Snatching children from the brink of disaster
At the Drop-in Centre they learn that all is not lost

by Raschid Osman
Guyana Chronicle
October 10, 1999

WE COME up against them mostly in the downtown shopping centres. And when they beg for help, we are sometimes not sure whether we should assist them or not.

Are they really hungry, or do they want money to buy cigarettes, or perhaps a spliff?

Are they like Fagin's apprentices in Oliver Twist?

The tragedy is that perhaps we might turn them away empty-handed, and, in doing so, deprive them of a much-needed bit of bread and something to drink.

We would do well, now, to tell them about the Drop-in Centre at the back of the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church on Main Street in Georgetown.

Under the auspices of UNICEF, the Centre is assisted by a clutch of kind and caring organisations, with Mrs. Sylvia Conway as Coordinator, and a band of volunteers who turn up to be with the children for teaching and other exercises.

The nascent Drop-in Centre is offering a service that is crucial to the development of street children who, left to themselves, will become street people, existing on the brink of disaster, with the potential to rant and rage and wreak havoc on both themselves and the communities in which they eke out the barest of subsistence.

The Centre opened its doors last June, after an uphill battle to overcome the prejudice that militated against the facility, and this from quite unexpected places.

The children come from various backgrounds, and the circumstances that throw them into the streets are many and all very tragic.

Some of them have no homes and are involved in dangerous activities such as petty theft, the drug trade, and prostitution.

Others have tenuous family ties, visiting their homes on occasion, to be met by circumstances which force them to go back on the streets.

Some work as street vendors to supplement a meagre family income. And all these are children mostly not yet in their teens.

The result is a loss of childhood, a heart-rending phenomenon and a flagrant, traumatic disregard for articles which constitute the Rights of the Child Convention.

At the Centre, Mrs. Conway and her corps of assistants provide a service which might seem minimal to the more fortunate among us, but which makes a world of difference to those who benefit from it. One is indeed troubled when one visits the Centre for a first-hand look at what goes on there, and compares the street children with those of the same age who throw tantrums when their parents cannot afford to buy them expensive trinkets and clothes.

Last year, UNICEF, in conjunction with the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security, conducted a series of activities as a preamble to the setting up of the Centre. These included a survey of children on the streets, consultation with parents and children, and planning with the children.

Now the Centre is there, designed to cater for 25 children between the ages of eight and 15.

"They come to us around nine in the morning, take a bath, have their teeth brushed and their clothes washed," Mrs. Conway said in an interview last week.

She observed that one cannot think well of oneself if one is not physically clean, hence the importance of a clean-up before any attempt at instilling in the children those positive values which they are deprived of and which more privileged children take for granted.

They do academic work, but many prefer the handicraft exercises introduced recently. They are making hanging baskets and coasters for glasses.

"We hope to have an exhibition of their work before Christmas, and this will earn them money of their very own," says an enthusiastic Mrs. Conway.

"Every day, those who come are offered two hot meals, and our volunteers eat with them, sharing in the same food, allowing them the feeling of acceptance which they need so badly and which they get nowhere else," she continues.

An important component of the Centre's curriculum involves handling anger.

Once a child came with a cutlass, bent on "fixing up" anybody who annoyed him. The weapon was confiscated, handed over to the Police, and the child who brought it was told that he would have to go to the station to get it back. A bit harsh, one may think. But certainly necessary.

Mrs. Conway has remarked on varying degrees of alienation between the children and their parents.

She tells of one boy who is unhappy about the way his mother dresses when she goes out. He believes she dresses too obviously, so much so that his friends speak ill of her. But when he tells her so, she tells him that she could not dress to please him.

And then there is the boy who hates his father because he left a good job as he could not abide the hours he had to be away from home.

Many of the children speak of hating their mothers whom they blame for the deprived condition in which they find themselves on the street.

The boys leave the Centre about four in the afternoon. Some go back to the streets until next day, others back to homes which are not the safe havens to which many of us are accustomed.

But it will not always be this way.

Mrs. Conway tells of plans to have a building at the Palms compound refurbished to provide an education and a rehabilitation centre for street children. When this is realised, the Centre will be better able to care for our street children.

In the meantime, the shifting street children population will continue to be cared for at the Drop-in Centre, as best as is now possible. They recite grace before nutritious meals, are taught to think well of themselves, to respect each other, and to recognise that they can rise above the unfortunate circumstances which now have them on the city streets.

We must let them know that there is more to living than what they have so far experienced. That much in the manner a fragrant bloom can spring from a dung-heap, they can clamber from the degrading dark they now inhabit into the burnished glow of being accepted and loved, of sharing love themselves, and of contributing to the quality of life of those for whom they care.

In other words, we must allow them the chance to live more abundantly.

A © page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples