SERVOL: A miracle a day

During the 1970 upheaval in Trinidad, a Catholic priest and a West Indian cricketer ventured into dangerous territory to try to understand the source of frustration amoung urban youth. The organisation that eventually grew out of those trips has changed countless lives and won widespread acclaim. Donna Yawching explains

  • Needlework class. Photograph by Roberta Pankin, courtesy SERVOL
  • SERVOL Life Centre. Photograph by Roberta Pankin, courtesy SERVOL
  • Brick laying classes. Photograph by Roberta Pankin, courtesy SERVOL
  • SERVOL Nursery. Photograph by Roberta Pankin, courtesy SERVOL
  • Fr Gerry Pantin with Sr Ruth Montrichard. Photograph by Roberta Pankin, courtesy SERVOL

The Beetham Estate is an area where middle-class Trinidadians are loath to go. The main east-west highway cuts it in two; to the south is the city dump, a smelly and often smoking landfill site known familiarly as the La Basse. To the north are the tenements of the poor — government housing of the most desperate type, interspersed with unsavoury shacks and shelters, and criss-crossed by filthy open drains. The Beetham is commonly thought of as a nest of drugs and crime, violence and dead-end living. Motorists are afraid of breaking down on this stretch of highway; goods trucks caught in traffic jams have been known to be looted, even as the drivers sat helplessly in their cabs.

The Beetham, in short, spells trouble: so it’s no real surprise that Father Gerry Pantin chose this as the location for the flagship of his ground-breaking SERVOL organisation. Constructed by its own trainees in 1978, the SERVOL Life Centre on the Beetham Highway is a beacon of hope for thousands of disadvantaged young people — the client base that has always been SERVOL’s raison d’être.


It all began in 1970, when Trinidad and Tobago found itself in the throes of social upheaval. The oil boom (which later went bust) had not yet started; living conditions among the underprivileged were in a deplorable state. It was a time of profound unrest, with labour unions, political activists, and thousands of the poor people who had nothing to lose surging through the country in huge protest marches. Trinidad, more than Tobago, became a ticking time-bomb, particularly in the mean streets of eastern Port of Spain, the area known as Laventille.

This was the territory into which a young Catholic priest, either angel or fool, dared to tread. “I was suffering from a guilt trip,” Fr Pantin explains. “There were these thousands and thousands of black youths throwing stones and burning things — all those youths in Laventille; and I didn’t know one of them. I was caught up in the middle class, teaching at St Mary’s. I started to search my soul.”

St Mary’s College, in uptown Port of Spain, was, and still is, one of the most desirable boys’ schools in the country, a bastion of middle-class behaviour and values. It was a disciplined and well-ordered place; its graduates, for the most part, could count on a guaranteed future. But only a few blocks away, literally “across the bridge”, the children of Laventille had only a guarantee of hardship, misery, and, more likely than not, jail. In the aftermath of the demonstrations Fr Pantin, himself a product of the urban bourgeoisie, found himself facing a crise de conscience.

In what he calls “a moment of madness”, he and the well-known West Indian cricketer Wes Hall (now himself a religious minister and President of the West Indies Cricket Board) went into Laventille — with no plan, no money — and approached the first group they met on a street corner. “I am Fr Gerry Pantin,” he told them. “How can I help you?” The response, predictably, was “blasphemous”, but as Fr Pantin chuckles: “I’m a persistent bloke”. Eventually the ghetto dwellers began to trust them, and to come to him with small requests: for a football, for example.

“I think at that moment, the philosophy of SERVOL was born,” muses the priest. He decided that rather than merely presenting the youths with a football, he would donate half the money for one, on condition that they raised the other half. “Don’t just give,” he warns; “demand a contribution. And never presume to know what poor people want. Listen attentively, and then offer respectful intervention.”

These simple prescriptions are the very foundation of an organisation which today administers more than 200 Learning Centres, employs 600 people (25 per cent of whom are graduates from their own training programmes) and touches the lives of 14,000 children, adolescents and parents a year. It is fitting that SERVOL’s symbol is a stylised tree: from a tiny seed of determination has grown a massive organism whose branches of hope now spread not only throughout Trinidad and Tobago, but across the Caribbean and as far afield as Ireland and South Africa.


These are the voices of SERVOL youths:

Shelly Ann, 18: “I want to be somewhere in life. Doing this (hospitality training) I think I’ll be comfortable.”

Stephen, 19: “I want to get a better job, so people could respect me more.”

Alva, 18: “I really came to this programme to be somebody in life.”

Kevin, 19: “I want to do something better in life than just liming [hanging out] on the block.”

Kwesi, 17: “My luck on the streets was running out; I used to deal [drugs], and the police was getting closer. I decided, before I get lock up or somebody kill me, is best I come and change my life.”

Gregory, 18: “I did get myself in big trouble [dealing; raiding other people’s marijuana fields]. People used to be coming to my house with guns, calling me out. It was real pressure. If it wasn’t for SERVOL, I don’t know where I would be.”

Nekesha, 18: “It’s a good experience.”

There’s a clear thread running through their stories: a theme, almost, of salvation; and a quest for respect. This is the driftwood of Trinidad society, the lost generation that we keep hearing about: young people betrayed by an imperfect education system and vilified by society at large. Often barely literate, with low self-esteem, little family support, and lacking the all-important school-leaving “passes” that make social progress possible, their options are limited: stay at home and watch TV; get into trouble; get into crime. Or, as luck would have it, get into SERVOL.


When he started his Laventille sorties some 30 years ago, Fr Pantin had no idea what he was getting himself into. Wandering around the community, making contact with all and sundry, he noticed numerous small, ad hoc day-care operations: holding pens for the children of the working poor, supervised by totally untrained adults. Recognising the seeds of future educational dysfunction, he offered his help. Thus was conceived the first stage of SERVOL (Service Volunteered for All): the first tentative steps of what would become its phenomenally successful Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme.

The priest, of course, had no money; and Barbadian Wes Hall had by this time returned home; so the resourceful cleric persuaded the Chief of the Defence Force to “lend” him a dozen volunteer soldiers and sailors to help with his Laventille development project. (“Policemen are hated up there,” he explains; “but soldiers are respected.”)

The idea was not merely to work for the underprivileged, but to mobilise the people to help themselves; to enable them to establish some measure of control over their own destinies. The two main pillars for these ideas were: (1) always begin with what people say they want rather than what you think they should have; and (2) help them achieve only what they can afford to maintain — no big flashy projects that would crash after a year. It was essential, then, to listen, free of cultural prejudice and social arrogance. Any subsequent intervention must be “respectful” of the other person’s right to be exactly who he was.

It was an approach that succeeded in breaking down the instinctive barriers of hostility and mistrust, and allowed the small band of volunteers access to the heart of the community. “Listening” and “respect” are still the watchwords of SERVOL: every idea comes initially from the community, with Fr Pantin and his co-workers acting simply (but effectively) as facilitators.

The organisation’s first big break came when Fr Pantin got a call from a representative of the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, a Dutch organisation with a special interest in Early Childhood Education (ECE). The Foundation had already made overtures to the Trinidad and Tobago government to put money into ECE, but had largely been ignored. Then, hearing about the “crazy priest with 12 soldiers” up in Laventille, the representative contacted Fr Pantin; and set SERVOL on the road to becoming a legal NGO that could legitimately apply for funding.

The Foundation became SERVOL’s principal funding agency for the next 20 years, and the ECE programme currently numbers more than 175 child-care centres catering for 5,000 children (aged 3-5) a year, run by SERVOL graduates whose two-year certificate is now validated by Oxford University. Each centre is run, semi-autonomously, by a Board of Education drawn from the surrounding community; the Board is regularly monitored by the SERVOL executive team. “About half the boards are good,” Fr Pantin estimates; “a quarter are fantastic; and a quarter are weak. But, by and large, the system is working, and working well.”

SERVOL didn’t stop there. Soon realising that the years 0-3 in a child’s life are even more important than 3-5, the organisation turned its attention to the home environment of pre-schoolers, which more often than not was extremely harsh. Single parent homes, ill-equipped teenage mothers, extreme penury and inappropriate corporal punishment were all too often the reality for these infants.

Respectfully (of course), SERVOL decided to intervene, dispatching specially trained outreach workers for one-on-one encounters with parents. Offering gentle advice on pre- and post-natal nutrition, hygiene, child-care and discipline, the “facilitators” sought to convince these mothers that they possessed the resources to solve their own problems — even teaching them simple crafts that offered the possibility of generating income. Today, the Parent Outreach Programme (POP) reaches more than 2,000 families, and is expected to expand.

Even as SERVOL sought to create a sound base for the psycho-social development of small children, the elders of the community were begging for help with its problem teenagers: an unskilled and virtually unemployable demographic. Again, SERVOL responded, and the Skills Training Programme was born: a welding shop in 1971, a plumbing facility in 1972, woodwork in 1973, electrical installation in 1974, food preparation in 1975 . . . “The thing just grew and grew,” exclaims Fr Pantin.

By this time, various international organisations were clamouring to give money: “Everybody seemed to like our project.” The results, though, were just mediocre: there was a 35 per cent drop-out rate, and many of the graduates still could not find employment. Closer study showed that many of these adolescents suffered from a negative self-image and abysmally low self-esteem: they had been “conditioned to failure”. Something had to be done, urgently, to counteract all these bad vibes.


This was the genesis of what has become SERVOL’s core programme, the concept that makes the organisation stand out from all the other well-meaning NGOs: the Adolescent Development Programme (ADP). Fr Pantin is convinced that this component is responsible for the success of SERVOL’s other programmes. “A lot of people do skills training,” he points out; “but no-one else has the ADP.”

A three-month journey of self-awareness and self-development, the ADP is a pre-requisite for anyone wanting to enter the Skills Training Programme. Even more uniquely, the ADP is compulsory for all of SERVOL’s instructors: a means of insuring that they will relate to their future students on common ground and in an acceptable manner. The programme attempts to get the teenagers to think and talk about themselves: to understand basic psychological concepts, like the subconscious and repression; to confront their anger, fears, and uncertainties; to ponder issues of sexuality, of parenting, of spirituality.

“In these three months,” Fr Pantin tells a new batch of students at the Beetham Life Centre, “you have the full attention of your instructors; talk to them. You will probably never get a chance to examine yourself for three and a half months again. This is a unique opportunity for you to talk about, ‘Who am I, what has made me the way I am?’” Amazingly, as he speaks, sullen faces light up, wake up — in interest, or shy recognition. “After the ADB,” Fr Pantin tells me, “the change in those kids is remarkable. They come in to us hostile, negative, not really believing anything good can happen to them; and they go out motivated and positive.”

The positive attitude is evident in the skills workshops, where the more advanced students are diligently turning wood into chairs, and cloth into garments. In the cafeteria, the catering students churn out the food. The rapport between the trainees and their instructors appears easy-going and respectful: as one student puts it, “They treat you like an adult, not a child.” The drop-out rate is now five per cent; and employers in the work/study component of the programme (a four-month on-the-job practicum) are invariably impressed with their attitude. Indira Siewsarran, Human Resources Manager at the upscale Kapok Hotel, says, “I look forward to the SERVOL trainees every year. They’re well-mannered and pleasant; they have good all-round training, and they’re always ready to work.” The current sous-chef at Kapok is a SERVOL graduate: he started out as a busboy 10 years ago.


Most volunteer organisations would be well-satisfied with such sterling achievements, and would be tempted to rest on their laurels. Not SERVOL. In addition to ECCE and ADP, the organisation also runs a school for mentally challenged children, and in 1994 launched its Junior Life Centres for children between the ages of 13 and 15, who had been spewed out of a school system which had no place for slow learners. Using an innovative remedial approach, the Junior Centres aim to revive an interest in learning, while preparing the youngsters to rejoin the formal school system by the age of 15.

In recent years, SERVOL has set its sights even higher. Seeking to boost its trainees out of the blue-collar world, in 1993 it set its sights on “Mission Impossible”: providing computer training and advanced electronics for a student body that was 35 per cent functionally illiterate. As with all its other ventures, SERVOL chose to overlook the difficulties, and say, simply, “We have just got to find a way.”

After two years of intense negotiations, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) agreed to provide direct funding, through its Multi-Investment Finance (MIF) programme, for the proposed Hi Tech centres — one each in north, central and south Trinidad. At these Centres, graduates of SERVOL’s other programmes can take courses in computer literacy, computer repair, digital electronics, and computer-controlled electronics.

Enough? Never. As Fr Pantin says wryly, “SERVOL has a life of its own; it keeps growing despite our effort to control its growth.” In 2001, yet another programme opened its doors: the Advanced Skills Training Programme, a post-graduate course geared to the stated needs of the southern-based oil companies — and, incredibly, funded by them. (“We told the oil companies,” recalls a SERVOL administrator who was mandated to find funding for the programme, “that we are doing this for you!” Apparently, they believed her.) Essentially an apprenticeship programme, the courses include such subjects as compressor mechanics, instrumentation, computer-controlled electronics, and heavy industry maintenance: all leading to full-fledged professional jobs, with salaries to match. At last, SERVOL’s trainees have a fighting chance of crossing the bridge, in more ways than one.


SERVOL’s funding over the years has come from a variety of sources, mainly international. After years of trying to ignore the organisation, the Trinidad and Tobago government in 1987 (under a new administration which, coincidentally, included Fr Pantin’s brother Clive) undertook the responsibility of paying its staff — a salary bill that currently runs to about TT$13 million a year. Today, this support is crucial, since international funding has largely dried up (the funding agencies have turned their attention to post-Cold-War Europe). SERVOL has to find the rest of its operating and infrastructural expenses (about TT$1.5–$2 million a year) through fund-raising activities and “a lot of lobbying and begging” of local businessmen.

SERVOL’s annual Poor Man’s Christmas Dinner, where guests pay TT$100 (about US$16) for a bowl of soup and a crust of bread, is by now a well-known fund-raising event that is written into some of the most elite social calendars. In addition, SERVOL’s own centres are income-generating, with their vocational departments building houses, doing electrical, plumbing and welding work, and catering for school-feeding programmes. Tuition fees are another source of income: though these are not high, they do exist, in accordance with the organisation’s basic principle of helping those who are willing to help themselves.

The SERVOL development model has been so successful that several other Caribbean islands, as well as community groups in Ireland and South Africa, have applied to the organisation for advice in setting up similar programmes.

Concerns have been raised about the pace of expansion and the dangers of uncontrolled decentralization. But Sister Ruth Montrichard, SERVOL’s current CEO (Fr Pantin retired about eight years ago, though he remains chairman of the board) insists that local expansion has been carefully managed, with tight quality and fiscal controls every step of the way. Projects in other islands may be using the SERVOL model, but they do not bear the SERVOL name: once they’re up and running, they’re on their own.

In short, there would seem to be little to criticise in this pioneering organisation. SERVOL does not pretend to be perfect: in its Mission Statement, it describes itself as being made up of “weak, frail, ordinary, imperfect yet hope-filled people seeking to help weak, frail, ordinary, imperfect, hope-drained people” to improve their lives. In this, it has unquestionably succeeded — and has won a fair amount of local and international recognition along the way. In 1995, SERVOL was awarded Trinidad and Tobago’s highest public honour, the Trinity Cross, and an Alternative Nobel Prize from the Swedish Parliament; and earlier this year, the organisation won the IDB’s Entrepreneur of the Year award.

His brainchild’s continued success energises Fr Pantin, still extraordinarily active for a man in his seventies. “I enjoy the work,” he says. “SERVOL is the only place I know where you can witness miracles every day of your life.”


Our Kevon: A Case History

The magazine you’re holding owes a special debt to SERVOL: it was put together by one of its graduates. Caribbean Beat’s layout artist Kevon Webster, 27, has been with the MEP team for six years. Yet, only a few years earlier, Kevon felt he was on the road to nowhere, a destination he would probably have reached, were it not for SERVOL.

Born in the Port of Spain suburb of Belmont, Kevon didn’t like the school system much. Motivation among the students and staff was low. After school, his mother suggested SERVOL. Being handy at electronics, Kevon joined the Skills Development Programme to study electrical installation. “I enjoyed the course,” he says; and on leaving SERVOL found a bottom-level job helping to create an electrical shop. He was also awarded a computer “scholarship” in SERVOL’s fledgling Hi-Tech programme, and went to a small private company for training, where his aptitude won him a permanent job. “From getting free lessons, I ended up getting paid to do something I was interested in.”

Kevon’s new employer did typesetting work for Caribbean Beat, and in due course Kevon joined the magazine, taking over the digital production completely from 1997.

There’s no doubt that Kevon has reached where he is through his own ability, initiative and determination. “Kevon is an ideal employee,” says Jeremy Taylor, the magazine’s publisher. “I wish I could clone him.” But there’s also no doubt that SERVOL provided that initial push.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.