Providing a sanctuary for children

“The first step is believing that you can do better. The second is not listening to others when they say you can’t,” states Jessica Richardson-Lake. As a mother, pastor, teacher and the director of the Belvedere Community Center, Jessica is a mentor to over 100 children.

“A lot of the kids we work with have been pegged as ‘bad kids’ however, all they need is a listening ear, structure and guidance,” which is what Jessica aims to incorporate during both the afternoon-school and church activities at the Belvedere Community Center.

Having been a single parent, trying to make ends meet herself, she understands many of the struggles parents and their children face on Sint Maarten: “While I had to work, I would leave my kids at home. I would always be worried, but I had no alternative. This is when I started dreaming about an affordable after-school program.”

Over 26 years ago, Jessica took the first step in realizing this dream by opening her doors to kids in the neighbourhood who needed a safe space. This grew to a two-container building manned by a team of volunteers, and today has transformed into the Belvedere Community Center.

Family challenges
Belvedere and the surrounding communities are known as low-income areas. Many families are dealing with poverty, deepened by unemployment after hurricane Irma. Besides those who live in poverty, Jessica also notes that there are many single parents who need to work two jobs, and that two-parent households also often have to work full-time because living costs are so high on the island.

Jessica: “A lot of stress is attached to any of these situations – and I know from experience that taking care of your children, when you are working around the clock, can be very challenging.” Due to the time and financial constraints of ‘trying to make ends meet’ it is hard for people to spend quality time with their kids. The lack of funds also makes it difficult for many parents to sign up for after-school programs or other hired help to ensure that kids are not left home alone.

For these reasons, on Sint Maarten the demand for affordable after-school programs is high, and the need for subsidies very apparent. Raoul has 4 kids who attend both the after-school program and church activities: “My wife and I have unpredictable working hours. We try to balance our working hours with taking care of the kids – but the programs at the Belvedere Community Center help a lot.”

Never enough
Raoul also shares that the Belvedere Community Center is, thus far, the most affordable program he has encountered: “Most other programs are at least $100 a month per child.” With minimum wage on Sint Maarten being around $840 a month, it is easy to calculate that more affordable programs are needed.

Jessica: “We only charge $42 a month per child, however, even this at times proves to be too much for a household that is either unemployed or making minimum wage.” The Belvedere Community Center does not have guaranteed annual funding. Every year Jessica and her team have to submit a budget-proposal to the government. This year the centre’s budget was decreased.

Although the centre can hold up to 250 children, their limit at the moment is 100. Kids who attend the program receive daily classes, a hot meal and counselling. A growing number of kids also attend, for whom the parents cannot pay. “Just last week a mother came to us with five children. She asked us to take her kids, explaining that she lost her job and was having trouble feeding them. How can I say no to children in need? At the same time, I need to pay my staff and be able to buy enough food and materials to run the program,” Jessica says with a heavy sigh.

Dangerous alternative
The alternative is that parents leave their kids at home unsupervised. “The dangers that this brings are numerous,” Jessica states, adding: “A child of nine is not capable of looking after their four-year-old sibling. Yet this is what often happens.” Children who are left unsupervised can injure themselves or others, they are more vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, more likely to make bad decisions, and prone to developing behavioral issues. 

Behavioral issues are something Jessica and her team often deal with. “However, in my opinion, most of the bad behavior stems from the lack of communication skills,” finds Jessica. Due to the stressful situations that many families are in, patience runs thin and conflict is more frequent. Yelling or physically punishing children to silence them is common, as many on Sint Maarten still believe: “children should be seen and not heard.”

However, as Jessica notes: “This does not solve anything; it does not teach a child how to behave, nor will the child learn how to respectfully express their needs. “Yesterday I had one of my teens come in with tears in his eyes and anger in his voice. He started yelling, and I told him that I wanted to listen to him, but first he had to wash his face and calm down. Ten minutes later we had a conversation.” 

Rock Church
“I think some parents are missing out on great conversations with their kids,” Jessica observes on a daily basis. Respectful expression is something the after-school program and Rock Church both put emphasis on. In celebration of this, every month an ‘Open Mic Night’ is hosted for youngsters where they can express their feelings through song, dance or other performance art.

“I am a lot more outspoken than I was before I joined Rock Church,” says 13-year-old Angeornee who likes to express herself through poems. Jamarly, who is 18, feels the same way: “I learned how to be more social… I like to be in the background but in this group, I don’t mind joining in.” Jamarly sings, dances and performs during a number of acts during the Open Mic Night.

Rock Church is a non-denominational church for the youth led by Jessica. Together with a group of youth-leaders the church hosts empowerment workshops, donation drives for the community, church services with family-friendly sermons in addition to the popular Open Mic Night.

Not only children are welcomed at the church’s activities; Jessica always encourages the whole family to participate. Anuska, who is Jamarly’s mother, can’t always make it due to work, however, is happy to when she can: “I know he is safe when he is at the community centre, and it’s great to see him joining in such positive activities.”

On Sundays, after the Churches weekly sermon, there is always lunch available for all guests. “We know that this is often the only moment during the week that certain families can sit together to have a meal. This is an important bonding moment.”

Being involved
It isn’t always easy to get parents more involved in their children’s lives. But that does not mean Jessica does not try: “Getting to know the parents of the children we care for is important because it makes it easier to encourage them to be more involved or address certain concerns.” The concerns raised can be anything from lagging schoolwork, to unhygienic appearance, or bruises on a child’s arm.

Jessica never shies away from talking to parents because: “in the end our children are our priority”.  She approaches parents with empathy and solutions – which often works. In cases where her concerns are serious, she has no choice but to call the authorities, although this is never her first choice: “In my experience calling the authorities does not always solve the issue at hand – it can even make it worse.

There are not enough tools in place to properly protect children, or if there are, I haven’t seen them in action.” Jessica also admits that at times she is disappointed in the lack of involvement of the community as a whole: “We need to be more open towards one another – start getting more involved in the well being of our neighbours. This would help us overcome many of our challenges, and our children would be a lot better off.” 

Jonah and the whale
Jessica’s favorite sermon is that of ‘Jonah and the whale’: “I use it to teach the importance of embracing your challenges – no matter how daunting they seem. “ 

The success of the afterschool program and church are easy to see at the Open Mic Night through the performances of the children and parents alike. On stage, through singing, dancing, rapping, poetry, skits, games and even miming, they advise and uplift each other.

One older teen that most would peg as ‘gangster’ by his appearance quietly recites a poem about wanting to be a good father to his future children. This is followed up by a parent who talks about the importance of being honest with oneself, before you can be honest with others.

“I think the most important thing that I learned from Ms. Jessica is that we have to confront our own flaws in order to overcome them.” 16-year-old Ceasar states right before his rap performance. As nearly 100 kids and their parents sing, dance and laugh to upbeat Caribbean music, one can just feel any troubling thoughts fade away. A true safe-haven that is what Jessica, her staff and church members have managed to create, despite all the challenges in their way. 

Photos and Article by Laura Bijnsdorp