FROM TUN CORNMEAL TO TURNING WHEELS

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ROBIN Richards could easily have believed the naysayers that he would amount to nothing, since the circumstances under which he grew up seemingly lent credence to this prediction.

But the 38-year-old has beaten all odds to rise from a life of attending school barefooted and living on the streets in Jamaica to excelling in his field of civil engineering in both the United Kingdom and the United States where he now lives. An experienced, certified and accomplished project director with over 14 years’ proven track record Richards has successfully managed multimillion-dollar/pound rail engineering construction and infrastructure projects through all phases of his development.

A guest lecturer in construction management and safety at two universities in the US, Richards holds a master’s degree in business administration and project management from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge and is now working on completing his doctoral studies at Walden University in the US.

“I always had it in the back of my head that I wanted to be different. I wanted to break the mould in the family, where there was this spiralling effect of things not working out, and I knew that education was the way out because I didn’t see any other way,” Richards said.

Richards, who worked as Operation Track and Structure – Project Director at London Underground before taking up a job as Track and Structure – Compliance & Safety Manager at Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, grew up in Heywood Hall, St Mary.

At age three his mother moved out of the home leaving him and his two older brothers to be raised by their father.

With his father struggling to make ends meet from odd jobs on various farms in the parish, Richards and his siblings had to help in the fields and around the house from an early age. His father’s financial woes were made even worse by a court order forcing him to compensate the owner of some goats he killed because they were damaging his farm.

According to Richards, his father “spent his life” using most of what he earned to pay back for the animals.

So rough was it for the family that Richards recalled that oftentimes the family’s only meal for the day consisted of turn cornmeal or cornmeal porridge.

“We had nothing. For one year straight all we used to eat is either turn cornmeal or cornmeal porridge for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he recalled.

Not only was it rough not having enough to eat, but Richards, who was formerly known as Foster, said he was treated differently by the man he knew then as his father.

“He knew that I wasn’t his biological child, but I didn’t know, and that was why he and my brothers would treat me differently,” he said.

From age nine Richards said he had to work alongside his father and brothers in the field and this meant he was often absent from school.

“We would go in September for about four weeks and then we would be pulled from school to help out in the fields, and so maybe we wouldn’t go back until January,” he recalled.

Richards said his father would sometimes use the excuse of his tattered uniform to pull him from school.

“Sometimes when I have a rip in my uniform I used to hide it from him because that would be an excuse for him to pull us from school to go work in the field with him,” he said.

As for lunch money, Richards said he would get a mere five cents a day. However, since this could not buy anything, he would forego lunch for three days in order to save to buy bread and butter and ‘suck suck’. On the days he had no lunch he would rely on raiding the nearby coconut tree or whatever other fruits were in season.

He recalled having to cut one pencil to share between him and his brothers, and when that was not enough he resorted to making his own from bamboo and discarded pencil led.

Richards recalled that the family did not own a clothes iron, hence they had to take great care in drying the laundry so as to prevent it from becoming wrinkled.

He was further absent from school for a significant period of time when he fell from a building and suffered injuries which left him in a coma for eight weeks.

He recalled that he was working with his father on a farm during a regular school day when he fell from a building, breaking his ribs and damaging his kidneys.

His poor attendance at school affected his academic performance. However, he did not get the chance to find out how he would have done in the Common Entrance as he was prevented from sitting the exams as he had no birth certificate.

A friend’s sister offered to take him to sit an entrance exam at the nearby Islington Secondary School and Richards said that was his first inkling that he had potential.

“I remembered when the results came out I didn’t see my name on the list where a lot of the other boys from my community were on and so I thought I had failed but then I saw my name on another list, and it was then I found out that it wasn’t that I had failed. But that I was the only one from there who was placed in the second brightest class,” he explained. “I was really so surprised myself, and that was my first break that I had something in me,” he said.

His father was, however, not very happy at the news since this meant less time in the fields, but Richards said his feelings changed when he found out the school was on a shift system and would still be available to work in the evenings.

With Richards having been placed in the second brightest grade he started harbouring dreams he never had. For the first time he begun to envision himself with a job that involved wearing shirt and tie instead of toiling on the banana property.

And although he still had a poor attendance record, Richards surprised even himself when he was promoted to a similar stream by the following school year.

At age 13, Richards got himself a job on a banana property for the summer to prepare him for back-to-school. But determined to attend school more regularly Richards sought a permanent weekend job at a Chinese wholesale in Port Maria working all day Fridays and Saturdays to get money to see him through four days of school each week.

His father insisted then that he took full care of himself now that he was no longer available to help in the field.

Richards said he discovered shortly after that his 13-year-old friend, Audley McIntosh, was living in a house by himself, following the migration of his guardian, and so the two of them decided to live together and share the expenses.

“So two 13-year-olds were living by ourselves and taking care of ourselves,” he said, explaining that from the money he earned with his part-time work and McIntosh’s they bought their uniform and school supplies and fed themselves.

“Sometimes it was just a bag of nutri bulla we had, and we would eat that for breakfast, lunch and dinner and his two little brothers would also come by the house for us to feed them,” he recalled.

But the confidence Richards was building in his academic abilities was shattered when a teacher started making school unbearable for him. He recounted an incident where a classmate jokingly told the teacher he had destroyed her book. Richards said he muttered an inappropriate word under his breath and when it was repeated by another student to the teacher he got a flogging.

“From that day, every day he came to class I got beating in my hands,” he said. When it came time to move to grade nine, Richards said the teacher also demoted several of them from the second brightest class, where they would have had the chance to do a business subject, to a lesser stream.

While the parents of the others protested this decision and got it reversed, Richards said he had no one to lobby on his behalf.

“It started to bother me, and I didn’t have anybody to talk to, so I started getting into a lot of little trouble and having to go to the principal’s office every day,” he said.

Discouraged at the turn of events, Richards attempted to drop out of school and get full-time employment at the Chinese wholesale, but the owners would not allow it.

Having studied food and nutrition, Richards said there was yet another glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel when he got a certificate of merit for attaining the second highest score in the subject. His guidance counsellor, Miss Edwards, encouraged him to apply for HEART, but Richards said he had no interest. However, unbeknownst to him she submitted his application and he was invited to sit the entrance exam.

But he ran into another hurdle when he was prevented from completing the entrance examination as the invigilator mistakenly thought he had taken an answer booklet from the room that he was instructed not to remove. But although it was later discovered that another boy was the one who took it, it was too late to complete the exam.

“The lady apologised and said she would put a note on it explaining what had happened,” he recalled.

Having not received an immediate response from HEART after graduation Richards began working full time at the wholesale, but soon realised he wanted more from life when he started talking to a 40-odd-year-old co-worker who had been working there since he was a teen.

“I decided then and there that I didn’t want this to be me,” he said.

As such, he sought employment at a restaurant in Ocho Rios, where things were going well until the business closed suddenly, leaving him penniless and homeless on the streets of the resort town.

“I was stranded in Ocho Rios because when the restaurant closed they asked us to leave the premises where we were staying, and I had no money and nowhere to go and so I got stuck living on the streets,” he explained.

He recalled spending his days hanging out with vendors in the market or at an exotic club where he would get the opportunity to sleep in a corner when things were quiet.

One day he ran into a school friend, and although he tried to hide his distress it didn’t take long for him to discover the truth. The friend gave him his number and a few days later, when Richards telephoned the friend’s mother, Dorothy Edwards, she immediately made arrangements for him to come and stay with the family in a one-bedroom dwelling.

“She had three sons, a daughter and a stepson and a grandnephew in this little house, and yet they took me in and she treated me just like one of her own,” he said.

While there he was called into HEART Runaway Bay to sit an entrance exam and was successful in getting in — albeit not into the food programme he wanted to do.

On completion, six months later, Richards worked briefly with Jamaica Grande hotel and then Boscobel Beach Resort before another friend invited him to Montego Bay to seek employment there. But once again the living conditions proved a challenge, and when he was no longer able to stay with that friend and his mother in their crammed space he found himself homeless yet again.

“I was homeless again, but this time I had a job,” he joked

While working at Margaritaville as a chef, Richards said he would work from 5:00 am to 2:00 am the next morning as he was homeless.

A co-worker who was responsible for washing the tablecloths realised what was happening and offered to wash his clothes as well.

Fortunately for him he was promoted a few months later and, with the increased wages, was able to get himself an apartment.

He began attending evening classes and sat his GCEs but was unable to collect the results because his fees had piled up after he was forced to quit his job when he got sick from the heat in the kitchen.

He decided to try his luck elsewhere and relocated to Kingston to work at a restaurant on the University of the West Indies campus. Then began his dream of someday attaining university education.

“When I would see the students up studying late at nights for exams I started saying to myself that this is something I could do,” he said, adding that he immediately enrolled in Excelsior Community College.

He and another friend made a pledge to help each other if one of them got the opportunity to migrate. As luck would have it the friend migrated to the United Kingdom in 1998 and by 2000 he had got someone to send Richards an invitation letter.

Within those two years Richards said he saved every dime he worked towards his airline ticket and whatever money he would need to start off college.

Enrolled in college, he began taking a few basic courses which were prerequisites for him to qualify to sit core courses.

“But by then I am finally seeing this dream and it feels real,” he said.

With no job and only three months rent in his pocket Richards was at a loss as to his next move.

As luck would have it the presidency of the college’s student union was thrust upon him and with that came a few perks. As well as a chance encounter with an employee at the college resulted in him being persuaded to provide the necessary documentation for him to extend his stay in the UK and for him to get a permanent job.

“I put my hardest to it and study led for the foundation courses, as my intention was to go to university,” he said, adding that he failed on a number of occasions but always persisted. In his third year of college Richards got married, and although that granted him residency which meant he didn’t need to be in school to remain in the country, Richards said he would not give up on his dream of a university education. Through lots of sacrifice he eventually received his professional certification and then eventually his university degree.

Richards, who relocated to the US two years ago to be closer to his mother, said his next big dream is to return to give back to Jamaica, and was hopeful that he would have been able to do so when the railway service was being revived. As an expert in the field of safety Richards said he now relishes the idea of being able to work with the Jamaica Urban Transit Company and hopes he will get the opportunity.

Until then, he gives back to Jamaica through his involvement with his primary school and several others in St Mary, hosting regular back-to- school treats for the students

His advise to others is: “You don’t have to know what you want to do when you are age 10, but whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability until you know what it is you are supposed to be doing.”

“I give all credit to God because he saw something in me and he used me,” he said.

0 thoughts on “FROM TUN CORNMEAL TO TURNING WHEELS

  1. This story touch my heart. But through it all God was with you your determination I admire. It’s not where you coming from you can achieve if you are driven and pick up yourself no matter the fall the roadblock.

  2. I hope the opportunity to work (take over) with JUTC comes through.

    Your path was a trying one and I hope you are still in contact with those 2 friends. I cannot and will never understand how women abandon their children.

    PP

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