At 6 a.m. last Thursday, a pot of banana and oats porridge bubbled near the entrance to the Yutes 4 Change Foundation headquarters in Portmore, St Catherine, sending a welcoming aroma to droves of children looking forward to a healthy breakfast before school.
Like clockwork, the youngsters of all ages and dressed in varying school uniforms filed into the ‘oasis’ – a small safe-space created in the dead-end Walker’s Avenue in Gregory Park by Ricardo Burke, founder of the foundation.
At age 30, Burke is regarded as ‘stepfather’ for many of the toddlers growing up behind the zinc fences on Walker’s Avenue.
They rely on him for almost everything: a healthy meal, lunch money and even help with their homework.
“In 2014, I was going through some depression, some very hard times,” said Burke, as the frolicking youngsters settled to a whisper as they said good morning, entered the oasis, and took their seats for breakfast.
“I used to curse and asked God why him only bless wicked people. I guess that was where my vision came. I went to bed and is like God just talk to me,” he said, recalling how the foundation was conceptualised out of a personal call for help.
Little did he know that his shout for help would serve to benefit dozens of voiceless persons less fortunate that himself.
Within weeks of posting the idea on the social-media site Facebook, droves of residents responded, enquiring about becoming members of the foundation or how to donate much-needed food items for the children.
“We held our first back-to-school treat in 2014, and from that we have done various health fairs, senior citizens’ care packages, and we don’t just work in the community.
“Last year, we assisted a mother of two to go back to school, and we are currently partnering with a club in St Thomas to do some GSAT quizzes,” said Burke, as he spooned porridge into a small plastic bowl.
Comprised of seven members, the Yutes 4 Change Foundation pays $10,000 monthly to rent the premises which houses the breakfast centre. It also serves as an Internet cafe, snack shop and library.
According to Burke, money earned from the snack shop goes directly into purchasing breakfast items or towards lunch money for the more needy children.
The breakfast aspect was started last October, at first with money from Burke’s pocket. Over time, he has been assisted by other residents, churches and non-governmental entities.
“This centre is designed to assist children who would normally stay home because they don’t have any breakfast or lunch money. It is aimed at bridging that gap, so sometimes we get up and even walk to their houses to wake them up for school,” said Burke, his stern gaze enough to silence two chirpy eaters.
“Discipline is paramount for the change,” said Burke, as he indicated the standards he is trying to instil in the youths at the homework centre.
Shouting, bad behaviour and all indecent activities are banned from the oasis, and that goes for the children as well as their parents. Littering is also banned, so too is rocking the furniture.
“They have been sending my son to school from he was about three years old because he doesn’t have any father figure around him and I don’t have a job.
“They give him breakfast, pay him school fee, and so on,” said Cassandra Wallace, as she pointed to her five-year-old son who attends the Gregory Park Basic School.
“Him love here more than him even love him house. When he is here he is very comfortable and he talks about Yutes 4 Change a lot,” continued Wallace, who has two other children.
“Sometimes you wake up and you don’t have a thing to give the children. You don’t have any schoolbooks and those things to give the children, and the foundation really help them out,” interjected Annette Blackwood, another resident and beneficiary.
Both woman lauded the group and asked for additional assistance from corporate entities in Portmore, St Catherine, for Yutes 4 Change.
“I decided that I wanted to assist and volunteer my time in a positive way. I wanted to help the kids. I really enjoy helping them,” said Rosemarie Nolan, who works at the centre and who is regarded as its ‘mother’.
In addition to waking at 5:30 a.m. to get breakfast started, Nolan’s job includes greeting the children when they return from school, and washing some of their uniforms for the following day.
At the end of each day, the members of Yutes 4 Change hope they have made life better for even one child as they prepare to restart the process the following day.