At-Risk girls join Governor General’s Youth Awards

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The Governor General’s Youth Award has launched a new unit at the Willie Mae Pratt Centre for Girls on Thursday, March 7. Pictured from left to right: GGYA’s national director, Denise Mortimer; Gold Award Holder and unit leader, Arvis Mortimer; the centre’s superintendent, Michelle Nottage and Gold Award Holder and unit leader, Syneisha Bootle. Photo by Precision Media.

A juvenile detention facility for girls is about to receive a new addition. For only the second time in its history, the Governor General’s Youth Award (GGYA) is rolling out its programme at the Willie Mae Pratt Centre for Girls. The goal is to help troubled young women find a sense of achievement and purpose ultimately improving their odds for a successful reentry into their families and communities. A seven-strong cohort comprised mostly of 15 and 16-year-olds were recently introduced to GGYA by Denise Mortimer, the Award’s national director. “This is a trial run,” she advised the teens following a viewing of video, promotional material and a brief presentation. “Our goal is for you to get your Bronze Award six months from now.” Voluntary and non-competitive GGYA is open to anyone aged 14 to 24.

Participants design their own programme, set their own goals and record their progress in community service, physical activity and skill. The teens must log four hours a month minimum in each area. They must also plan, train for and complete a hiking expedition – what the programme refers to as an adventurous journey – lasting two days and one night. “I am extremely excited about this programme. I am sure it will assist in their rehabilitation,” said Michelle Nottage, the centre’s superintendent. “One of our goals is to make the residents stronger and better for when they leave here so that they can function better in society.” Past and present participants speak highly of the internationally-recognized Award which develops the whole person: mind, body and soul, in a team-building environment. Still, it takes funds to put-on the programme for such a small unit in a secured facility, requiring special approval and extra security to venture outside the compound. A grant from the Department of Gender and Family Affairs of the Ministry of Social Services and Urban Development is funding this initiative. To give this pilot programme the best shot at success, officials handpicked its unit leaders. Three Gold Award Holders who know the ins and outs of GGYA’s programme very well since they have been through it themselves, will work closely with the centre for girls: Arvis Mortimer, Syneisha Bootle and GGYA’s own training leader, Jacquetta Lightbourne-Maycock. A natural fit, Arvis Mortimer was already familiar with some of the youths having worked closely with the centre’s residents for four months last year through her “I Am Powerful” risk-reduction programme which focused on HIV prevention, teen pregnancy, decision-making and imbuing the young ladies with a sense of self-worth. 

“I recognize the Award as being a programme for transformation and so this is something I was definitely very excited to see happen,” she said. “Generally, in our country we have a lot of social activities but there is disparity in distribution. Sometimes programmes we know are impactful do not reach the participants they could possibly have the greatest impact on, so I’m excited to see the ladies have this opportunity.” Decades earlier, Ms Bootle’s mom volunteered at the Girls Industrial School (now the Willie Mae Pratt Centre) allowing her daughter to see first-hand the life-long impact a positive role model could make. The Bootle family remains close with a few former residents, now adults with families of their own. “I wanted to be a part of this process of self-development for the girls, helping to change their perspective about themselves and life in general,” said Ms Bootle, an attorney. “I want to lend that support and, perhaps, be that inspiration for them as they transition back into their communities.” The last time GGYA (previously known as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award) was active at the girl’s detention centre is believed to be more than 30 years ago.

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