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Uncle Keith to campers


Gercine Carter

Uncle Keith  to  campers

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A generation and their parents still call him Uncle Keith. It is a moniker of endearment Keith Simmons earned in an endeavour which is sure to be recorded in his legacy of community involvement.In 1973, the young attorney returned from the United States, where he had run a summer day camp in Harlem, and introduced a similar camp for young people here. From age seven to 18, children flocked to the Trents Summer Day Camp at the St James Secondary School for a novel vacation that promised lots of fun. But to Simmons, the man who conceptualised it, it was more than just a camp. In an interview with the Sunday Sun, the 72-year-old attorney, who is still practising, explained:
 “It was a learning experience . . . a camp to help people understand something about human development and growth: how to plan for the world of work, how to conduct themselves at interviews . . . .“We never had to discipline anybody. We set standards.”Three hundred applied for the first camp. They came from all walks of life: from Sandy Lane Estate homes; from working-class homes in the Trents, Holetown, and surrounding areas; from Government institutions for children; from the Probation Service. Those who could not afford to pay enjoyed the same camp activities and facilities as those who could. A sense of responsibility was instilled in all who volunteered to work as counsellors and assistant counsellors. “We started training counsellors in March, and each counsellor had to undergo 40 hours of training in human development and growth by Bert Thompson [the late psychologist]. That was a must for them to understand how you treat people at a certain age.”Campers between 16 and 18 were trained for the world of work and representatives from business and commerce were brought in to speak about careers. Recruitment by companies often resulted from this experience. Part of Simmons’ mission was to rescue young people at risk, and he paid special attention to the few in his camp. The former magistrate said: “I don’t like prison. I am not a prison person. I feel that prison and the Government Industrial School should be a last resort. “You should do everything humanly possible to make sure people do not go to those institutions.” This is why he took the time to learn everything he could about each child in the Trents Summer Day Camp, and established a rapport with every parent.Simmons’ penchant for reaching out to the disadvantaged must have been inherited from his father, a senior police officer who himself encouraged his children to extend a hand to those less fortunate. Indeed Simmons talked about a home always filled with children from the neighbourhood, a home into which his mother always welcomed strangers, giving and sharing, and a father who supported his wife in her acts of generosity and kindness. “Our home in Holetown was like a community centre.”Every day of the four-week camp began with prayer and Bible reading, in keeping with Simmons’ belief that young people should be taught morals; he recalls even those teenagers who objected to the idea of the Bible soon fell in line. He believes that in the camp they found the guidance and a listening ear not present at home. He also credits the invaluable input from volunteer teachers. “Any camp must have teachers in charge of every age group. People do not appreciate the knowledge teachers have, and I don’t think they are as appreciated as they should be,” Simmons remarked.Out of the summer campwas born the Trents Northern Youth Group, a dynamic organisation to which Simmons again provided outstanding leadership. The programmes again attracted a diverse group of young people, and when some members would complain about what they considered the less than desirable character of some aspiring to membership, Simmons would admonish them: “We can’t have all good girls and good boys in the group. We have to go out there and seek those who need the fellowship and bring them in.” The complex of the now defunct St Joseph Hospital became a haven for troubled campers in search of respite from their problems. There, in another brief camp beginning on Maundy Thursday, Simmons, his wife Lucille, psychologist Bert Thompson and Marcia Boyce provided an ear and supporting shoulders for children who desperately needed to talk. It was an opportunity to unburden heavy hearts, away from the day-to-day activity of the Trents camp.Simmons was an elected Member of Parliament serving the constituency of St James South, and became a minister of Government from 1986 until 1994, serving variously as Minister of Health, Minister of Labour, Minister of Education and Minister of Justice.  But his community involvement spans more than 50 years. He was co-chairman, with the late Alfred Pragnell, of the Holetown Festival; a director of the Barbados Red Cross; and a council member of the Special Olympics and the Association of The Deaf and Blind. In 1995 he took a five-month leave from his profession to serve as president of the Barbados Association for The Correction of Learning Disabilities, and raised $660 000 to renovate the St Silas School at Orange Hill, St James, to accommodate The Learning Centre. He is currently second  vice-president of the Barbados Cycling Union and has been deeply involved in the administration of other sports.Simmons regards the Trents Summer Day Camp as an instructive part of his life, and he speaks with a sense of satisfaction derived from the exercise. His indelible impression on hundreds of lives through this vehicle is borne out by the many calls he continues to receive from former campers, some living abroad, all anxious to have a reunion with Uncle Keith. [email protected]

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