Mar. 15, 2004 A small but determined group of people met Monday morning at the Estate Bovoni Weed and Seed center to discuss the next 23 weeks of their lives.
It was the first day of Weed and Seed's new business education program for adult residents of the Bovoni Housing community and the surrounding area. Though Weed and Seed's programs are usually for youngsters, the new program focuses on the 17 to 35 age group. The program provides a realistic means for residents to learn how to go about entering the job market with something to offer prospective employers.
Program manager Zelda Williams explained to the sparse but thoroughly engaged audience what lay before them in the coming weeks. She was completely undeterred by the small turnout.
"I'm confident they will make the journey," she said. "I have spoken extensively with the participants here, and they will make it."
Williams has been through this before. When she and assistant manager Petra Phillips started the Bovoni program more than four years ago, they met resistance from the residents who were wary of something new in the neighborhood. Now, they flock to the program's year-round offerings.
Williams said, "As more people come and talk to their friends, the program will naturally expand."
Verna Dagou, V.I. Housing Authority St. Thomas district manager, echoed Williams' words and offered some of her own. Dagou, who used to be the Bovoni senior housing manager, cautioned that the federal Housing and Urban Development Department now has a "self-sufficiency" program in place requiring unemployed residents to do eight hours of community service each month. She asked, "You don't want to work for free, do you?
"Bring your neighbors to this program so they can grasp the opportunities," she urged. "Let them know they have to get involved, and here it is right in your community. Go out and get them to join. It will result in employment. Spread the word."
Dagou, who was representing Donna Ayala, HUD housing receiver for V.I. Housing Authority, said she would support the program in any way she could, possibly with residents from other housing communities.
Bovoni resident Idita Matthews didn't need the encouragement. She knows exactly what she wants to do and how she will do it — even with four children. "The 14-year-old and the nine-year-old come to Weed and Seed after school," she said, "and the 15-year-old can watch the seven-year-old while I am at school. I am going to get my GED, and I am going to study business administration at UVI."
Another resident, Linda Rodriquez, stated her goal quite simply. "It will help me get through life," she said with a shy smile. Rodriguez is a Eudora Kean High School graduate but needs work experience. "I want to learn the computer," she said. When asked about her plans later, Rodriguez replied, "I don't really know, so much things on my mind."
The program comprises three components: academics, job readiness and on-the-job training.
Participants can complete their GED (General Educational Development) preparation and receive help in a variety of areas: computer literacy, administrative office procedures, career planning, searching for jobs, and resume writing. Participants receive on-the-job training during the last eight weeks of the program.
Monika Broughton, St. Thomas-St. John Hotel Association executive assistant, represents one of the outlets for the on-the-job training. "We will try to find them jobs in the hotels or restaurants, or even in our office," she said, as Matthews listened attentively. Williams said she is still recruiting other businesses to join the program.
It takes a lot of work to set up the program, Williams explained later. There are certain things you have to put in place, for instance, placing ads in the paper for the internal procurement process. Then there is the recruiting process. "I got a list from VIHA of residents who fit the profile, who are unemployed. We sent out fliers and brochures to them," she said.
Although Williams has worked closely with Carlton Stevens at the Family Resource Center and Alston Gumbs at the Department of Human Services, she still says "it's word-of-mouth that works, that attracts people."
Willams later took everyone downstairs to have a peek at the Seed "tech lab," where the work will begin. The cheery room, which has 10 computers, is decorated with signs designed to instill hope.
Alston Creque of Human Services and UVI professor Wycherley Gumbs accompanied the group to the lab. Williams said the two have helped her with the program and offered encouraging comments to the students who visit the lab. Creque has helped immeasurably in putting the program together, Williams said.
Gumbs, also a well-known poet, philosopher and pastor, is on the Weed and Seed coordinating committee. He said, "We help ensure the program has a part to play. You can feel the neglect in the housing communities."
The students asked Williams why no men were in the program. Williams said that would be her goal but added, "You have to really keep after them. Women are more apt to take part in these programs to help themselves; they are more aggressive."
She said, ideally, the computer lab would have five women and five men.
Later in the day, Williams said that the Weed and Seed program will soon be brought to the Tutu Housing community. She said the program had recently received its five-year federal programming. She said 75 percent will go to setting up the Tutu program, and the 25 percent balance will be for Bovoni.
"Tutu has a host of problems," she said. "Abandoned vehicles and beautification problems are among them. Since the VIHA police were disbanded, things have gotten worse," she said. "I don't have any statistics, but residents are complaining about hearing gunfire all night."
Upon completing the program, the participants receive certification, along with pre- and post-employment mentoring. To find out more about the program, contact the Weed and Seed office by calling 714-0812, or via e-mail.
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