Canadians have been the best development partners that Jamaica has ever had, the Caribbean country’s Education Minister, Rev. Ronald Thwaites, said at the Project for the Advancement of Childhood Education (PACE) Canada 25th anniversary awards celebration last Saturday night.
While in Toronto in 1987 to celebrate Jamaica’s 25th independence anniversary with nationals, then Prime Minister, Edward Seaga, suggested the Diaspora community should consider supporting early childhood education back in the land of their birth.
Though unable to attend the event at which Seaga made the call, lifelong educator Dr. Mavis Burke took up the challenge and PACE emerged. It has become the most visible and consistent Jamaican charitable body in Canada and it’s the only organization of its kind outside Jamaica that embraces early childhood education, raising thousands of dollars to help prepare kids between the ages of two and five for higher education.
PACE’s Adopt-A-School program now supports 316 schools from St. Mary in the north to Clarendon in the south and Portland in the east to Hanover in the west.
For a dollar a day, individuals or groups can participate in the program. The annual $365 donation is sent to the sponsored school where the principal, community leaders and parents determine how the funds should be utilized. It’s estimated that PACE enriches and empowers the lives of almost 12,000 young children annually.
“You don’t ask us to fly your flag, you don’t ask us to do what you want,” said Thwaites, a former Research Fellow in the University of the West Indies’ Faculty of Law. “You ask us to partner with you in uplifting humanity and that is a tremendous gift that you offer. So it is with such joy and reverence that I come tonight to thank you for sustaining an interest in Jamaica over many, many years…PACE represents much more than charity and it’s fuelled by much more than nostalgia.”
With PACE’s support, Thwaites said the Jamaican government is committed to ensuring that a trained teacher is assigned to all of the early childhood educations institutions across the country.
“We want to ensure that each institution is a place of optimism, of joy and of hopefulness for the little children and a place where they not only hone their cognitive abilities, but where their social capacities are also developed and their spiritual sensibilities are not ignored either,” said the minister. “We in our land want to make sure that children come up and are developed with the proper sense of discipline and the proper manners as we call it that has made our people acceptable and congenial all over the world. It’s a chance for us to redo that which we used to do so well.
“From emancipation through to independence, our people understood that the only legitimate way for upward mobility was education. And indeed the history that undergirds the story of many of the ancestors of the people who are here is the story where parents would sell their land and do anything and everything to make sure that their children get a decent education.
“In recent times, we have lost a bit of that focus. Unfortunately, we have seen too many examples of ways that people appear to get ahead without an education. If you could just ‘bust’ a tune, wiggle your way down some model’s catwalk or in more recent times if you learned the secrets of the lottery scam, it seems as if you could get ahead and that would deflect from you understanding the importance and divine significance of learning.”
A Rhodes Scholar, Thwaites also noted that inadequate family structures, religious leaders’ inability to reach out to young people desperately in need of help and a negative culture have contributed to the educational decline and cultural degradation.
“The tradition of reggae is so wonderful, but dancehall is something different, I am sorry to say,” said Thwaites. “It has bemused the minds of our young people…The churches, whose spirits and generosity contributed so much to the incubus and the spirit of education in our past seem to have withdrawn into their beautiful sanctuaries and into our pulpits rather than walking among the children and finding themselves on the street corners and in the classrooms.”
PACE, which has attracted 118 new sponsors in the last 18 months, presented several awards to mark its milestone anniversary.
The organization’s lifetime member Raphaelita Walker, who sponsors two Basic schools in Kingston, was the recipient of the Founder’s Award.
“This is a person who has made a significant contribution to the community and made a difference to PACE,” said Dr. Burke who presented her with the award.
The mother of former Jamaica government minister, Olivia “Babsy” Grange, Walker has been an active community member for the past five decades.
She and her husband, Gifford, who celebrated his 80th birthday recently, left Jamaica in 1957 for England. Frustrated by a rising wave of anti-Black sentiment in the early 1960s and the introduction of the Commonwealth Immigration Act, they came to Toronto in 1963 in search of a better life.
Raphaelita worked as an assistant housekeeper at the Sheraton Hotel and a dress designer at a downtown store before entering the health care field. Along the way, she and Gifford put in quality time and money in almost every Jamaican Canadian Association endeavour and opened their Toronto home to many students coming from Jamaica and newcomers who arrive here without any support.
PACE also presented the Helen Isobel Sissons Canadian Children’s Story Award to award-winning Canadian novelist and short story writer, Caroline Adderson. PACE launched the $1,000 award, intended to encourage the development of literature for children up to seven years old, in November 2009 to commemorate National Child Day.
In addition, the inaugural Community Builder Awards were presented to the Carpenters District Council of Ontario and Royal Bank of Canada which donated $50,000 and $30,000, respectively, to the organization in the last 12 months.
PACE has developed two fully-equipped mobile computer buses to ensure that Jamaican children can compete in the evolving technological arena. The organization has also supported teacher training, book and nutritional programs, a toy drive and provided annual early childhood education scholarships in Canada and Jamaica.
The organization’s president, Mary Anne Chambers, said PACE’s work is guided by a strategic plan that recognizes there is strong competition for a share of the hearts and budgets of people who care about the well-being and early development of children.
“The relationships that we encourage between Adopt-A-School sponsors and their schools illustrate the huge need for support, the impact of your generosity and our essential accountability to you through exemplary stewardship of your trust,” said the former Ontario government minister and banking executive.
Ontario’s Minister of Consumer Services, Margarett Best, who funds her alma mater – Love Lane Basic School – and Senator Don Meredith, who supports Eight Miles Basic School, close to where he was raised, attended the celebration.
Best presented the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal to Chambers at the event.