The glimmer of hope the family of Ria Sookdeo felt when investigators arrested a police constable and his sister for the woman’s abduction was dashed yesterday after the suspects were released.
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A place of refuge from society’s storms
In the past month or two the country has collectively cringed under a wave of senseless, heartless crimes against children.
The average person shakes his head and wonders what causes these spikes in abuse against some of the most powerless members of society.
But April Bermudez, treasurer of the Children’s Ark, thinks there is no such spike.
“Every now and then you get a rash of publicity,” she clarifies, “but the abuse is always there.”
It’s also easy, perhaps even comforting to the middle class to believe that child abuse is a scourge of the poor and disenfranchised, but Simone de la Bastide tosses that idea out in the trash with a wave of her hand.
“Children are suffering behind closed doors. Even behind doors you and I might know of.”
De la Bastide is one of the founding members of the Children’s Ark, an NGO just three months old, but whose board comprises citizens so well known and respected that, collectively, they have a reach far beyond that of the average charitable organisation. A recent addition to the board is Dr Jean Ramjohn Richards, wife of former President Max Richards.
The weight of their names alone bestows the kind of trustworthiness and transparency that can have a huge impact on their primary purpose, which is to raise funds for child-oriented charities.
And in their short months of existence, they have already made their presence felt.
“We took off like a rocket,” says de la Bastide.
They have taken on three projects, of which they are very proud, as the effects have been almost immediately tangible.
The first is the Each One Teach One project, an early childhood development centre in Beetham Gardens populated by toddlers from throughout east Port-of-Spain and beyond. The school, founded by Wayne Patrick Jordan, whom the group describes as a “dynamic, humble man,” targets at-risk children from high-crime areas. She emphasises the ongoing need for more assistance for these children, and the school.
“We’re upgrading their facilities in a huge way; we’ve delivered educational books, whiteboards, and educational tools. Very importantly, we have secured the Ministry of Education’s assurance that they will assist with upgrading the facilities. We’re very grateful to Minister Gopeesingh for this.”
She pauses, and then adds, “If you see them: Little children of about one or two, sitting on sheets on the floor, eating their lunch...It doesn’t matter if you are from the west or the east. It’s just not right. Children deserve more, especially in their early years.”
Their second area of focus is a small home for abandoned and disadvantaged children in Arima, the Kistow Home, founded by Margaret Kistow, a woman with a heart big enough to accept the many youngsters who are regularly deposited there with few possessions or family ties.
Once again, the home is always grateful for any kind of assistance that the public can offer.
The Ark’s third and most recent addition is Goodwill Industries.
“We recently received $250,000 from a remarkable benefactor and staunch supporter,” says de la Bastide. “We used the money to buy a 30-seater bus.”
At first the emotion in her voice as she speaks about this coup seems disproportionate, until you understand that the bus is not just a means of conveyance, but a safe harbour on wheels. The Children’s Ark has been told about ten young mentally or physically disabled girls have been sexually abused by drivers and maxi taxi touts on their way to or from classes at Goodwill; the bus will help to prevent these unconscionable assaults.
When asked if there is enough work to go around, what with all the small but active children’s support groups in the country, Bermudez explains, “There are 53 children’s homes in Trinidad. So there’s a lot of work to do.”
The codicil to that is that the groups are all targeting the same sponsors, and asking for the same assistance: “We’re all standing in the same line.”
The enthusiastic response to the establishment of the Ark has resulted in the creation of a sub-committee called the Friends of the Ark, a group of professionals eager to donate their time, training, and skills to the cause. For example, the Ark’s heart-stirring logo, representing a large ark cradled among tossing waves by a caring, capable hand, was created free of charge by Rostant Advertising.
“The Friends are a support bank who can also draw new cases to our attention; as they might live in different areas and know things that we may not know about.”
De la Bastide’s husband, former Chief Justice Michael de le Bastide, who is also a board member, expresses the hope that the Ark will quickly become recognised by the government.
“We would like them to see us as a permanent institution, a means of relieving the problems of children who are in need, whether because of challenges peculiar to them, or whether because of their disadvantaged position in society, absence of family support, or need for medical attention.”
And while there are organisations that do try to make an impact upon the plight of children, Justice de le Bastide insists that to date there is no effective Children’s Authority to provide for their needs.
Members of the general public are eager to help.
“From the east, the south, from as far as Pepper Village in Fyzabad, they know the work that we’re doing. The amount they give isn’t important; it’s more important that they’re supporting us.”
As word spreads, the funds have begun to pour in. Just days ago they received a generous donation from a company called Acos Energy Consultants out of Calgary, Alberta, through its founder, Trinidadian Mark Haskell. Simone de la Bastide adds, “We have no overheads whatsoever. Every cent goes directly to the projects.”
The Ark, says board member Gillian Lucky, is about much more than assisting vulnerable people, but about helping institutions, homes and schools that provide shelter, support and learning, which all works together for a better future for young people.
How to reach them
The group hopes to spread the word through social media and a Web site soon to be launched, so that supporters can keep track of their progress and pledge their assistance.
For the moment, you can contact them by writing to the Children’s Ark at 7 Fitzblackman Drive, Woodbrook, at the Good Health Medical Centre.