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RBTT aids St Michael’s Boys on path to self-sufficiency

Sunday, May 9 2010

It was hot and dry in the front yard of the St Michael’s School for Boys, just like everywhere else in Trinidad and Tobago during the drought. But under a black net canopy, some peppers were thriving, and chives, tomato seedlings and other short crops were making a good go of it.

This was part of the school’s agriculture project, funded by RBTT Bank. St Michael’s Manager, Allison Salandy, said the project is primarily rehabilitative for the boys.

“It’s one way you can teach these young men who come from a harsh environment to be gentle. You can’t manhandle plants. You have to be gentle if you want to see a positive end result from your plants,” Salandy said. The project started in September and St Michael’s reaped a good harvest that December, enough to send to RBTT branches in the surrounding areas, and to give to visiting school supervisors.

“Because this is a teaching environment, and the time here could be short, we try to give the boys as broad-based an exposure as possible. The decision was to focus on a variety of crops— short, medium, long term— and then to attempt different technology in planting,” Salandy said.

From a “typical backyard garden” to grow boxes, the agriculture project has had good results, notwithstanding drought conditions. “It has moved faster than we anticipated and the interest has been positive. There are boys who ask to be in the garden even though it requires being up at six am to water the plants, and again in the evenings. That has been an interesting experience,” the manager mused.

Plumbing instructor, Joseph Campbell, led the project once RBTT introduced it. About six boys at a time work in the garden. They are already learning the hard way that agriculture is risky but rewarding. At the time of our visit, despite the heaps of dried plants in the middle of the field, victims of the drought, the school was using a good bit of its own produce in its kitchens.

“There was a high start-up cost but after a while it started paying for itself because we don’t have to buy certain market goods anymore. It really has made a dent in the food bill,” Salandy said. “Apart from that, there are the self esteem and the social benefits that you can’t measure. We’re really proud of what we do.”

RBTT’s involvement with St Michael’s goes back three years when school principal Kelvin Nancoo approached the bank for a donation of a few computers. RBTT responded by equipping two computer labs and supplying laptops for teachers. That initial three-year project is winding to its end, but the computer labs are going strong. In fact, a new phase in computer training has commenced, giving the boys an opportunity to get Roytec/UWI certification.

Gaston Harrison, head of the trade department at St Michael’s, said the boys use the machines regularly. “They look forward to coming up here,” he said, opening up the air-conditioned senior computer lab which the boys use to work on their projects.

The school gives vocational instruction in agriculture, plumbing, baking, welding, masonry, upholstery, laundering and tailoring. Trade instructors use the computers to find teaching aids on the Internet, Harrison said.

“The initial objective of RBTT’s involvement at St Michael’s was to assist the boys in becoming computer literate and obtaining technical certification in computer literacy and computer repairs,” said Martin Laughlin, Manager of Corporate Communications for Trinidad and Tobago at RBTT Bank Ltd.

He has been the main liaison between the school and RBTT.

“Over the last three years, the boys have done some basic computer literacy training and now we are taking a more structured approach through UWI/Roytec which will enable the boys to obtain certification in Microsoft Word, Excel, using the internet and understanding the computer Operating System. The goal is ensuring that every boy who passes through St Michael’s School leaves with a basic knowledge of computers, so that they are better prepared for the world of work, in which computers play an integral role.”

From that initial investment, the relationship between RBTT and St Michael’s has grown. Staff members at RBTT branches in west Trinidad — West Mall, Diego Martin, St James, Chaguaramas and Maraval — have adopted St Michael’s as their community outreach programme.

“They have painted the computer labs, they have a Christmas party for the boys… they’ve become quite close. There has been a considerable investment in physical and human resources,” Laughlin said.

The reward for RBTT is the progress of the boys and the School’s evolving role in the community.

“RBTT’s intention was that apart from being self-sufficient, we would open a farmer’s market, so people in the neighbourhood would come in and get to know a different side of St Michael’s,” Salandy said.

That might yet happen, once the drought is over. Right now the school grows enough to supply itself and there is immeasurable benefit in that.

“We use a lot of the produce in our kitchens. The boys take a pride in eating what they grow,” Salandy said.

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