Building capacity: St Francis Xavier Community Developers By Achal Prabhala
Stabroek News
April 13, 2003

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At 8 o'clock in the morning, a bustling office on the border of Port Mourant and Rosehall is buzzing with activity. The staff of the just renamed St. Francis Xavier Community Developers are preparing for a busy day, where they will visit many of the organization's 9 counselling centres and 14 youth resource centres spread all over Berbice and the Corentyne.

In its sixteen years of existence, Alex Foster, a key founder, says there has never been a more exciting time than now. The organization used to be known as St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Youth Club: but, in keeping with what they have learnt, and the responses they are required to make in their community, they have decided on a shift in focus. "We saw conflicts that had already come up and predicted more to come," says Foster, "especially in the area of HIV and AIDS. Affiliation with the church was limiting and we had to move away. Plus the majority of people living in the area we service are Indo-Guyanese - Hindu and Muslim - and we had to respond to that."

The strategy would seem to have worked: SFX, as the organization is popularly known in the area, has secured both community goodwill and a substantial quantity of aid funds for its various projects. SFX operates on a two-pronged funding pattern, actively encouraging local community leaders to contribute to its activities (they have 21 local leaders on their advisory board), while yet aggressively courting international aid money. "Here, we have a whole range of problems," Foster says as a preamble to our journey into the heart of SFX's community operations, "There are religious divides, gaps in learning and skills, and within the rural Indian community, a high incidence of alcoholism and possibly related suicide."

Over the years, SFX has won recognition from the Commonwealth Futures Forum, who selected Foster as one of 60 youth leaders from across the world. Foster says that his organization is now visited by leading Guyanese politicians and bureaucrats. More importantly, he says that SFX has been invited in the past to participate at United Nations (UN) meetings on youth issues, giving him an opportunity to see how the public policy machine works.

At Alpha Children's Home in Gay Park, New Amsterdam, a tiny young boy comes running up and greets us. His name is William; I am told that only a few months ago, the group of people who rescued him from an abusive household was convinced he would die. Today, he is running about and seems in perfectly good shape, save a few scars running down the side of his nose, a testimony to what he escaped.

SFX works with Alpha Children's Home through two key initiatives funded by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF): projects that they have called 'Family & Children at Risk' and 'Youth at Risk.' The Home, privately founded by an overseas-based pastor and his wife, previously relied exclusively on community contributions that were rarely sufficient. They have since secured aid money, and continue to connect with their community. Neighbours often drop by with food, or clothes and toys. Its twenty three young residents, mostly boys and mostly orphans, operate among other things a full-fledged chicken coop, which supplies a local New Amsterdam supermarket with chicken and gives them an income to sustain themselves on.

SFX has also negotiated on behalf of the Home with local institutions. For instance, at the hospital, where orphans run the risk of shoddy treatment due to the way they are perceived in society, they now get priority treatment. Similarly, if there is a complaint around abuse or violence from a child, it is heard at the Police Station. Two full-time counsellors attached to SFX - Pandit Sharma and Jeff Coates, a Peace Corps Volunteer - visit the Home once every month and discuss HIV/AIDS issues with the young people there. A doctor attached to SFX on a volunteer basis - Dr. Walter Singh, who trained in India and is locally renowned for his indefatigable energy - works at the Home too.

Further down in the Corentyne, Fyrish village is reputed to have the highest number of reported HIV infections in Region 6, according to the New Amsterdam Hospital.

At the Albion Chapel Skills Training Centre, which for the last eight years has served as an umbrella for a wide range of activities, there are currently four HIV+ community members who are being counseled. In the last three months alone, with the help of UNICEF's project for youth, HIV & AIDS, SFX has managed to train twelve youth from here as peer counsellors, and hold three workshops in the region on issues as connected yet diverse as Peer Counselling, Male Respon-sibility and Organizational Networking.

Almost a universal problem, not just in Berbice and the Corentyne but also in Guyana at large, is the issue of confidentiality around HIV/AIDS. Put simply, everyone complains that there is usually none. This then, makes the task of encouraging people to come out and be tested, or further counselled and helped, enormously difficult. At Albion Chapel, as in the St. Marks Mothers Union, another youth community centre in Alness, the problem is acute. They constantly refer people to the GUM clinic in Georgetown in an established pattern: often, those who suspect they are HIV+ would rather be tested and treated anywhere but home.

While SFX has only just begun work around youth, HIV and AIDS, their progress, Foster says, has been significant. They have established a working group of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) all over Berbice and the Corentyne to join in the effort, and have managed to upgrade the facilities of several youth resource centres to begin work around HIV prevention awareness and stigma removal. Their counsellors - Sharma and Coates - travel the network extensively. Foster recently had to confront the issue of handing out condoms in schools, and decide whether giving away condoms to young children was in fact tacitly encouraging them to have sex. The issue, he admits, is complex (his personal belief is that school children under the age of eighteen should not be given condoms);further, many schools do not like condoms being handed out on the premises.

A better solution that they are working towards, is having condoms made easily available in key resource areas all over the community - at the youth centres, at shops - in order that no young person may go without one should the need arise.

SFX bases itself in two buildings in Rosehall. One serves as an office and library complex, with a soon to be opened Internet resource centre. The other building, one street away from the main office, works as a youth resource centre. It has a working restaurant which can be hired out for catered functions, and is currently undergoing renovation to transform it into a full-fledged youth resource area - or in other words, a place where young people can hang out and have something productive and fun to do.

Towards this goal of creating youth-friendly spaces that are really used (and badly needed), the Rosehall Sports Ground was established. Herbert Foster, who runs the club that manages the grounds and the buildings around it, says that a number of young people, including current members of the under-19 national cricket team, use the space. Apart from a wide playing field which is big enough to play cricket on, the club encloses a pavilion, stadium-style seating space, and indoor recreation areas. Several people were using the centre when we visited and it is refreshing to see a simple idea such as this (based on the simple premise that young people like to exercise) translated into a working, running reality.

The organization has ambitious plans for a patch of land nearby - a few acres - for which it has already received initial approval from local authorities. The proposed model village that SFX plans to install on the land will have a training complex to teach their concept of community development. To this end, they have developed training manuals in a range of resource and skill areas. They are particularly interested in livelihoods, and aim to encourage entrepreneurs. Their HIV/AIDS counsellors have all been trained by Guyana Responsible Parent-hood Association (GRPA) and they have worked out a programme of collaboration with the National AIDS Program Secretariat (NAPS) to distribute condoms, brochures and informational flyers.

Another important part of the plan for the future is a counselling hotline: SFX is currently training counselors and having telephone connections established in all its youth centres. Each week, the leaders of the fourteen youth centres come up to Rosehall to meet with Foster and his team, to discuss issues and report progress. Foster credits agencies like UNICEF for their support in bringing about this expansion of role and capacity: without the partnership and direction, Foster says that the scope of his activity would be considerably diminished. While there is some criticism in the development community about international aid agencies directing the agenda of work (and thereby, it is alleged, not paying enough attention to local needs), Foster is clear that his goals for SFX have remained the same all these sixteen years: to give youth a space to learn, grow and live.

To that end, it is worth mentioning that Foster does not see the focus on youth, HIV/AIDS as a 'flavour of the month' whim, but rather, as a necessarily sustainable project of awareness building and consistent education. It is an integral part of the larger agenda for youth, and essential in its urgency presently. "We are not changing our focus around just because there is money available for work with HIV/AIDS," Foster says. Indeed, to work in issues of sexuality, HIV/AIDS awareness and health, it is sometimes far more important to address the perceived immediate needs of the community served.

And so SFX is also a placement agency, connecting young people across the region with a range of employers, from large manufacturing firms (which have all moved out of New Amsterdam, Foster says) to smaller service units in the region. Elsewhere in the Corentyne, at the Shining Star Centre in Limlair, a young man who was part of the group complained loudly that it was hard for him to think of HIV/AIDS because, as he frankly put it, there were no jobs. A sense of desperation is evident.

At Mibikuri, Mahendra Mangru, President of the Youth Club there, talks of how he has been running the centre for four years. His mission is to be trained in as many areas as he is competent (much of this training happens at the SFX offices in Rosehall) - and then, bring that knowledge back to his community, and train others. They have set up a rack with information and handouts on HIV/AIDS at the hospital, and he is in the process of running local awareness workshops for young people in his area.

Mangru plans to work in the secondary school with counselling help from Coates, and set up a distribution centre for condoms. Here, in the Black Bush Polder, the problems of everyday existence are evident. A young farmer flags down the vehicle we are driving in, asking for a lift. It is 10 o'clock in the morning, and as he climbs in - bottle of rum in hand - his breath indicates that he has already consumed a large quantity of the alcohol. Indeed, alcoholism is a severely crippling problem in the area. Kamala, a young girl from the community who has also been trained as a peer counsellor on HIV/AIDS, tells us despondently that every week she hears of someone or the other committing suicide. It has now ceased to shock, and become a chillingly regular fixture of life in her village.

What, according to Kamala, is the problem then? That people are reluctant to discuss issues of sex and sexuality. That in fact, the family as site of conflict is a serious issue, rarely discussed. She cites parents not agreeing to a marriage, and alcoholism, as among the chief reasons for suicide. Her lament - that parents and families should open up a little and allow intervention - is being listened to. SFX trains young people like her to serve as counsellors, creating a network of educators who can - they hope - contribute to easing the crisis of everyday life.

Mangru works by day as a State Land Ranger with Guyana Land & Surveys Commission. At the youth centre, they have set up a substantial library, as well as equipment to impart skills training in food and nutrition, cake decoration, sewing and needlework.

They are also a centre for distribution for 'Food for the Poor' (an international NGO). Most importantly, like all the other youth centres SFX works with, it is a place for young people to be able to simply do something in an area robbed of all recreational facilities. Indeed, looking out of the windows of the youth centre, onto the flat farmlands and wide trenches that mark the region, it is easy to see the vital need of spaces like this one we are sitting in.

Among the chief tactics SFX uses to mobilize young people are two interesting ones: music and male responsibility. Foster talks of his organization's plans to build up a music group, who will play local chutney and soca, delivering messages to the community in a way that is far removed from the often antiseptic communication methods of grown up people. Enabled by UNICEF, the project is expected to crystallize shortly. In addition, the other element of this gameplan that has already been put into place - and has run successfully as a series of workshops that trained several community leaders from the region - is the concept of Male Respon-sibility. In its attempts to target youth around issues of HIV/AIDS, build up awareness, and remove stigma, SFX has attached a special importance to the male youth.

And rightly so: often, the root of a social problem involving - say - risky sexual behaviour, is the young man. As Leslie, a young community worker from Kilturn echoes, it is important to educate boys on their future roles as responsible fathers. It is important to tell them that they will soon be fending for themselves. Leslie thinks it is essential to discuss how exactly boys relate to girls, and simulate situations so that they can be analyzed and learnt from. But men, he says with a sigh, are rarely interested in attending programmes like this. "They are not too active, you know," he complains, and the young people around him nod understandingly. With the involvement of SFX, and the encouragement of agencies like UNICEF, there is hope that this could change.

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