The Digicel Foundation – a non-profit company independent of the Digicel Group – was launched back in 2012 to offer support and resources to charities and communities in need. But without the corporate social responsibilities (CSR) programme run by Penny Gomez, it would not have taken off like it did. At the time, Gomez was the communications manager of Digicel and remembers being motivated by the chairman at the time, Dennis O'Brien.
"I remember presenting to the board with the chairman Dennis O'Brien and he had asked me at that meeting, 'If you're doing so many things in corporate social responsibility, do you not want to take it a step further, and set up a foundation? That way, we really could bolster all the efforts together and make an even more meaningful impact.'"
She said after the meeting she was sent back to Trinidad from the US and had set up a meeting with the global heads of Digicel at the time – Papua New Guinea, Haiti and Jamaica. That is how she met the person responsible for the global heads, Maria Mulcahy who explained that the foundation is a "very serious thing" and shouldn't be taken lightly.
"I think that I didn't even realise how big of a deal it was, I think, perhaps then I knew that we wanted to make a difference, I knew that we were doing a lot of good work in the charity space. But once we took it on wholeheartedly, we recognised that this could be a game changer in TT when it comes to work, in what we call the 'development space'," said Gomez.
She added that she even went to Jamaica during the establishing years and started the foundation's flagship project – extraordinary projects impacting communities (Epic). After tying loose ends within the planning stages, Gomez said a board was established and explained how the foundation is separate from Digicel.
"It's deliberately set up like that because we don't want it to be affected by the commercial offerings and what the commercial parts of the business is doing. This is a standalone that really just works on behalf of the people of TT, the disadvantaged, the systemic issues and really having a firm grip in that space and making a difference there. So it's totally meant to be altruistic and to be giving back, helping to grow communities where we operate. So it's a separate company, run by a board with a chairperson."
The chairman is Desha Clifford who is also director of Digicel's legal team. Gomez said there are 11 board members and the foundation has raised US$6.5 million in the ten years it has been around.
"It's a lot of money and we've done so with a small team that can be scaled up at times or scaled down depending on what the situation is. But apart from that, we have a very massive volunteer base because it's all of Digicel we employ when we want volunteers to get the jobs done. They too have embraced the foundation."
Gomez said not only are the employees responsible for getting the missions getting done, but the customers too as every financial year, Digicel gives the foundation a budget to work with which is acquired through payments.
"I want customers to understand that when they buy a plan, when they take a service from us, our Digicel Plus service or home service, that your money is not just for the service you're getting. But from whatever money we make on that, we're putting back part of it into the foundation. With your money we are making a huge difference in TT. So it's not just for us to be proud, but it's for each and every customer to be proud that they are aligned to such a brand that wants to make a difference and I'm talking about major differences."
Gomez said a lot of time was spent seeking out people who would be a good fit for the development space.
"We took months just to delve into what we call a 'needs audit' and we went to all these charities, all these non-profit organisations to try to discover what are the pressing needs in TT. Then we went to the special needs community because we were supporting national games, even before the foundation started, that was Digicel's first sponsorship."
She said coming out of this sponsorship, the Digicel Foundation decided on tackling other areas that needed more attention in the special needs community. That is how Gomez and the team came up with the first project which was a three-year therapy-based education programme in 15 special-needs schools. She said though the teachers were trained to teach special-needs students, she wanted to include the therapeutic side.
"We know that teachers in those special-needs schools that they were trained in special education, but then the therapeutic side of it was a missing component there. So we brought in three therapists, behavioural therapists, occupational therapists and speech. They worked with these teachers in all these schools to develop an individual education plan. So, because children learn differently, you can't apply a brush for all. They needed to have the skillset to look at a child and develop, based on that child's disability, the individual education plan."
With this project, the foundation created occupational therapy and sensory rooms in each of the schools that were used to help enforce what was learnt or accomplished by the therapists.
"For us, it was such a major project. It set us firmly as an organisation, a corporate NGO, that really has attached itself to places with special needs and issues and looking at that."
The foundation also launched an emotional literacy programme in 92 schools for 1,300 students all under the age of 12.
"We looked at what was happening, given the increase in crime, we recognised that a lot of children had lost parents who were either incarcerated, or had died as a result of increased criminal activity. They were dealing with a lot – death, absence of parents and struggles in schools with peer pressure. I decided to do this three-year programme with the School Leadership Center with Elizabeth Crouch."
Gomez said that this was done with the help of a character – Zippy, green praying mantis. With Zippy the children were asked to carry out his life, struggles and all to which at the end of the journey, Zippy dies. She said the children are asked to take part in a funeral for it which helps them process death a little better. Gomez said the funerals were either burials or cremations to respect the different religions the children followed.
To celebrate the foundation's anniversary and achievements, a reception will be held on August 26 where more details on a competition for micro-influencers will be revealed.