Established 51 years ago as Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO) on the foundation of early university-based initiatives, CUSO International – as the organization has been known since last year – celebrated five decades of service and Jamaica’s 50th independence anniversary at a reception last week at Ryerson University.
The Project for the Advancement of Childhood Education (PACE) collaborated with CUSO International to host the event, which featured a video presentation on CUSO’s work with children and its award-winning Access to Justice program.
“This is work that is very near and dear to me because it really speaks to a need that exists in Jamaica,” said CUSO International country representative, Tarik Perkins.
The Canadian non-profit organization also announced a strategy to build a diaspora volunteering program that would recruit Jamaican nationals to return to the land of their birth to work on volunteer projects.
Jamaican-born Elaine Thompson, program and corporate communications manager with the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship & Immigration, took a one-year leave of absence from the provincial government in 1998 to volunteer as a strategic planning adviser with a network of non-governmental organizations in Kingston.
“She exemplifies the commitment of so many of our volunteers and also the kind of partnership that we are looking at,” said CUSO International executive director, Derek Evans.
He said CUSO is privileged to interact with remarkable individuals and organizations in Canada and 35 other countries around the world.
“CUSO International is helping to build a global volunteer movement beyond the traditional volunteer borders,” said Evans. “We have been in operation for over 50 years and during this time, the work of CUSO International has been a testament to the incredible power of volunteering both in Canada and overseas.
“The power of people to people exchange, the special connections that live on sometimes decades after the placement has finished is what CUSO actually brings about. CUSO International’s history is written collectively by the people we have sent overseas and the people we work with in those countries at the grassroots of change.”
Since 1961, CUSO has supported close to 550 volunteers in Jamaica. At the moment, there are about 20 volunteers in Jamaica sharing their expertise in human rights, organizational development, public relations and gender equality.
“Today in Jamaica, our work focuses on ensuring that young women and men confronting poverty and social exclusion are able to benefit from access to new opportunities for employment, education and community participation,” said Evans. “And through our Access to Justice program, which we are focusing on this evening, we are contributing to making formal and alternative justice mechanisms more accessible and more responsive to women and children in confronting problems of violence and other abuses of their fundamental rights.”
Last year, the Access to Justice program was recognized with a Jamaica Office of the Children’s Advocate Donor Award for Technical Assistance.
In the feature address, Jamaica’s first female Chief Justice, Zaila McCalla, commended CUSO International volunteers for the key role they have played in the organization’s initiatives, including the Access to Justice program that assists and supports people, mainly children, in navigating the country’s court system.
“Although Jamaica has witnessed significant progress in some areas over the years, the country continues to grapple with economic challenges and this has had a negative impact on some areas of our justice system,” said McCalla, who was appointed Chief Justice in June 2007. “One important area of concern is child’s rights…With all the combined effort and the legislative structures put in place for the treatment, care and protection of our children, there are significant gaps to be filled and needs to be met so as to address the needs of children, especially those interacting with the justice system, be they victims, witnesses or the perpetrators of crime.
“CUSO International has been of tremendous assistance over the years and has made a significant difference to the lives of children in our justice system. I would like to commend CUSO volunteers and say publicly that to be a voice for the voiceless and protector of the weak is one of the greatest contributions that one could make to the advancement of the human race.
“Judges now have a heightened awareness of the vulnerabilities and special needs of children as victims, witnesses and those in conflict with the law. As members of the judiciary, we are mindful that the extent of our contribution might only be as far and wide as our territorial and legal jurisdictions will allow. But that is our sphere of influence and that is the only space within which we will be able to meaningfully play our part.”