Some would say it was a moment of Divine Madness, others thought I had "gone off the edge" others simply said it was ridiculous and it would not last. I was teaching Sciences at the prestigious St Mary's College. I was Games Master and enjoyed every moment on the sports fields with the students. I resigned from my teaching post and here was I walking up the Laventille Hill with Wes Hall (famous West Indian Cricketer) on September 8, 1970, asking the now famous Servol question: How can we help?
The Black Power riots had taken place in March of that year and I watched hundreds of young people parading the streets of Port of Spain. I felt guilty that I could not put a name on one of them even though Laventille was a few blocks away from where I was living and teaching. When I checked the register at the College I realised that few, if any, students came from Laventille and here was I, a member of the Holy Ghost Fathers dedicated to reaching out to the poor; I couldn't name one poor person.
That first day I was very frightened and often let Wes Hall walk in front! I remember my first encounter with a group of young men sitting around on the side walk. When we approached and asked how could we help we were either ignored and given the silent treatment or cursed in the most colourful language. But we persisted and every day we walked the hill.
Finally the ice was broken and one of them said : "Give us a football"! After all the cursing I thought that was too easy so I said "You put half the money and I will put half and together we will get the football" Well, more cursing and gesticulating : "We are poor people, we have no money!" I pointed out: "Yes, but you are drinking a beer, you are smoking a cigarette, that costs money!"
Reluctantly, they made a collection among themselves and gave me the money with strong warnings about what would happen if I did not return with the football!
I did go to Sports and Games and beg for the football for the money I had and brought it back to them the next day. It may seem simple and insignificant but from that experience the philosophy of Servol was born: People must contribute to their own development; they have within them the power to change their lives. Never do for people what they can do for themselves; our intervention must always be respectful.
Work with the community to do what they think is needed in their area.
With this philosophy Servol began its work with the people: they wanted sporting facilities, so we built basket ball courts and cricket pitches. They wanted education for their small children, so we started training teachers from Laventille and setting up Early Childhood Centres. They wanted skills training so we set up centres for the young people. In every case the community was involved in the planning and implementation. Communities came together to work, to play and to share.
And the rest is history. Forty years later we are still around, still working with communities all over Trinidad and Tobago. Our programmes have stood the test of time and the Servol model has been shared and used in many Caribbean Islands and as far off as Ireland, South Africa, India and Nigeria.
I am simply amazed at how the organisation has grown and how those first steps up the hills of Laventille have brought so many people to join us on our journey.
A journey which continues today and which began with those first faltering steps.