Boys of ‘Hope’ - Animal therapy being used to save at-risk youths
Unlike the animals he tends to at the Hope Zoo in Mona, St Andrew, 14-year-old Kkristoffe Campbell doesn't want to spend any time being locked up.
The Kingston College student is one of several youth deemed "at-risk" now benefiting from a Boys of Hope programme that was started by the Hope Zoo in collaboration with Guardsman Limited and the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF).
The programme is aimed at changing the lives of these boys, who, without proper intervention, appear destined for a life of crime.
Kkristoffe has been a model child for the most part, but he admits that like many adolescent boys, he is easily influenced. In the inner-city community where he currently lives with his mother, stepfather, and other relatives, there are a lot of opportunities to get involved in negative activities.
Two of his teenage cousins, who are also participants in the programme, have already been before a judge, and another cousin was murdered about two years ago. Kkristoffe doesn't wish to share their fate.
"We live in the same yard, actually. It is a tenement yard, so sooner or later, I would have got influenced," said the youngster.
Through the Boys of Hope programme, participants are taught how to be more caring and disciplined.
Two cohorts of boys have already benefited from the three-week intervention and another batch will be inducted this week. The boys are all given a stipend, and Kkristoffe has been given a temporary job as a tour guide.
"A lot of them that come into the programme are already in the court system as being at-risk, problematic youngsters. There are some who are not there yet in the court system, but at-risk," explained director of operations at the Guardsman Group, Lieutenant Commander George Overton.
"One of the things that we teach when handling the animals is that when an animal is cornered or feels threatened, there are certain instinctive things that they do. The first one is that they freeze and figure out what the situation is.
"Their next option is usually flight; to run away from the problem. If they can't run away, then they fight. We are teaching these boys that, listen, you don't have to fight as you get off the ground," said Overton.
The change in Kkristoffe and the other boys has been remarkable, but the organisers do not wish to take all of the credit for this.
General Manager at Hope Zoo Rebecca Harper said they could not have done it without the help of the animals and the environment at the facility.
According to Harper, the effectiveness of animal therapy was showcased earlier this year when, with funding from PetroCaribe and the Jamaica Social Investment Fund, some of the boys in state care were taken to the zoo.
The Child Development Agency has also taken children from troubled areas to interact with the animals.
Kkristoffe, who has three dogs, finds that interacting with the animals at the zoo and sharing his knowledge of them to visitors is the part of his job he loves the most.
The boys love adventure, too, and, in addition to teaching them how to be responsible, the JDF tries to ensure that they have some fun.
"Their favourite activity so far seems to be the tour to the Coast Guard in Port Royal. They seem to like that. So they get to go down to Port Royal and go on the ships and take a look around the base and look at the different resources that we have, and they like coming up to the air wing and taking a look at the aircraft," explained public affairs officer at the JDF, Lieutenant Aaron Gabriel.
He said members of the JDF generally spend two days each week with the boys giving them motivational talks and getting them involved in varying activities.
Kkristoffe isn't quite sure just what career path he wants to pursue, but he knows the experience has taught him to make good choices.