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Eight years ago, Carmetta Barry said she happily ran to the FOCUS (Forward and Onward to College, Upward to Success) bus for the first time not knowing what to expect. She recalled experiencing a number of emotions – the most dominant, fright. But as she walked onto that bus, she said, she was welcomed by Program Director Felicity Humblestone with a smile and a warm hug, which she hadn’t expected, but which she said was a lovely surprise that made her feel right at home. That initial step onto the bus was the beginning of what, for Barry and her fourth-grade peers, was the beginning of a journey that she said was long, sometimes stressful, sometimes competitive, but that would ultimately be a life-changing journey.
Barry was one of 30 students – 15 boys and 15 girls – to comprise the first cohort of FOCUS students, of which 23 survived the eight-year program to graduate as FOCUS/OCTC (On Course to College) graduates through the support of FOCUS, which she said became an equalizer for them over the years.
“Windows were opened for us when doors were closed in our faces, and for that we are extremely grateful,” said Barry during their recent graduation which was a celebration of their journey, success and futures.
The C.R. Walker graduate, who earned salutatorian honors, is a recipient of the Public Schools Scholars Award recipient as well as a high school diploma with distinction.
Barry reminded her fellow graduates of the first day they and many other students signed up for the FOCUS program in fourth grade – and of their peers who were deterred when they found out they would have to spend their summers reading, writing and calculating, but that they saw the opportunity and grabbed it, to counteract the teachings from their urban neighborhoods and parents that college was for the rich.
“We refused to accept [this teaching]. We rejected adding to the statistic of teen mothers and incarcerated or murdered young men. We met each other in the summer of 2011 and our lives have never been the same. Our grade point averages increased, many of us became student body leaders, and even made our school’s principal’s lists. I went from being a rug rat student who argued with administrators religiously, to the deputy head girl and salutatorian. In fact, I remember one of my classmates saying, ‘She only got that because of FOCUS’ – and I took that as a compliment.”
While she spoke to the difference FOCUS made in their lives, she was realistic at the same time, as she said they encountered good as well as bad times. She recalled winning their first reading challenge and the excitement she felt at her accomplishment. She recalled being happy she could go to FOCUS during the summer and be fed a hearty breakfast, because many of those meals were absent in many of their households.
“For me, it was not only food we lacked in my house – also absent were love, hugs and kisses from a mom or other family members.”
She thanked the FOCUS crew who gave them hugs and high-fives and told them they could be anything they wanted to be and how beautiful they were.
“I want to thank you for showing you loved us. You made a vast difference in our lives with your words and actions. You inspired us. You sparked a light of hope within us. You made life fun,” she said.
Over the course of eight years – like any family – she admitted they sometimes bullied each other, she said tears were shed, one of their “family” members was even killed and others left the program for various reasons.
Barry remembered the first summer for the initial 30 students being an ultimate blast. And in their second year, reluctantly having to share their “family” with a new group of students and Humblestone, program director 2010-2017, who is now a Lyford Cay Foundations executive director, telling them they weren’t the babies anymore.
“As we moved up the ranks, we were no longer just FOCUS students. We became FOCUS/OCTC. We were on course to college. Long gone were the summer meals and hearty breakfasts – in its place were college applications and SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) practices. The support and the love, however, never ceased.”
Through it all Barry reminded them that FOCUS always supported them.
“An example of that was this year when I became extremely ill during final exams and had no one to call on. I called Ms. Karen [McCartney, FOCUS program coordinator] and asked her what to do. She and Ms. Kendra immediately coordinated efforts and I was [taken] to the hospital and saw a doctor. It has been like that since fourth grade. I cannot tell you how many times I have called Ms. Karen freaking out over something, and she took the time to reassure me.”
Barry said FOCUS evened out the race for them – becoming their parents, friends, teachers and biggest fans.
Forty percent of FOCUS’ 2019 first class has enrolled at the University of The Bahamas (UB) for the fall. UB has served as their site host partner from day one.
FOCUS began with members of the Lyford Cay Foundations board and their vision and decision that investing in a long-term program preparing public school children for college was important. The board and a few key donors gave seed funding which made the launch possible.
FOCUS was modeled on a United States program called Breakthrough Collaborative.
Humblestone recalled eight years ago visiting seven primary schools in the northwest district – Stephen Dillet, Woodcock, Naomi Blatch, Albury Sayle, T.G. Glover, Mabel Walker and Gambier – and going into the classes and speaking with the fourth-grade students about a completely unknown program called FOCUS.
“The pool of potential applicants was about 500 fourth graders. We scheduled in-person application sessions for parents and students and from that we got about 100 applications. We interviewed some 60 students with their parents to narrow down a selection to 30 students – 15 girls and 15 boys. Eight years later we have 23 of those original 30 students who persisted the past eight years in summer and Saturday learning at FOCUS.”
Humblestone said eight years ago they didn’t know that the shy and hesitant eight- and nine-year-olds they met would become the poised and confident young adults they saw at their graduation. Or whether the donors would be interested in funding FOCUS, or for how long.
“But along the journey, we discovered a belief in what we were doing, and incredibly generous support in order to make it happen,” she said.
“Eight years ago, we did not know that this group of students would become like family, and support one another in everything they do, and that we too support them like our family and love them like our own children. This journey was possible because we were fortunate to have the resources to fund a comprehensive program that provided the support needed to be successful, and because we recruited the best and most caring leaders and interns to lead, teach, mentor, nurture, care for and love the most amazing students ever – the class of 2019, our very first class – who tried our patience and made us angry and frustrated sometimes, made us cry others, made us laugh and made us smile; and definitely made our hearts full with pride throughout,” said Humblestone.
Written by Shavaughn Moss
The Nassau Guardian
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