BEACON OF THE DAY: Brave teacher operating school in ‘ghetto’ for 25 years

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Millicent Smith, who resides in the Bog Walk area of St. Catherine, has likened herself to internationally acclaimed philanthropist Oprah Winfrey.

That’s because she has spent 25 years of her life positively impacting generations of children from some of the most volatile and financially challenged communities in the Spanish Town area of St. Catherine.

Her ‘magic wand’ is a school she built from scratch.

“I have the school for 25 years and I am not driving a vehicle; that means I have given up a whole lot,” Smith told The Beacon. “Sometimes I think about giving up, but I remember I was sent here by God.”

Smith’s school, located at 9 Jobs Lane in Spanish Town, pulls students from tough communities such as Irish Pen, Tawes Pen, Wynters Pen and – of course, Jobs Lane.

It is also a refuge for residents seeking help to settle disputes.

“When I came here, we had street-side gangs; we had a number of gunmen strolling on this street; and I can say that Jobs Lane today is a better community,” Smith posited.

“Young men respect me; I have really brought a lot of stability to this community. If they have a problem on this street, you will see them running to me.”

Smith said she has no fear in the community, and none of her students has ever fallen victim to any crime.

Her school, however, has been struggling financially.

That’s because fees are kept relatively low to accommodate students from poverty-stricken households.

“Every year I sponsor children; I am like an Oprah Winfery,” Smith told The Beacon while appealing to corporate Jamaica for support. “There are children in this school; they don’t pay lunch or school fees,” she added.

POOR BACKGROUND

Smith said she can empathize with the people she serves because she too faced abject poverty as a child.

“I was born into a very poor family,” she declared, adding that poverty caused her to be absent from primary school regularly, and to not attend a high school.

Smith, the fourth of 15 children for her mother, grew up in St. Elizabeth with her maternal grandmother Keziah Dawkins.

She, in 1975, enrolled at the then JAMAL Foundation, which the government had established to help counter illiteracy in the society. Smith finished the literacy programme at the top of her batch.

Two years later, she relocated from St. Elizabeth to live with her mother Muriel Sain in Bog Walk, St. Catherine.

She initially operated a shop in the Bog Walk area.

Smith eventually wedded a pastor – Reverend Winston Smith, who headed a church on St. John’s Road in Spanish Town, St. Catherine.

The operation of the church was relocated just over 30 years ago to Jobs Lane.

STARTING THE SCHOOL

An abandoned church building, which was acquired on the Jobs Lane property, was put back into operation and named the Jobs Lane Seventh Day Baptist Church.

It was in that church hall that Smith started her school on September 6, 1994.

“When I started, I struggled,” she recalled. “I went to Food For The Poor; I had only $300. I did not have one subject; I did not know how it was to attend a high school.”

Smith’s school commenced operation with only six children.

One of her church sisters, Marlene Castle, assisted her with teaching.

However, neither of the two was a trained teacher.

Smith stated that, within a year and five months of operation, her school was recognized by the Ministry of Education, which now provides a subsidy to the early childhood department.

The institution – now known as the Seventh Day Baptist Early Childhood Institution and Smith’s Better Learning Preparatory School – has a student population of 103.

It also employs eight teachers, plus three ancillary workers.

Smith currently operates from a building constructed beside the church where she started her school.

The school has remained in operation although the church was destroyed by fire, although Smith and her clergyman husband eventually divorced, and although Smith suffered a major heart attack in 2011.

Smith, over the years, improved her academic credentials.

Smith told The Beacon that she now holds a diploma in Early Childhood Education from Shortwood Teachers College, and is pursuing a degree in Early Childhood Education at the said institution.

She is also the holder of a certificate in premarital counselling.

Smith, the mother of five, has been a Christian since age 14.

She proudly attributes her success to her maker.

By Horace Mills, Journalist


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