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The Desire for Excellence

By Father Gerard Pantin

How the instinct for change takes root in the community

Many years ago, while I was studying in Ireland, I read an article by a world- famous expert on how to become an effective speaker or writer. It had a profound effect on me. It suggested that effective speaking or writing is based on a simple concept: as far as possible, speak or write in concrete terms, not abstract ones; and use practical examples to illustrate your thought.

I am suggesting that excellence is acquired through close contact with people who live and work in an environment which demands excellence. The example I will use is the SERVOL organisation. It started with one man in 1970, and has expanded into a complex organisation which focuses on disadvantaged and grassroots people.

The founders of SERVOL began with the idea that grassroots people are best qualified to change attitudes in their communities. We have lived to see this proven to be true. We have even observed something that we call “the SERVOL virus”: its victims become totally dedicated to their work, drag themselves out of their sick beds “because the children need me”, and are seldom late. Most of all, they are energised by the knowledge that anyone, from the most senior coordinator to the humblest driver, can go to management with a new idea, confident that it will be taken seriously. Let me give some examples.

Convinced that one of the keys to lifting people out of poverty situations was to develop a high-quality Early Childhood programme for grassroots communities, we once asked some educational experts to design a curriculum adapted to the needs of grassroots children.

But when we asked the University of the West Indies to validate the certificates of the young teachers, they would not even consider it. They acknowledged that the training programme was turning out excellent teachers, but none of them had five Ordinary Level passes, which was the standard requirement for the validation of our certificates by the University.
We were angry at this cavalier attitude and felt it was unacceptable. Then a member of the training staff suggested that we try other avenues, and in a moment of divine madness I wrote to Oxford University telling them of our problem and asking them to help.

We were stunned when we received an immediate response from Oxford saying that they were sending a high-powered team to investigate the programme with a view to validating it themselves. After examining the curriculum and the technical expertise of the teachers, that is what they did. One daily newspaper broke the news to the public under an enormous headline: “OXFORD SAVES SERVOL FROM SNOBBERY!”

On another occasion, a senior citizen from John John stood up at a graduation ceremony and thanked SERVOL for what it was doing to help the restless youth of the area. However, he said, “Your work is not yet over; you have to teach our young people to become computer literate”. My initial response was that the gentleman was in an advanced stage of senility. Did he not realise that we were having enough trouble helping the children to become functionally literate?

However, when I broached the subject to a group of instructors, I was taken aback to hear them say: “Why not give it a shot? We have always listened to the elders of the community, why should we turn our back now?” So the decision was taken, and SERVOL now has three Hi Tech Centres in Barataria, Chaguanas and La Romain offering courses in Computer Literacy and Advanced Electronics.

As we set about developing a literacy programme for our trainees, one of our junior instructors suggested that we introduce them to Scrabble. To our astonishment, they took to the game like ducks to water. By playing Scrabble they went a long way to making themselves literate.

My final story features a diminutive but dynamic young woman called Judy. After we established a Hi Tech Centre in La Romain, a sizeable plot of land was left unused; for Judy, an empty piece of land was an obscenity for an organisation like SERVOL. So she began to bombard us with suggestions. Eventually an idea began to emerge: why not establish an Advanced Skills Training Centre where our graduates could be taught to qualify for prestige jobs in the energy industries? The only problem was that we had no money for it and no expertise in designing an appropriate syllabus. Judy tossed those problems aside with disdain: where was SERVOL’s faith and daring? She volunteered to approach the oil and gas companies for support. With incredible cheek she walked into their boardrooms and announced that she had come to do them a favour. They needed an organisation to train young people in the skills needed by the industry, and SERVOL was prepared to do it.

Furthermore, since SERVOL was doing them a big favour by setting up the proposed Advanced Skills Training Centre, they should write the curriculum and put up the money. A little bemused, the companies agreed. The SERVOL Advanced Skills Training Centre was officially opened by the Prime Minister in 2000. Excellence can simply be the courage and the determination to make something happen. There are people who have a natural gift for this. Through interaction, they produce a cadre of citizens dedicated to developing a nation and helping to lift it out of apathy. Their innate desire to reach for the stars is expressed in specific situations, and is summarised in the SERVOL mission statement:

SERVOL is an organisation of weak, frail, ordinary, imperfect yet hope-filled and committed people seeking to help weak, frail, ordinary, imperfect, hope-drained people to become agents of attitudinal and social change in a journey which leads to total human development. It does so through respectful intervention in the eyes of others and seeks to empower individuals and communities to develop as role models for the nation.

Fr Gerard Pantin is the Chairman of SERVOL. He has long been a strong voice for tolerance and patience in Trinidad and Tobago’s national life, and has based his philosophy of service on the idea that those who want to help must begin by listening to those who need to be helped.

The first Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence, each valued at around US$80,000, will be presented in October.

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