For Penny Camps, it’s all about being her brother’s keeper. It says so on her T-shirt; and more importantly, it’s the motivation that lies behind her Tobago-based, non-profit foundation, Yahweh.
Despite its Old Testament name, Yahweh is not a religious organisation. Created by Camps in 2012, its (non-denominational) goal is to create connections between people, specifically amongst the more vulnerable members of the society. “There has been this epidemic of isolation in our communities,” explains Camps, “where a problem might be identified, but no-one takes the next step to help resolve it.”
The problem might be a lonely senior with little family or community support; or it might be an “at-risk child”, one who is having difficulties at school or at home. Or a single teenage mother with minimal resources. Camps believes that underlying many of these issues is a disintegration of the social connective tissue.
“Crime is a consequence of disconnection,” she points out. “If people are connected to each other, they cannot harm each other… Yahweh aims to add value to people’s lives, through enrichment, and support. That happens when you build relationships. Before you can really add value to someone’s life, it requires connecting.”
Inspiring words, certainly; but what do they mean, in concrete terms? For the past two years, with the permission of the local village council, Camps and a team of dedicated volunteers have mounted an intriguing pilot project in Tobago’s Buccoo Village.
Two separate Yahweh programmes are currently underway in the community centre. Twice a week “The Elders” arrive, to mingle and chat, share food, and take part in activities that may include singing, arts and crafts, gentle exercise, occasional excursions, even a little pampering (one Yahweh volunteer offers free pedicures). Most important of all, it gets them out of their homes and into their community.
“I like everything in Yahweh,” declares Louise Roberts, 79. “It helps the seniors a lot. Everybody says they can’t wait till Monday to get there. It makes us feel wanted.” She has been attending the sessions since last September, and her only complaint is that there aren’t more of them. “wish Yahweh was every day, and not just two days a week. Before, I was just at home in the house, there were no other activities (in the village). Then Yahweh came and made us more lively.”
Roberts has lots of family nearby, so she’s not lonely; but she appreciates the opportunity to meet folks from different parts of the Buccoo community, whom she would not normally get to know. Now, she says, “I would help them out with anything, any time I’m able.” That’s the kind of connection Camps is hoping to develop.
Yahweh’s other programme is aimed at schoolchildren, the future of our nation, as a certain Father of the Nation used to say. Three afternoons a week, after school, 20-30 primary school pupils, ages 6 to 14, meet at the community centre to engage—like their elders—in a number of activities geared specifically to their age, stage, and energy level.
The goal is both education and entertainment. At a recent meeting, exceptionally, two nutritionists gave a lively presentation on food groups and healthy diets, engaging the children with flashcards, games and contests. On most days, though, the activities follow a set course: ten minutes of dancercise, to burn off pent-up energy; then a period of meditational breathing to calm everyone down, followed by “self-expression”, as the kids sit in a circle and talk about what’s happening in their lives.
After this, there is Literacy Lift-off, a period where the participants, accompanied by adult volunteers, split up into quiet corners to read aloud, or be read to. When reading time is over, some children choose to engage in arts and crafts, singing and music; while others run outside to skip rope and play soccer. Help with homework is also available. Occasionally, there may be nature walks, or therapeutic sessions with horses.
“We try to keep a (volunteer-to-student) ratio of one to four, or one to five,” says Camps. “So we never accept more than 30 kids at a time. Many are referred to us from the school, where they are considered a problem. Some have undiagnosed learning disabilities; schools just don’t have the capacity or the manpower to deal with them…We do ongoing evaluation,, interviews with teachers and families. We’ve seen improvements in literacy, self regulation, conflict management ‘that’s a big one for us’ and attention control. It’s recorded in their school reports.”
The children recognise their own improvement. “Sometimes I get all my homework correct,” says Mihaila Mark, shyly. Mark, 8, is reading a book about Charlie the Caterpillar. She “kind of likes’ coming to Yahweh, because of the help with her schoolwork, and because she likes painting pictures of rainbows and stars and hearts in the creative arts group.
Ute James, one of Yahweh’s team leaders, is in charge of arts and crafts. “It’s a good way to communicate with children,” she explains. James, a qualified social worker in her native Germany, worked with disadvantaged children for 13 years. “You can build up a relationship that then allows you to deal with the other issues behind. It’s also a good way for these children to be successful, who are not necessarily successful in other areas. When you do a craft, you always have a product you can be proud of at the end. Nobody is judging.”
Nobody is judging. That is the underlying theme of Yahweh, where children are accepted for what they are, and elders respected for their wisdom. It is a model which Camps hope will eventually extend beyond Buccoo to other villages. Members of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) have expressed interest in seeing the program go island-wide, but so far, no funding has been forthcoming. In any case, Camps prefers to proceed slowly, wanting to be sure that the Buccoo prototype is “really strong and robust” before introducing it into other communities.
“Going into a community, getting accepted, takes a long, long time,” she points out.
As the organization celebrates its second anniversary, Camps is by no means resting on her laurels. She plans to move Yahweh into “the second phase”, which will offer parent support and parent education — Common-Sense Parenting, she calls it. Single teen mothers will be a particular focus. She also hopes to launch an adolescent group, to facilitate older students who have to attend high school outside the village.
So, why has Camps, a speech therapist currently employed fulltime by the Tobago Regional Health Authority’s Child and Adolescent Centre, undertaken such an ambitious project?
Two reasons. First, she saw a need, a gaping hole in the island’s social structures. “In T&T, it’s the NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) that do all the social work,”she explains. “The government has provided some basic infrastructure, like health and education; but the NGOs take care of all the things that the system doesn’t provide”