Ron (not his real name) was just 14 when he was sent to the New Opportunity Corps (NOC) for committing the ‘offence’ of wandering and while he still has some residual anger, he believes that the institution saved him.
“It was not all that good, but not all that bad,” was how Ron described his time at the NOC. “I don’t know how I would have end up, so in a way NOC saved my life,” he continued frankly during a recent interview with the Sunday Stabroek.
It is not that he is agreeing that he should have been sent to the institution, since he knows he did not commit a crime, but he believes had he remained “on the outside” he would have “gone down the wrong path.” Now he is more focused and wants to ensure that he becomes a productive citizen of his country.
For years, right activists and many others have been calling for children not be charged with ‘wandering’, as it often results in them being sentenced to time at the NOC.
“When you hard ears and them things and never wanting to listen to you parents, follow bad company them things does happen to you,” Ron said, when asked how he ended up before the court.
It was about his fourth trip to the police station, collared by his father, that resulted in him being taken to court. His father could not have controlled him. Ron often left home for days and would be seen liming on the streets. His father would find him and take him to the police station with the intention of having the officers warn him, hoping “it would frighten me and I would stop but I would go back again.”
Then one day, the trip to the station turned out to be any boy’s worst nightmare. He was placed in the lock-ups and later taken to court and remanded to a juvenile centre. By then, Ron said, he was angry; he felt betrayed by his parents.
Ron’s mother and father had not been together for years, but they lived just villages apart. When his mother felt she could no longer control her young son, she sent him to live with his father hoping that there would be a change in his behaviour.
That did not happen. And today, while Ron believes the NOC saved him he still feels angry whenever he talks about his mother.
Why? He believes she sealed the deal and caused the presiding magistrate to send him to the NOC.
“Miss, it is a long story and I really don’t want to talk about it…,” Ron said, his eyes welling up with tears, when asked why he is angry at his mother.
After some amount of probing, he opened up hesitantly.
He recalled that it was his birthday and it was the day for the decision in his case. He believed he was being sent home, so he was happy. A probation report was read in court and Ron said he listened to it in utter disbelief.
“When they read the report, I hear how I threaten to kill me mother and I say I guh shoot she wid some gun…,” Ron said, still sounding as if he was in disbelief.
Did he threaten to kill his mother?
“To be honest I can’t even remember if I do that. I can’t remember that but is after the report I hear the magistrate say I going to NOC for two years and is then all a dem start to cry…,” he said.
As he was being led away, his mother, in tears, approached him to kiss and hug him. “I just suck me teeth and turn away me face,” the teenager said adding that he never cried but he was angry.
While he blames his mother for being the pivotal factor in the court decision, Ron said it was “peer pressure” that caused him to “lime on the streets because is not like people use to beat me and suh at home.”
Ron is one of 25 students from the NOC who are part of a pilot project called Restoration and Empowerment for Development (RED), being spearheaded by ChildLink with funding from a benevolent businessman who prefers to remain anonymous.
The project officer, Nicole Whaul, agrees that it is peer pressure that would have resulted in Ron’s behaviour that later led to him being sentenced to NOC since both of his parents were very involved and from what she has learnt they both had tried to keep their son in line. His parents continue to be in communication because of Ron.
“Both of the parents have been very much involved and despite of the challenges between him and his mom…and as much as he said he is not hurting, he is hurting because I remember when he discussed the situation with tears in his eyes,” Whaul said, even as Ron vehemently shook his head to indicate he feels no pain.
But even as Ron was describing the situation, the pain was evident as his voice broke and he had to pause to compose himself. Whaul recalled that while initially he had asked her not to discuss the situation with his mother he later asked her to raise the issue.
“She said there was nothing else that she could have done, she didn’t know what to do because he was with her and he didn’t listen to her… And so she sent him to the father thinking that the dad would have gotten more control and that was not the case. They were afraid that that one day he would turn up dead or [would have] committed a crime…,” the counsellor said.
The mother indicated that initially she felt it was the best thing for him to be taught a lesson by sending him to NOC, but she regretted her decision later when she heard the length of his sentence, knowing she would not have been able to see him during that period. This was especially in the light of the fact that her conversations with him while he was at the centre were always short.
Since leaving NOC Ron has been working with his father, who is a contractor, and he also does athletics training in the afternoons so he is very busy.
He lives with his father and Ron said he prefers it this way since it is not his wish to live with his mother. He said he talks to her, “on a level but I don’t hold no malice.” His father is also in the process of assisting him to start attending the Government Technical Institute
He recalled that when he was sent to NOC, while he did not cry on arrival he was afraid “especially when I see them big, big boys.” But he soon got comfortable and he was involved in all the skill areas and was also part of the institution’s boxing team which saw him winning first and second place medals during a competition in the city.
He said his mother was “very strict and I couldn’t get to go and play with any of the other children and so I start misbehaving then she send me to live with me father.”
It was while at his father’s that Ron said he started to do “a lot of stupidness because of the freedom.” He admitted that his father used to warn him about his behaviour but he never listened, “I use to go to school when I feel like…”
For Whaul, it is sad that some of the students are always reminded that they went to “boy school” or “girl school” and she would have to work to alleviate the pain it causes by reminding them that they have changed and to stay positive and show the world that they are not the same person.
The counsellor also encountered difficulties in locating some of the students who gave wrong addresses. She was also unable to locate their next of kin and there are a few who actually ran away after leaving the centre and as such did not continue with the programme.
Of the 25 students who started the programme, the counsellor said she could account for 22 and in most cases she has seen more marked improvement in the boys, than in the girls.
Apart from Ron and another young man who was also featured in these pages recently and who has since landed a full-time job and is doing extremely well, Whaul said there is another young man, who is part of the RED programme, is at the Kuru Training Centre and is doing well and ChildLink continues to support him. Most of the boys in the programme are working and have returned to some form of schooling.
“But some of them who come to the programme I find a bit challenging. Because when they do come and when it is time for them to return home, they go elsewhere, especially the girls. I don’t have that problem with the boys,” she said adding that because of this some parents are hesitant to allow them to continue in the programme.
Not many of the parents are involved in the project and this poses a great difficulty for Whaul as well. Just about five of the parents and guardians of the over 20 students are involved in the programme, with many stating that they cannot find time because of their work schedules. Some of the mothers have also informed Whaul that it is “a waste of time because when the children come they trick me and tell me a bunch of lies…” This has not daunted the young counsellor but she admits that she wished more parents would become involved.
The programme is expected to come to an end this month and Whaul said she would want it to continue because she has seen some successes, but she would seek to ensure that before the next batch of students is released they are enrolled in school or some other learning institution so “that there is no room for them to have idle time.”