Two years ago, 16-year-old Michael Bryan was caught up in a violent gang lifestyle, in the volatile community of Thompson Pen, Spanish Town where he had grown up.
“As a young youth, if you did anything disrespectful to me, I was going to either hit you in your face or push my ratchet (knife) into you,” Michael admits. “That’s all I could think to do.”
Like many other young men in his community, violence was his default response to conflict. Michael was particularly troubled – he was being raised without a mother or father actively involved in his life. Without the right guidance, he was lured by the sense of power that came with crime and violence.
Raised without parents
“I didn’t like hanging out with young kids my age or teenagers. I liked the older guys, the ones who were doing things. The ones who were running the place,” says Michael. “In the nights, I used to hang with them and do bad things. Turf wars were happening and I found myself getting into that.”
At the time, Thompson Pen was notorious for vicious gang warfare, of which Michael was both victim and perpetrator. He was losing interest in school and by age 17, he was expelled. With no parents around, and no sense of direction, Michael started wondering what would ever happen with his life.
Fortunately, one person was not prepared to let Michael slip away. Ida Northover, affectionately known as ‘Miss Jean’, is a compassionate, well-loved community member who knew Michael needed help.
Expelled from school
She too had suffered from the community violence. Her only daughter was shot and killed by a 20-year-old man, around the same time that Michael became engulfed in a gang. Long respected for years of service to her community, the tragedy led Miss Jean to what she now considers her life calling – saving and transforming the lives of young men in Thompson Pen.
In 2015, Northover became a Violence Interrupter with the Peace Management Initiative (PMI) – taking on the daunting task of getting young boys away from a path of danger and towards opportunities for their education and employment. She is one of three Violence Interrupters assigned to Thompson Pen.
“Miss Jean told me that I had good potential,” says Michael, reflecting on her intensified intervention in his life about a year ago. “She brought me to a session that PMI was having with youths from various communities. She told me I could learn a lot of good things from PMI, like anger management, and that I could become a mentee.”
Saved by ‘Miss Jean’
Fifty years his senior, Northover became a mother figure to Michael. She convinced him to focus on getting back into school.
“I took Michael under my wing to steer him and guide him,” she says. “I don’t want him to go back to what he was. I’ve seen too many young guys die. So, I talk with all of them like they are my own kids. They just want love and for someone to show them the right way. And that is what I’m here for.”
Michael’s life has changed significantly, for which he credits both Miss Jean and PMI. With their support, he has left the gang and is being assisted with re-entering school. Northover is determined to help him learn a marketable skill or trade, so that he can be gainfully employed in the near future.
Left gang life
“When trouble comes and I tell Miss Jean, she explains right from wrong. She motivates me. Since I don’t have a mother of father backing me up, Miss Jean is my family. I thank God and I am grateful for what she does.”
Michael is also thankful for the exposure that PMI has given him outside the confines of his community. “PMI took me out on trips – to some nice places I never thought I would go. They let me learn about life, and that has opened up my eyes to a lot of things.”
Now 18 and hopeful, Michael has no intention of turning back – even when he is tempted. Recently, he was being urged to attack a young man who was harassing him. “I reached into my pocket and there was a 4-inch nail, and I thought to myself that I should push it into his neck.” Instead, Michael walked away.
PMI helped him escape
“I went through a lot of negative things [with the gang]. I wouldn’t dare put myself through that again. Now, I hang out a lot with my cousin. We sit and watch TV. We talk about PMI. I don’t let anything bother me. When they [other young men] do something to me, I just leave it alone.”
“There were a lot of things I used to do that PMI’s programme has stopped me from doing. That’s why I won’t stop trying.”
UNICEF supports the Violence Interruption Programme implemented by the PMI, in partnership with the Ministry of National Security. Want to volunteer for the PMI to help interrupt violence across Jamaica? Contact the PMI at: +1-876-754-5622/754-5808/929-0671.