Since last April, Simone de la Bastide, president and founder of the charity The Children’s Ark, has spent every other Saturday morning at the Phase Four Multipurpose Court in Beetham, Port of Spain. The neighbourhood is stigmatised by poverty and violence, but de la Bastide has been going into the area since the late 1990s to do charity work. She says she’s comfortable in the place colloquially known to Trinidadians as Hell Yard.
On the steamy Saturday morning when I visited, de la Bastide and other board members of The Children’s Ark, including secretary April Bermudez, were busy taking attendance, handing out cold drinks and light snacks, facilitating visiting Miss Trinidad and Tobago Universe contestants, who were actively participating in the day’s session, and generally providing moral support to the children participating in the Ark’s Youth Football and Cricket Clinic.
The clinic is a pilot project the Ark manages in collaboration with the Darren Ganga Foundation and the Inter Agency Task Force — a joint Trinidad and Tobago Police Service and Defence Force unit. The clinic provides children with professional training over an eight-month period from April to December 2015. According to de la Bastide, since the programme began, a wealth of talent has already been recognised, with many students being identified for sports clubs. “If after this just one child gets the opportunity to go on to a club, we may have another Brian Lara or Darren Ganga — and then we would’ve accomplished something remarkable,” says the career altruist. De la Bastide is also the founder of Women in Action for the Needy and Destitute — an organisation with which she spent fourteen years. She has since refocused her energies to working particularly with children. The Ark’s mission is to “improve the lives and living conditions of [the] nation’s marginalised children.”
Founded in October 2013, the Ark was launched in grand style with a function at the Hyatt Regency Hotel — one of the many businesses that have partnered with the organisation. The Ark’s board of directors looks like a who’s who of Trinidad and Tobago. Its vice president is a prominent physician, Dr Kongsheik Achong Low. Other notable board members are a former president’s wife, Dr Jean Ramjohn-Richards, and former chief justice Michael de la Bastide, Simone’s husband. The Ark’s patron is none other than President Anthony Carmona. The board also includes lawyers, journalists, businesspeople, and other professionals.
Perhaps the A-list board members and supporting businesses are the reason the Ark has been able to raise TT$1.5 million in only two years of operation. “With a board like that, we have long arms,” says de la Bastide. “We’re able to reach out to all sectors of society to support us in our work.” The money raised thus far has allowed the Ark to complete seven major projects. In addition to managing the sports clinic, the Ark has provided infrastructure and educational materials to the Each One Teach One preschool and the Margaret Kistow Home for Abandoned Children, and contributed medical equipment and sporting goods to the NGOs Healing with Horses and Caribbean Kids and Families Therapy Organisation. They have also built a house for a family of seven in central Trinidad, and purchased a TT$600,000 bus for Goodwill Industries, a vocational school for the mentally and physically challenged. The Ark estimates that as many as three hundred children have benefitted from these outreach projects.
Wayne Patrick Jordan — the activist and teacher who runs the Each One Teach One Preschool, also located in Beetham — is one of the first people de la Bastide encountered when she began doing outreach in impoverished areas in T&T in the late 1990s. When the two met, Jordan was already donating his time and services to children, although he worked with extremely limited resources. Through its partnership with the Ark, Each One Teach One has received major infrastructural support, furniture, and educational materials, and is able to give children from poor families an opportunity most could not afford. According to Jordan, the school would not have been possible without assistance from the Ark. “I don’t think we would’ve been where we are today without their help. I didn’t have the resources, just a vision,” he says, “and they helped me realise and fulfill that vision. They believed in me, and these children’s lives are far, far different because of that.”
De la Bastide attributes this kind of success to the commitment and dedication of the Ark’s board. “When you start up this kind of thing, it is so important to have key people. Not just people in the know in society, not just reputable people, but people who are really going to get involved, who want to make that change, and who will become forces to reckon with.”
She also takes pride in the fact that there is no middleman between donations and operations. “Every penny that is donated or contributed to Children’s Ark goes directly into our projects,” she says. “We have no overheads. We have no office. We have no staff. Our meetings are held at each other’s homes.” While de la Bastide admits that this grassroots approach could stifle the expansion of the organisation, she prefers that no money be spent on overheads.
So whatever funds the Ark manages to raise — for instance, at a recent high-profile concert featuring some of TT’s best musical talent — go straight into its projects, including a new literacy programme within T&T’s prison system. This involves the construction of a state-of-the-art prison library and reading sessions with fathers and their children. The Ark secretary April Bermudez believes the literacy campaign is particularly important. “I would just like all children to have the same opportunity, and this country has enough money to do it,” says Bermudez. “And the worst part is, these children don’t know what they’re missing. They don’t know that they deserve better. That annoys me. They are all entitled to a proper education.”
De la Bastide concurs: “I think we are between First World and Third World in T&T. We’re trying to move out of Third World, but a First World country is really about people. People have a right to the basics in life: housing, water, electricity, education. And it’s people like Wayne Jordan and these children who give me my inspiration. Them, and just the quantum of work that is needed.”