Chrisette Benjamin was doing extra reading for one of her elective courses at UWI when something caught her eye. The topic was poverty alleviation.
As part of the Rio Claro West Secondary school's Young Leaders Club Benjamin learnt that the Mayaro/Rio Claro region has one of the highest rates of poverty in TT.
She said learning about poverty in the area was an eye opener and from there she decided to do something to solve that issue of poverty.
“I was also student council president (at Rio Claro West), and I would be privy to some information on students who were unable to attend school because their parents had them home helping out," Benjamin said.
“So, poverty was something that I could have seen happening at school and we (in the student council) had the ability to somehow address that.”
She mobilised the council’s resource to organise resources to do food drives and fundraisers to help the school’s underprivileged students.
After graduating from secondary school, Benjamin began undergraduate studies in international relations at the UWI St Augustine campus. It was in her second year in 2019 that she began an elective in social development and her reading on poverty alleviation.
One author theorised that giving “handouts” to those in need is sometimes not the best way alleviate poverty. Instead, the author argued that making investments in and improving access to education, for those in need, would be a much more powerful tool for poverty eradication.
This was the spark that lit the fuse for the I Believe in Success (IBIS) Foundation.
Benjamin had had the idea for an initiative to assist underprivileged students in Rio Claro and environs since 2018, but here was the impetus to hit the ground running.
"I had already gotten some volunteers to do work on a project that works with demotivated students who come from backgrounds with socio-economic constraints.” So she already had a few individuals on hand to get work going.
The foundation’s first project supported students from 14 primary schools in the Rio Claro area who were writing the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) exam that year.
“If you start by supporting younger students, they will get the idea that they can come out of poverty using education," she said.
From the 14 schools, ten students were given free tutoring in preparation for the SEA exam, and 14 other were given care hampers.
“We wanted the schools to nominate a student who fit the criteria of having socio-economic constraints and meeting academic performance (standards).
“What my team would have done was tutored these students and supplied (them) with things like...socks, cream, soap or even motivation.”
For six weekends, leading up to the exam, students in the project were tutored at the Rio Claro library.
Part of the project included UWI students writing the students motivational letters.
After the exam in July 2019, the foundation held an SEA awards ceremony which was not exclusive to the students who were supported by the foundation’s project. The top 20 achievers based on composite scores from 13 schools in the district and 13 students considered to be the most improved (one from each schools) also received awards. One student from the foundation’s support project placed among the top 25 of students in Rio Claro and environs.
Benjamin got some corporate support for the project. “BPTT sponsored...44 trophies in total and some funding (for the awards) also came from someone who was a close family friend. Republic Bank Rio Claro branch also gave a contribution as well.”
After 2019's success the foundation continued the project in 2020 and again this year.
Due to covid19 restrictions, tutoring was done online. Considering it unfair to compare scores of students writing an exam during a pandemic, the awards were scrapped.
The foundation did, however, hold a fund-raising drive and purchased eight tablets for students who needed devices for online school and classes. The foundation’s effort was also supplemented by First Citizens bank which donated one tablet.
This year Benjamin’s team was able to donate food items with the support of S&S Persad supermarket in Mayaro.
“S&S Persad usually supports us a lot…the owner of the owner of supermarket, Ms Sunita Persad, reached out and wanted to do hampers for the families of all 21 students we tutored this year,” she said.
Benjamin hopes her foundation’s SEA project can be replicated in other communities. She believes that there are students, throughout the country, with academic abilities that are not fully realised because of their socio-economic challenges.
“Some people would reach out to me and ask if I have plans on making the I Believe in Success Foundation a national organisation or operating in another community. It’s something I’m thinking about long-term, but some communities don’t necessarily have youth organisations centred on addressing issues in education. They may focus on other things but not necessarily education.”
For now, the foundation’s focus remains in Rio Claro and environs, but Benjamin does have plans to expand its reach in different ways.
By September, she hopes that the foundation will be able to tutor CESC and CAPE students in the region.
There are also plans to develop a $7,000 university support grant which will be awarded to one exemplary student from Rio Claro who may be facing socio-economic challenges. Plans to begin fund-raising to make the grant a reality has been put on hold due to covid19.
Last year, Benjamin legally registered the IBIS foundation. There are currently 35 members on its general committee and six seasonal volunteers.
Benjamin, 21, is a three-time national youth parliamentarian and in 2017, was selected for a Youth Ambassador programme hosted by the US Embassy in TT.
As part of the embassy’s programme, Benjamin she to Kansas City and learnt about the operations of a food bank while volunteering.
Benjamin credits her experiences as a youth parliamentarian and youth ambassador to contributing toward her development in the areas of leadership and an organiser of volunteer initiatives.
Outside of her work with the IBIS foundation, Benjamin is the vice-chairperson of the Nariva/Mayaro District Youth Council.
Now that she has finished her undergraduate work at UWI where she minored in social policy, Benjamin wants to get involved in crafting local government policies.
She believes these policies are a crucial part of alleviating socio-economic challenges in communities.
“What I want to do is craft policies and I know that for a fact. Right now, I’m leading towards local government because I have a fair idea of local government transform and how much you can actually meet the needs of people especially in rural communities.
“If I can get to work somehow on local government policies or exciting and shaping policies, that will be great.
“That’s one goal but I do actually want to work in the World Bank or the United Nations.”
Anyone interested in supporting Benjamin’s work can message the foundation’s Facebook page, I Believe in Success or follow the foundation on Instagram @ibisfoundation