Despite being a long-time member of the Beetham community, Michael Paul is still seen as an outsider by some of its residents, as his drive, enthusiasm and desire to motivate others is looked at with scepticism and uncertainty.
At 70, Paul is still committed to saving at-risk teens in Beetham, Laventille and east Port of Spain through his passion for sport. His legacy of social work in the area spans more than four decades, as he has been instrumental in setting up numerous sports and cultural clubs in and around his community.
Newsday caught up with Paul during a recent training session at the Angostura recreational field and spoke with him about his experiences, challenges and expectations for the future.
“A lot of the youths here need an ear to listen to them,” Paul said, pointing to a group of boys in their early teens practising football drills on small goalposts.
“They aren’t bad children, but sometimes they need some guidance and direction. I should know, because I was in their shoes when I was about their age.”
At ten, Paul got into a fight with another boy over a place at a standpipe for filling buckets, during which the boy was stabbed in the head with a broken bottle. When he was arrested, he was taken to a home for boys at the request of his mother. This decision, he said, was one of the best things to have happened to him.
“I’m happy my mother gave the police the permission to take me to the home. It was there I really found my calling. I understood the need to change my life and the lives of other young people.”
At the home, he excelled in athletics, particularly boxing and football, and since then has sought to end violence and bring communities closer through friendly competition and neighbourly spirit, something he says has not always been appreciated in his community.
“A few times I was threatened with gunplay, even chased with a cutlass and a pitchfork. It was frightening, but I kept thinking about the children in those areas. I always think about what life must be like for them.
"I think over time the community has warmed up to me, but I still have a lot of work ahead of me.”
These incidents, he said, opened his eyes to the plight of children in his community and he realised sport alone would not be enough to guide the youths of Beetham. In 2013, Paul partnered with tutors and teachers from primary and secondary schools in Laventille and Port of Spain who would make home visits to children in these areas and offer them extra lessons.
While the problems affecting youths have grown in complexity from Paul’s own youth, he said the challenges of crime and criminality have not been lost on him.
“Not long ago I was walking in front of the court on St Vincent Street and I heard someone call out to me. I looked around and I didn’t see anyone. When I heard them the second time, I realised the person was calling from inside a prison van.
“It was a young man I mentored years ago. I spoke with him for a bit and smiled, but it really hurt me that I couldn’t help him better.”
That meeting with one of his past pupils made him realise he could not save everyone, no matter how much he wanted to.
At the training session recently, a few parents were at the side of the field supporting their children. Newsday spoke to one mother who said she was grateful for Paul's fatherly demeanour.
One father said he grew up with Paul as his mentor and was happy he was still alive to offer his experience to guide the next generation of youths in Laventille.
"I'm happy he's still here, because I grew up with him as my coach and I know how dedicated he is to his passion. I only hope there is someone else to continue in his tradition of service before self."
Paul was awarded a Hummingbird Medal for Community Service last year.
He said while he is grateful for the award, the real mark of his success is in the number of children he can save from the streets.
After a particularly bloody week for communities like Sea Lots, Laventille and the Beetham this might seem like wishful thinking, but Paul's efforts reflect something bigger than the violence. In many ways it reflects the hope of one man and his small way of saving a community from itself.