in school,” the teenager said almost longingly.
Some of the employees whom he called “elders” treated him like family, he said.
Michael received training as pugilist while at NOC and represented the institution at several competitions, at which he won medals.
He has also completed training under the USAID Skills and Knowledge for Youth Employment (SKYE) Project and is proud of having received a trophy for his effort.
Asked about his mother, Michael had a faraway look on his face. He does not remember her that well but he does not hate her. He does not blame her for putting him in an orphanage and may one day seek her out, but as it is right now he is aware that she is staying with friends and cannot accommodate her children.
The sibling he is in contact with is one year his senior, but because she is a girl, he is fiercely protective of her. “I help her out and if anybody trouble she, they have to deal with me,” he said. Michael and his sister, who is studying Culinary Arts at Carnegie, are currently in a race to see who would graduate with the higher score.
His eldest brother, he believes, is in the interior while another sister, also older than him, is living in Berbice. The youngest of the five, who is about 13 years old, lives in Berbice too with relatives, but Michael has no desire to see any of them right now.
Michael lives with his paternal grandfather and his wife, but they are very old and can hardly take care of themselves. “Right now them need help and whatever little money I get I would buy lil greens and so and take home. But I don’t like being home, so after class I would just walk a lil bit and then go home just to rinse off me skin and go in me bed.”
Life has been horribly difficult for Michael, but he expresses the hope and the longing to one day do better and to be a “father to me children.”
He is about to get permanent employment, which he believes would significantly improve his life.
“I want to come out good and not make the same mistakes like my father did. He never play a father role,” Michael said.
For Chase, who admits that Michael made her cry when she first heard his life’s story, and the others at ChildLink, Michael being given a fair chance to do what he so desires—make it in life—it’s their goal as well.