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The inspiring ambassador
At just 14 years old Derrick Sharbodie had to learn to fend for himself after his parents died. He had to work to provide for himself and go to school to try and get an education and he had to do it all while living in a rough neighbourhood on Nelson Street, Port-of-Spain. He did not let these negative experiences deter him from becoming a success and he would eventually inspire hundreds of youth to stay on the straight and narrow, while reaching for their dreams through the various programmes that he set up at the St James Police Youth Club at Sierra Leone Road, Diego Martin.
Sharbodie was recently the recipient of the Commonwealth Youth Worker Award for the entire Caribbean. The award ceremony is held every year for the 53 nations of the Commonwealth during Youth Work Week in November.
Sharbodie, who will now serve as a Commonwealth youth ambassador, was selected for the prestigious youth award not only because of his work at the youth club but for his outstanding work helping young people through drug prevention as well. He does this as a community police officer and co-ordinator of Project Excel, a drug prevention programme.
He received the award at a ceremony hosted at the UK Houses of Parliament, in London. He hopes that the award will inspire all police youth clubs around the country to keep working towards positively influencing the young people of the nation.
It was not an easy road getting the club to where it is now but eventually through the support of people who believed in his vision, like his wife Christine who gave up her job to help out, it became a haven for youth in the area, he said while speaking to the T&T Guardian during an interview at the youth club.
This is also a way of life for his family as his two sons, aged 17 and six, are very active members.
His work with youth began almost immediately after he left secondary school, he explained.
“When I left St James Government Secondary School,” said Sharbodie, “I went back to the principal and one of the teachers and asked them if they could assist me with getting a job. They said they would help but only under one condition and that is if I come in and talk to the students about life after school and through my language and my experiences I had more of an impact on them.”
He felt such a connection with the youth he mentored that he began to research and study how he could help them prevent substance and drug abuse and help them boost their self-esteem. It was not until he became a police officer in 1989 that his calling became clear. The coup in 1990 also made him realise that there was no time to waste.
Said Sharbodie: “When I became a police officer and I saw the number of young people being arrested and charged for offences because they were naive, it was amazing. When the coup took place it was 114 young men, it made me realise I can’t procrastinate because young people are being lost so I went out and I started to do lectures.”
He believes it is his mission to let young people know that they are precious and it is because of this that he had to find a place that teens can call a home away from home.
“We got our centre in 1998. It was abandoned, it was just a shell,” said Sharbodie. “At the time Senator Wade Mark asked me to look at the location on Sierra Leone Road and tell him if I wanted it and I said yes. The American Embassy came on-board and did some refurbishment for us and the British High Commission came and did some work on the centre. The Canadian High Commission helped us with the burglar proofing and gave us some computers.”
To truly keep youth focused he said most of the activities at the club are based on what they have requested and are interested in. This ranges from learning about computers to their 16-piece steel orchestra. Another initiative which he has implemented is a male support group and this group also helps teens who may have been disciplined in school for acting out.
Sharbodie said: “We formed a male support group because we felt that our young men were having problems with their anger and other issues and between 8 am to 2.30 pm children on suspension had nobody to receive them at home so I transformed the centre into a suspension programme where any student who has been suspended from school reports to me between 9 am and 2.30 pm so that their time will be occupied constructively.”
A lot of the schools in the area have joined the programme which has now become one of the club’s signature features. Sharbodie goes beyond that to help even more and had the club modified to accommodate young men for a few nights if they are in distress.
He said: “We felt that young men needed a place to stay that they could
reconnect with a proper guardian. So we formed a little resident programme where we house 12 young men. We took the storeroom and outfitted it with some double decker beds, also a fridge and a stove.”
Sharbodie said it is not just boys that are getting into trouble these days but girls as well. He tries to work with the parents in the area because he believes that young people can be inspired to do even better if they have a positive influence from their role models, so he has formed a parent council.
The parents are taught new and innovative ways of disciplining their children and making stronger connections with them. He believes that 90 per cent of indiscipline among youths stem from the home particularly because of a lack of communication and the absence of a father figure. He also blames the negative use of social media and the influence of foreign culture for the increase in bad behaviour among some of the nation’s young people.
When he realised that some parents in the area did not have electricity he opened up the club for them on Sundays so that they can wash their clothes and iron to relieve some of their stress.
He admitted that the club is still in need of funding for renovations and tutors as most of them now work for free. The club opens from 2.30pm on Monday to Friday and is still serving young people between the ages of five to 21 in the area and keeping many of them out of trouble.
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