Epic Guyana, Nations University partner to teach youth at Sophia juvenile centre

Youth housed at the Juvenile Detention Centre in Sophia will soon be able to benefit from a literacy and numeracy project through a collaboration between EPIC Guyana and Nations University.

The new project, which is expected to begin today, will see the youth being offered an opportunity to engage in interactive sessions with sixth form students of the Nations University in the areas of literacy, numeracy and computer literacy.

Co-Founder of EPIC-Guyana Brian Backer, in a recent interview with Stabroek News, said he has a hard time understanding why, in some cases, the same youth who have been locked up for not attending school are being placed in a facility that offers them almost non-existent academic opportunities.

From left to right are Electra Coonjah, sixth form student at Nations University; Robert Bourne, teacher at the Detention Centre; Yvette Sancho, Administrator of the Centre; Surujdai Mukhram, EPIC Guyana Programme Coordinator; Dr. Brian O’Toole, Director of Nations University and Brian Backer, Director of EPIC Guyana

“You have kids who are locked up for not going to school, who now cannot go to school because they are locked up. Now tell me: how does that make any sense…? If you just put these kids there—and they are there for months or depending on the offence some are there for a few years—and taught them nothing, what you expect them to do?” Backer asked.

At present, there is one teacher at the facility who was recruited to teach the youth, however, Backer noted that that in itself is an overwhelming task since the youth population comprises different grade levels. As a result, he said it is not a job that should be handled by a single person.

Meanwhile, Director of the Nations University Dr. Brian O’Toole, who visited the facility last week, told Stabroek News that he too was saddened by the fact there was very little work being done to offer such basic programmes to the young people at the centre.

Thus, he felt the need to bring his students on board and collaborate with Backer and EPIC Guyana in the interest of bettering the lives of the youth housed at the facility.

O’Toole said the new project will be one that is going to be added to an already expansive list of service projects that have been undertaken by the Nations’ sixth formers over the last few years.

He explained that efforts will be made to organise at least three teams of students who undertake interactive sessions with the youth of the facility at least once a week.

Asked what led to the collaboration, Backer said he heard Dr. O’Toole and someone else on the radio talking about the courses they were doing for teachers. “…In my understanding the nature of volunteerism, I decided to call him up. We had a meeting and within a few days we visited Sophia and now we are here,” he explained.

“When Brian told me about the place, I thought it was absolutely horrific and we jumped at the opportunity to help these kids,” O’Toole added.

Explaining the Nations’ service initiative, the University Director said though sixth formers are not compelled to be a part of the project, they are encouraged to participate as it offers them a unique opportunity to have meaningful interactions that may help mould them into well-rounded individuals.

Some of the other projects that they have participated in include working with underprivileged kids from the Tiger Bay, which has been one of the longest standing projects, and working with differently-abled children.

Like the Tiger Bay afterschool project, the new project does not have a specific timeline as Nations University and EPIC Guyana are committed to helping the youth of the facility for as long as they are allowed to.

In terms of what they hope to achieve through the new project, O’Toole said, “It’s our hope that we would be able to give those kids the understanding that some people care. And the best people for them to relate to is 17 and 18 year olds, because while talking may not change the situation right away, it offers them an opportunity to have a different outlook on things and that in itself can improve one’s thought process.”

Backer added, “Our goal is to bring each of the kids up to their grade level. If we can do that, then we have succeeded… the kids are really excited about the programme and we even had a few who asked how they can follow up what they started there when they get released.”

Backer emphasised, “We are not trying to take ownership of this, we are just trying to play our part by raising our voices and hoping that others will join it…it takes everybody and everybody has to play their part.”

O’Toole added, “ I think it would be a meaningful experience for my kids and I think they would be able to come away with something valuable and I think that’s more important than getting two A’s and a B.”

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