Volume 2 Number 8
Jamaica '- No Victim
01 August 1989

Jamaican social worker Carole-Gene Denham constantly has to deal with her country's problems. But she believes that nobody needs to remain a victim. She talks to Judith 'Robo Ukoko.

The two young Jamaicans by the country roadside should be at school. A car stops. To their surprise, they recognize Carole-Gene Denham, youth counsellor from the Students Christian Fellowship and Scripture Union (SCFSU). Can they tell her the way to the school, she asks - and as she is going there, would they like a lift? `No,' replies one of the students rudely.

Denham gets out of the car and walks up to the schoolboy. `Would you still have the courage to say "no" if I was a ganja-man (marijuana dealer)? All I'm doing is taking you to school.' Shamefaced, the boy gets into the car.

The incident is typical of Denham's direct approach to the young people with whom she works. Now 39, with degrees in theology, social work and counselling psychology, she is known as one of the island's most dedicated social workers and youth counsellors.

As she shows me around the SCFSU's headquarters, the builders and carpenters are hard at work, repairing the damage done by Hurricane Gilbert in September 1988. It blew off the roof, destroying files, data, furniture, windows and stationery. `It didn't stop our work,' she says. `It only slowed us down for a while.'

Among Denham's major concerns are the deterioration and instability of family life and the poverty in Jamaica. Some 83 per cent of Jamaica's children are born out of wedlock. Most mothers are left to cope on their own. In desperation some go to Britain or North America to earn hard currency to supplement their family income. Children are then brought up by relatives, and often go through the formative years of their lives with neither mother nor father beside them.

Denham knows what this is like. Her parents were not married to each other and she lived with one or the other and with various aunts as she grew up. Between her two parents and their different partners, she has three half-brothers and three half-sisters. Today, she is determined that she will leave the next generation a better example.

Her convictions stem from an experience during her fifth year at high school. A friend invited her to a 'little meeting', where people were discussing how to relate the message of the Bible to everyday life. `I felt the words go through me that God wanted me to be one of the people in Jamaica who would effect positive change, by first allowing God to change me,' she says.

`Responding to that experience meant I had to accept the implications and responsibilities that went with it. I put right deceitful dealings with my parents and friends. There were things in my past which didn't get behind me just because I said God had forgiven me - so in some cases I had to make restitution.' Rather than being bitter about her childhood, she draws on it to empathize with youngsters who are going through the same experiences today.

Denham works with 150 schools, all the secondary institutions in Jamaica, taking morning devotions, counselling students and encouraging teachers. She also works with 20 colleges and one university. She finds that children who grow up without love are often unable to give love themselves. Many play truant from school. Some turn to drugs or alcohol, some take to crime. They rely on money to provide the happiness they have lacked and, says Denham, `some will do anything to get it'. They often refuse to make concrete decisions for fear of the commitment required to fulfil them.

Added to this is the `checking out syndrome'. Jamaica's affinity to Africa, proximity to the USA and colonial links with Britain all encourage young people to go overseas to study and work. Some go in a search for roots which, because of Jamaica's history of slavery, they feel they do not have in Jamaica. Many do not return. And some who stay behind feel frustrated with the socio-economic or educational limitations they experience.

Denham sometimes travels over 100 miles to speak at a school for just five to ten minutes. A waste of time? She doesn't think so. She can think of few things more rewarding than seeing the confusion leave people's faces as they say, `Thank you for giving me a new alternative in life.'

Apart from working with schools, Denham runs leadership training programmes for young people for two to four weeks during the summer. The camp site, located in south-western Jamaica amid the natural beauty of the green hills, provides the solitude of a retreat centre.

Tangible evidence
I went to a session on `Relationships' and afterwards asked some of the participants what they thought of it. `Gene is real, she understands and identifies with us,' said one girl. Neil had tangible evidence of Denham's careful counselling. `Last year I attended Gene's seminar on relationships,' he said. `Now I am married.' His friends laughed in recognition. He still sees Denham for counselling occasionally.

Denham is unmarried, so how does she understand the dynamics of relationships so well? Her reply is simple. `I work for God who is the author of all real relationships.' She helps part-time in a counselling clinic sponsored by Family Life Ministries. There she encourages men, women and children to face up to their problems and work out lasting solutions.

Her work with the SCFSU has taken her all over the world to conduct seminars and youth-training sessions. Human nature, she says, is basically the same wherever she goes. `For instance the same kind of materialism that is eating up a country like Australia is challenging Jamaica too. Oftentimes, people don't seem to realize that the poor can be just as materialistic as the rich.' She applies lessons drawn from Jamaica to her work overseas.

She tells young Jamaicans that she has yet to see a country which does not have any problems, however rich. Jamaica's problems are not just social and economic, she says. There is an underlying personal, moral and spiritual problem which must be urgently addressed.

Many of the young people who have been helped by Denham are now in good jobs. Some have set up clubs to raise support for the work and to provide a forum for further ministry to meet other young people.

Denham speaks to people's hearts as well as to their ears. This probably explains why she is able to hold restless teenagers in her seminars for up to two hours at a stretch - a rare feat in Jamaica. She firmly believes, `Nobody is a victim: you can choose not to do something, just as much as you can choose to. God is willing to help us make as well as live the right decisions.

`My daily challenge is to keep my own spirit under God's control so that the struggles of living do not erode my commitment,' she says. `I feel God has given me the freedom to work for what is right in my society and to dare others to do the same.'