We all have a story after all that is what life is all about. Humans story sharing victories, triumphs, adversities, and the will to survive against the odds if they choose.
It is wonderful to read stories of determination, against poverty, extreme hardships through no fault of your own. Such stories dispel the ‘entitlement syndrome’ that is rampant NOW. If we are not careful, we tend to make excuses for such behaviour only because we choose not to read the stories which provide inspiration instead we focus on whose fault it is therefore I am owed…………………………For those amongst us who are fortunate never having to live a life as Yolanda Silvera, we tend to forget too what it means to be ambitious, determined, disciplined, grateful, responsible, having a sense of duty when counseling or offering aide to those ‘entitlementors’.
I have heard some say they are sowing seed by giving money to persons they encounter and I ask the question, ‘have you really spoken to them and ascertain what their goal in life is’? If you have not, then you are the facilitator to the ‘entitlement syndrome’. I strongly believe that you should invest in those who ‘want’ it and not those who ‘need’ it. There is a big difference. Take the time to read this piece and discuss with your children and those who give the hand-outs to young persons with absolutely no desire of furthering themselves much less to make a difference in their own lives. Valuable lessons can be taught through the experiences of others.
You can have it all I opine, however, it comes with dedication, commitment, integrity and the will to become a good steward, touching the lives of those who you encounter that truly wants to earn their keep by hard work, slow and steady. The pinnacle is available to everybody as long as as your intention is honourable.
UTech lecturer overcomes ridicule as market vendor in high school
(Jamaica Observer) Sunday, August 09, 2015
(Yolanda Silvera’s now deceased grandmother Monica Allen, pictured here selling crabs on Windward Road in Kingston.
Yolanda Silvera and her husband Shane at her graduation at UTech).
OPERATING a market stall while in high school was not easy for Yolanda Silvera. Neither was the violence to which she was exposed while growing up in the tough community of Dunkirk in East Kingston.
However, Silvera has overcome those challenges, and is now an engineer, PhD candidate and lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech), honouring the wishes of her grandmother who could not read and write and who did not want her to suffer a similar fate.
Silvera graduated with first-class honours in mechanical engineering from UTech, a master’s degree in engineering management from Brunel University in London, and an MBA in technology management from Walden University, scoring a perfect 4.0 GPA which landed her on the roll of the International Golden Key Honour Society whose membership list includes former US president Bill Clinton.
Based on her academic performance and voluntary work with youth in the Joy Town programme in Trench Town, she was awarded a $1-million scholarship from the society towards her current PhD studies in systems engineering.
“My grandmother was a big stickler for education because she would share how people treated her because she couldn’t read or write her name, and how bad it was working as a domestic helper with some people who made her wash even their underwear. She never wanted us to go through that,” Silvera said.
“So, from very early I saw that the thing that was going to take me out of that situation was education, and I kept remembering what my grandmother shared with me,” she added.
When Silvera was a child her mother was forced to flee an abusive relationship and move into her mother’s home in Dunkirk with her three young children.
Following the contentious break-up the father refused to support the children, leaving the responsibility on Silvera’s grandmother to support an entire household, which included her own children, on a domestic helper’s salary.
But domestic work did not bring in enough, so her grandmother began selling soup, corn, crabs and whatever fruits were in season on Windward Road on weekends and at her gate during the week.
With very little to go around, Silvera recalled going back home for a lunch of porridge and being just as hungry by the time she walked back to school.
Despite that experience, Silvera had a deep desire to learn and would never miss a day at school. That zeal to learn saw her reading at above-grade level by the time she began attending Franklin Town Primary School, resulting in her going straight to grade three. That placed her in the same Common Entrance class with her brother, who was four years her senior.
“I think I have an innate, God-given talent when it comes on to education and I have always been drawn to books,” she said.
With money very tight, her grandmother could not afford to pay for extra lessons in preparation for the Common Entrance Examination; however, teachers such as a Miss Hill and Mr Fearon allowed the siblings to attend classes for free.
But it was a bittersweet victory when the results were out as, while she gained a place at Convent of Mercy Academy (Alpha), her brother, who was sitting it for the third time, was unsuccessful.
By the time Silvera started high school her mother, who had another child around that time, was selling downtown and Silvera was required to help.
“She had a stall and she would stay at the stall and I would take some of the things and walk around and sell them,” she recalled.
When that did not bring enough money, Silvera’s mother established yet another stall at the then Michael Manley Market in Kingston’s eastern end, and Silvera was responsible for selling ground produce at that location on Saturdays. She recalled that her mother would buy the items from other vendors and she would package them for sale.
“A lady said to me one day that she couldn’t understand how a big stoosh high school girl like me was in the market selling,” she recalled.
For the first two years of high school Silvera received assistance from her uncle, Peter Fearon, who had just begun working as a meteorologist. However, that ended when he went overseas to study.
With great blessings also came great challenges, as Silvera was selected among a batch of students being prepared to sit Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) exams by third form. This meant additional expenses for books, which the family could not afford. A desperate Silvera sought help from Alpha’s then principal, Sister Bernadette, who made arrangement for the school to provide a free lunch. In addition, Silvera said Alpha, through its affiliation with the Catholic church, also provided groceries for the entire family.
In the latter part of third form the school also offered her free boarding and she went home on weekends to help the family.
The then teenage girl was also responsible for caring for her siblings as they had a rocky relationship with their mother, whom they saw more like a big sister than a parent.
“Sometimes she would go off and leave us for a while and we didn’t know where she was, and so my grandmother was like my mother,” she said of the woman she refers to as ‘mammy’.
With her grandmother being so self-conscious about not being able to read, attendance at parent/teachers’ meetings for her siblings was left mainly up to Silvera.
“Even with my youngest brother, who was born when I was in high school, I was the one attending PTA for him and buying his books and eventually even sent him to university when I started working,” she said.
Silvera recalled those days when the electricity was disconnected at home for long periods because of non-payment, forcing her to study under the streetlight outside as she helped her mother operate a sweetie stall outside the gate during the week.
Silvera said she was ridiculed by classmates who would pass her studying on the sidewalk.
“When I go to school and they would tease me about it, I would cry, but that helped me to develop a tough exterior and I would always say to myself that some day I will show them,” she told the Jamaica Observer.
Silvera said in the early years growing up in Franklin Town she was not aware that she was living in an inner-city community until gang violence erupted.
“My initial perspective of Franklin Town was that it was not a ghetto, until I was about in high school. My grandmother owned her home. We didn’t have bridged light and we didn’t live in a tenement yard or have zinc fence, and so, despite the hardship, what really made me conscious that it was a ghetto was when we had all the gang violence,” she said.
She recalled sitting outside the house one night and being caught in crossfire as two gunmen traded bullets.
“At times it affected me because when war started you have to figure out the safest route to walk to school, and I couldn’t stay up late to study with the lights on because you didn’t want gunmen to think you could see them,” she said.
Growing up in the ghetto, Silvera said she never came under undue pressure from thugs as her brothers and uncles were very protective of her.
“When I was passing these guys and they called to me, I would hold my head straight; I remember when I was in university I was walking home from the bus stop one day and a known gunman was calling to me and he walked straight into my yard when I didn’t answer and said how long him calling me and I won’t answer, and my uncle didn’t care that he was a gunman, he came out with a machete and told him never to set back foot in our yard,” she recalled.
After graduating high school with 10 subjects, Silvera had to shelve the idea of going to sixth form as there was no money, opting instead to attend Excelsior Community College’s pre-university programme. She credits friends, among them Donald Johnson, who assisted her.
After the first year, Silvera’s grades were good enough for her to matriculate into the then College of Arts, Science, and Technology to pursue a three-year diploma in mechanical engineering. On completion, she took a job as a trainee air traffic controller at the Jamaica Civil Aviation Authority and was very happy when she was able to assist her grandmother in taking care of the household.
She accepted a scholarship to study in Cuba, but with no money to supplement the scholarship and not having enough for food, Silvera became ill and was forced to return home before completing the programme.
She later applied to UTech. However, by her second year she faced another challenge to fund her education.
Luckily, she was helped by friends, such as Junior Freckleton, who guaranteed a student loan for her, and Donna Edwards, who assisted in paying the final-year tuition.
Again, Silvera turned to selling, this time going downtown to purchase underwear for resale. In addition, a friend who sold hair products to the wholesales would give her the damaged ones and she would retail things like hair gel and shampoo. Later, she started travelling to the US to purchase clothing and other consumer items for sale.
“On Saturdays I would pack them out in the yard at Franklin Town and sell them and that became a thriving business,” she recalled.
In-between juggling that business, Silvera made time to study and even to organise Saturday sessions to help her classmates who were struggling.
She recalled that at her graduation several Franklin Town residents accompanied her grandmother to share in her accomplishment.
“My grandmother had tears in her eyes when we were taking the pictures and she reminded me that when I was little I saw a plane flying over and I said, ‘some day I am going to fix planes’, and she said the first one I fix, she wanted to fly in it. Although I have not done that, what was important for me was that my grandmother believed in me, without a doubt, and so I knew that even if I failed at something she would always be there cheering me on.”
Silvera immediately took a position as lecturer at UTech as she wanted to be able to give back, just as her grandmother, who despite the hardships, would always rescue the homeless and the hungry.
She then moved on to work with Shell as an engineer responsible for LPG plants across the island, a job that helped to boost her confidence as one of the few females in this field.
She cited an occasion when some colleagues doubted her ability to design and install a particular pump. Her confidence was somewhat deflated when the representative of the overseas company supplying the pump also said the calculation for her design was incorrect. But Silvera said her confidence was not only restored but boosted when she later received an e-mail from him informing that he had been mistaken.
“He wrote an e-mail to say that despite the fact that he was the designer at the company my calculations were correct and what he calculated was incorrect and that he had not heard of UTech before speaking to me, but they should be very proud of me,” she recalled.
Silvera also worked at Windalco, then at Jamalco with Canadian firm, Hatch, which managed a lot of major projects. She was later recruited by GraceKennedy as an engineering manager before she was encouraged to take a pay cut and return to lecturing full-time at UTech.
A devout Christian, Silvera said her experiences prepared her to help her students.
“If I had not gone through those experiences I could not talk to my students when they doubt their abilities or have financial struggles or family issues. When I tell them I grew up in a ghetto they don’t believe because they are only seeing the finished product,” she said.
Silvera is still amazed at how well she was able to perform under stress as she recalled that while doing her first master’s degree in 2004 her older brother was murdered on his way to work during a flare-up of gang war among thugs who couldn’t catch his younger brother who was hanging out with the wrong crowd.
A year later, gunmen raped and murdered her younger brother’s girlfriend, leaving a four-month-old and a four-year-old without a mother. This forced the family, who had lived in Franklin Town for more than three decades, to leave the community.
Three years later, thinking the bad blood was over, the brother returned to live in Dunkirk and was murdered, leaving his two children orphaned. It was left to Silvera and her husband Shane, whom she described as her greatest supporter, to raise the children as their own.
Silvera said she got the opportunity to take very good care of her grandmother, who died two years ago, and is now in the process of working on repairing the relationship between herself and her mother.
Her advice to others going through similar situations is that they develop a relationship with God. “Let the Lord help you to identify who you are in Him, and who He has called you to be, and not what anybody else says you are,” she said.
Silvera also urged people to believe in themselves. “One of my biggest things is proving people wrong, and so I am fiercely competitive, especially in my field. I don’t believe in doing anything mediocre,” she said.