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The climb out of Babylon

You can get it if you really want

Jermaine scaling the wall
Jermaine scaling the wall

You can get it if you really want

You can get it if you really want

You can get it if you really want

But you must try, try and try, try and try

You'll succeed at last

You Can Get It if You Really Want

Jimmy Cliff

It towers over us all day. Some say it's 35ft high, some say 42ft. Whatever ... it's very, very high. A long, thin wooden wall, with climbing aids from the bottom to the top. Absolutely vertical. It leads to a conglomeration of wires leading in a square right back to the top of the wall and a zip wire stretching over a pond to a landing platform. At some point today we are supposed to climb it.

'You going to climb it?"

"Yeah, man"

"Really?"

"Yeah. Probably. Maybe."

One person who definitely isn't going to climb it is Anna-Lee McKenzie, 28 years old, going on 50. Anna-Lee doesn't take any nonsense, and any talk of getting to the top of that monster is exactly that. Nonsense. "I saw the pictures before we set off here. I said I wasn't coming," she says.

This isn't just a day out for fun and games. There are more than 30 people here, most of them young people from inner city ghettos. They will have fun today ... but they're here to learn big lessons about life, about teamwork, about trust, and about looking fear in the face and beating it. And quite a bit about patience too.

The wind is gusting all round the General Colin Powell Challenge Course in Treasure Beach, a small rural area on Jamaica's south coast, where tourists come to enjoy a different type of break to those offered by the luxury resorts around Negril and Montego Bay. Here, farming and fishing provide a living for most of the community.

Powell's parents lived in the area before moving to Harlem, where the child destined to become the first African-American US Secretary of State was born.

The challenge course that bears his name sits in the middle of a new sports park. Both are run by the Breds Treasure Beach Foundation, a key partner of Unicef in Jamaica and a volunteer-based charitable organisation run by members of the community.

The Breds Sports Park, being developed within a 15-acre site, already includes three cricket squares, a cricket green, two football pitches, a tennis court and a ­bathroom block, and is perhaps the most ambitious of a range of projects that fit into Breds' work in sports-based education, environmental protection/preservation, and community services in health and agriculture.

The sports park and the General Colin Powell Challenge Course are both the brainchild of Jason Henzell, a Treasure Beach businessman whose father, Perry, directed The Harder They Come, the iconic Jamaican film starring Jimmy Cliff that introduced reggae music to a wider audience in 1972.

Henzell wants to change the lives of Jamaican youth who might otherwise face a future of poverty and violence and he's invested time, effort and money to turn that ambition into reality. The sports park and challenge course don't aim to make a profit ... but they have to bring in enough money to continue to operate. Henzell's vision was a public-private partnership ... and when the public contribution failed to match expectations he simply marched into a meeting with government officials and negotiated more.

Henzell has very clear ideas on how he wants his sports field to run ... even down to the type of music he allows to be played on the site. "I don't want any slackness in that music," he says. "That's not the message we want to project."

He's the sort of man who can make even unlikely things happen, which is why the Jamaican Defence Force came to build the climbing wall at the Colin Powell Challenge Course. Other major partners who helped create the course include the ­Challenge Towers and 4 Circles Recovery Centre.

Sitting in a smart restaurant on the edge of the water at Treasure Beach, talking by lantern light as the sound of reggae drifts through the light breeze, Henzell explains the philosophy that he believes will persuade the island's youth to turn its back on guns, drugs and "slackness". This Jamaica seems a long, long way from the ghettos of Kingston and the poverty of the families living in shacks in the mountains. But their influence still lurks in the shadows.

I say the youth of Kingston

Won't leave their Magnum

pistol pistol

Youth of Eglington

Black Uhuru

Horette Brown was in his late teens when he tried to persuade his friends to stop the "rough ways" of the street in the Kingston ghetto of Waterhouse, the same community where just days earlier Jamaican Olympian Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce had returned home to carry the Commonwealth Games Queen's Baton.

Horette had been introduced by a girlfriend to a youth club run by Rise - a non-governmental organisation establishing a network of support for young people in Kingston. He began to like what he found there and to imagine making a break from the fighting he and his friends were involved with on the street. "I told them we couldn't go on as we were. We had to make a break. I have a leadership thing about me. When I say to my friends, 'Turn right here' they turn. So they came to the club ... but they did not stay. They think differently to me."

Today, 11 years later, Horette is with other Rise members going through various team-building and leadership exercises at the General Colin Powell Challenge Course, which is supported by Rise and by Unicef. Where are his friends? "Dead. Three of the six who came with me are dead." How did they die? "Gunshot". So why did he stay with Rise when his friends left? "Because I'm a leader not a follower".

Yvette Thompson had an ­altogether different problem. When she was younger her life must have seemed charmed. "If I wanted something I asked my father and he would buy it for me. At school some people didn't like me. I was stuck up." That life came to an end when she was 16 and her father was killed in an accident. "My father didn't really like me to have company," she says. "The day before he died he told me that the company I kept was not positive. At that time all we were interested in was going out, doing our hair and looking a certain way. After he died I didn't want to sleep in my house. Eventually I agreed to sleep in my brother's room but it was three years before I would go into my mother's room. I stopped going to school, stayed in the house, lost a lot of weight and became very depressed."

One of her friends asked her to go to Rise youth club, but it took an order from her mother to force her to go. Even then she kept up her barriers. "I told the people at the club that I would talk to them there but they were not to talk to me outside. It took about a year before I opened up. Now I am a changed person. I wish my mother was here so she could tell you how much I have changed. I have matured. Whatever I make of myself in life will be because of Rise."

Jermaine McKane is the joker of the group. Checked shorts, golfing socks and fake tattoo sleeves ... he has a style all of his own. It comes as no surprise to learn that he was attracted to Rise by an invitation from a friend to act in a skit for the group. He joined a Rise youth group 11 years ago, when he was just 15. Within a month he was made vice-president. Not such a great move, as it turned out. "I was doing all the work ... the president was doing nothing." He declined another term of office and became the group's public relations officer instead. Jermaine lives in Kingston Gardens in the Jamaican capital, a commercial district not troubled by the violence that plagues other areas. Nor is he one for hanging round street corners. "I'm the guy who stays in and watches TV and plays games." All that doesn't mean he doesn't see violence. "It's in all the areas that surround my communities," he says.

There were hard times in Anna-Lee McKenzie's community in Kingston's Fletchers Land too. She stayed at home most nights to avoid it, and became pregnant 11 years ago, when she was just 17. Life became harder still when her mother died the year after her daughter was born. "My mother was my backbone, my best friend. I could tell her every little thing. It was difficult not having her there to give advice on the baby. When she died I decided to change... to become a better mother to my daughter. At that time I didn't feel I was a good mother. I had very low self-esteem."

Like the others in the group, Anna-Lee found the help she needed from Rise. She joined a youth group, becoming public relations officer, then secretary, then vice-president and now president. "It can be a hard job being president," she says. "The kids become like your own children. You have to do a lot of work and you cannot be weak. But then, I don't like weak people ... I like strong people." She now works with Rise too, initially as support teacher but now as a cook.

"I am a very different person," she says. "I couldn't speak to you guys like I am speaking now. I could not have even read a book in front of you. I was very shy." Not a party girl then? "No," she says. And then, with perfect comic timing, "...but I'm a party girl now."

Horette, Yvette, Jermaine and Anna-Lee had spent the morning completing various exercises at the Breds camp. They had passed spinning rings to each other in a circle, to learn how team work could achieve results that looked impossible. They had fallen backwards into fellow team-members' arms, to learn that if you put your trust in others you are safe in their hands. And they used teamwork to balance a platform to show what can happen if you pull together. But all day the climbing wall loomed. And a strong wind blew. Would it stop in time to allow the real challenge they had all come to face to go ahead?

One good thing about music

When it hits you feel no pain

Trenchtown Rock

Bob Marley and the Wailers

All day Zann Locke had been tending to her flock. When they became nervous, she comforted them. When they rose to the challenge, she encouraged them. When they chickened out, she made deals with them to persuade them to continue. When all that didn't work, she offered a shoulder to cry on.

Zann is from Trenchtown, the ­infamous Kingston ghetto where Bob Marley grew up. A cab driver negotiating its pot-holed roads told me that 10 years previously the area would not have been safe enough to take a tourist to. So things are getting better. Maybe less violence, certainly fewer politically inspired gun battles. Still desperately poor. Zann has been involved with Rise since her school days. Her aptitude for working with other young people was noticed early on and she has gone through long and intensive training courses to further develop those skills. Watching her in action is awe-inspiring but exhausting. She's 35 now and obviously loves what she does. But doesn't she ever want to kick back and kick off? "Rise helped mould me, helped me to believe in myself. Even apart from Rise, I have to be a role model in my mind. This work takes a lot of time and sometimes you feel you could walk away and leave. You feel you have done so much in your community and sometimes you do not see as much impact as you expect. Then you feel you are not doing enough and you need to do more."

"It sometimes feels like a burden ... but I was brought up well and I have always been one of those people who do the right thing all the time. And I feel that even if you change one person ... that's enough."

Rise Jah children

Don't you see Jah children?

The lion wakes today

Rise Jah Jah Children

Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus

The wind stopped. The climb was on. One by one they made the ascent. All of them in the group ... bar one young girl who just couldn't do it. It took some of them a while. Most of them were scared. OK ... it wasn't Everest. But it was high. And watching youngsters conquer their fears, especially youngsters who had often been told there was nothing good in them ... that nothing good came out of the ghetto ... that all that awaited them was poverty, crime and possibly death at the hands of a gunman... well, it was inspiring.

Horette did it, and Jermaine, who, struck by the achievement, admitted even he had had his doubts. Anna-Lee made it too, although she needed help from Jermaine, who waited behind and encouraged her on, step by step. He's a good friend? "Everybody here is a good friend," she says.

And Yvette? There she was at the summit, waving down at her friends. She even conquered another trial, climbing to the top of a huge ladder with the help of Jermaine and others. She stood there beaming. "People," she said, "I'm at the top." And, people, she was.

UNICEF AND PARTNERS

UNICEF has partnered with Rise to put an initial group of 100 boys and girls through the General Colin Powell Challenge Course between March and August 2014, and to help in evaluating the influence of the course on participants in the short and long term. The participants will be drawn from Rise cohorts of young leaders in training, and from Treasure Beach and surrounding communities. Through the partnership, Rise will also arrange for the participation of young girls who are from state-run children's homes.

Unicef provides technical and financial support to Breds/Treasure Beach Foundation to implement two projects: the General Colin Powell Challenge Course, intended for at-risk youth as well as children and young people with leadership potential, and EduSport, an in-school programme designed to expose children in rural schools to structured physical activities which are also used to build academic and life skills. EduSport is currently implemented in 11 primary schools in Treasure Beach and surrounding communities in the St Elizabeth parish, reaching 1287 boys and girls.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

The Herald and Sunday Herald Children of the Commonwealth series will run over the coming months as the Queen's Baton travels the world on its way to Scotland. As well as bringing our readers inspiring stories from key locations on the baton route, we're also raising money for UNICEF, an official charity partner of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. There are a number of different ways to donate: you can call 0800 044 5777; or you can click on unicef.org.uk/herald; or you can text 'CHILD' to 70111 to donate £3. If you prefer, there is a coupon in the Saturday Herald magazine and in the Sunday Herald. UNICEF is the world's leading children's organisation, working to save and change children's lives.

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