The Mercy Wings Vocational Skills Centre: Giving hope to the youths of Sophia By Angela Osborne
Stabroek News
April 13, 2003

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The Mercy Wings Vocational Skills Centre was started in order to give hope to the youths of the Sophia community who had dropped out of school, by teaching them skills which would open up avenues for employment.

It was established by the Sisters of Mercy who already had a health project in the community, and wanted to find other ways of helping the residents of the area.

Getting the project off the ground was tough, but after borrowing a tent from a lumberyard, the Sisters began giving classes in it across from where the present Mercy Wings Vocational Skills Centre is housed.

Quite a few of the students at that time dropped out, because they came from single parent homes and found it difficult to maintain attendance on a regular basis. As such, therefore, there was a variation in the figure of how many students embarked on the programme and how many actually finished it.

However, after one year of operation the centre was able to acquire its first building.

Today, after three years in operation, the centre is managed by a Board of Trustees chaired by David Yhann. The day-to-day operations are headed by Programme Co-orinator, Paula Bess, assisted by Paige Danos, a US volunteer who has been with the project for two years.

Speaking to Sunday Stabroek, Bess said that the centre had been able to provide a wonderful opportunity to those youths in Sophia who had not finished school, and it had managed to get the parents involved as well in their children's future.

After obtaining the land, which was under eighteen inches of water when they took it over, the centre got its trainees to fill it. They were the ones, too, who made the blocks for the foundations of the building, and with the help of a contractor constructed it. When Sunday Stabroek was there some of the trainees with the assistance of their teacher were in the process of erecting the centre's fence.

The centre is divided into three departments of vocational training - Child Care/Care for the Elderly; Catering/Home Management and General Construction. It also offers classes in Maths, English, Social Studies, Self Awareness, Embroidery, Typing and Office Procedures.

Getting into the school requires a student and parent to fill out an application form, following which they both attend an interview. The student will be given an entrance test (this is to ascertain his or her educational attainment level) and upon registration they are required to pay $1,000 which Bess said was to offset some of the expenses of the centre.

Even though priority is given to the youths of Sophia, some exceptions have been made, and youths from other areas have been admitted.

The period of training lasts for two years. For the September to December term, trainees attend classes from 08:00 am to 12:00 pm, and from January to December of the following year, classes run from 08:00 am - 3:30 pm. Bess said that during the first term trainees' attendance is monitored, while from January the centre concentrates on the academic portion of the programme. Lunch is provided for the trainees. And what has been the response to the programme?

The responses from the community and parents have been good, Bess said. "The parents pay a lot of interest in the centre and their children; that is why we have the parents present at the interview, because we want them to be aware that they are responsible for their child's upbringing and should have a say in their child's future."

As for the facilities the centre provides for the community - in particular the child day-care service - people are comfortable sending their children. "They support us in anything we do," said Bess. "The trainees are from the community and as such they are happy to give us something back with all that we have been doing." The cost per child for day-care is $2,000 per month.

How does the centre

maintain itself financially?

Bess replied: "They say Catholics like to beg, so we beg a lot, and there are a few good Guyanese who give us money. We also get a lot of funding from overseas' organisations and try to have at least 4-6 fundraisers per year, so in addition to the $1,000, we ask trainees to contribute something to the fundraisers... This is to help the trainees with their materials. Some of the trainees, for example those in the catering classes, provide their own materials and stationery."

The centre also has a canteen which serves the residents of the area, and sewing and computer classes which are open to members of the community.

At present there are fourteen permanent staff, including a security guard, and six part-time teachers. Some of the trainees are recruited to return and help out at the school after they have graduated. Currently, the centre has 98 trainees.

Future plans include the provision of counselling services and a library for the students. They also hope to start a Business Centre with an Internet Cafe, and a furniture-making company. This would have links to furniture stores so that they could supply them with quality furniture at a reasonable cost.

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