By: Yolanda Pawar

Confession time – I sat down to write this article and after several hours of skillfully crafting the wording I looked at the sea of words on my screen and scrapped it, deciding to start from scratch. Why you might ask? 

By most standards it was a good piece. It was informative and explained some of the complex and remarkable facets of One Eleuthera Foundation (OEF), and its ecosystem of interconnected programs and projects that are serving and benefitting Eleuthera’s communities thanks to OEF and our sister organization, the Centre for Training and Innovation (CTI.) Among other things, it touched on our unique social enterprises which include the country’s only training hotel, our revolutionary training farm, and our groundbreaking retractable growhouse, as well as our new farm-to-table training restaurant. But in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I paused to reflect on what has been the most inspiring and rewarding aspect of my work here as Chief Communications Officer. Hands down, it has been witnessing, hearing, and experiencing first-hand, the many impactful stories of people touched by our community-shaping programs and initiatives. I’ve enjoyed learning about the many lives that have been enriched and enhanced in ways that simply would not have been possible without the ongoing work of OEF and CTI. The collection of stories told and untold are too numerous to count, but each one demonstrates how helping even one person can create a positive ripple effect that strengthens and supports families, communities and in many cases the local economy. This is reflected beautifully in our student success stories. 

Jonathan Mackey and Kevon Hepburn are brothers who hail from Greencastle, South Eleuthera and are prime examples of how education and training can uplift and transform lives. The young duo enrolled in OEF’s signature “Learn and Earn” carpentry program in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic and a period of extreme loss and severe economic downturn. The first practical benefit they received from the program was the weekly student stipend, restoring them as the breadwinners within their home. Secondly, as a part of the program they were each provided with a basic toolkit for practical training which would also help them transition into their new carpentry careers. From day one, Jonathan and Kevon found themselves immersed in a whole new world of learning; planted in a supportive community where their success mattered. 

The brothers quickly built a strong foundation learning how to operate basic equipment and power tools including the Circular Saw and Table Saw. By the end of the course, they could build and install small furniture items, shelves and gates, and had learned how to perform minor home repairs. Observing their strong work ethic and keen desire to learn, Jonathan and Kevon were invited to join the OEF/CTI team at the end of their twelve-week course and have been employed with the organization ever since. They have cross trained in several different departments increasing their capacity and acquiring specialized skills in construction and sustainable farming. To see the transformational change that has taken place from the first day they walked onto the CTI campus up to now is quite impressive. Watching their renewed confidence in themselves and the sense of purpose that brings peace and joy to their countenances is a constant reminder of what hope and opportunity can do. It can build a bridge to a brighter future and stronger communities. 

A need for more entrepreneurial opportunities and long-term job creation was one of the core issues of underdevelopment documented in “A Shared Vision for South Eleuthera.” This founding document, which was created over twelve years ago, laid the groundwork for OEF’s programmatic approach to sustainable development around Five Key Areas of Focus: economy, education, environment, health and heritage. It documented feedback gathered from a diverse cross section of concerned community actors and stakeholders from across the island. They put “heads and hearts together” to envisage new pathways to build a more sustainable, equitable and inclusive future for all. 

It was in 2018 that Letita Vernanchia Johnson enrolled in the first Basic Culinary program offered at CTI’s Harbour Island Trade School. For over ten years, she had worked at the same restaurant as a line cook but was immediately promoted to Manager after completing her training. This promotion was pivotal in expanding Vernanchia’s vision of one day operating her own restaurant. Using her CTI education, background in culinary and newly acquired experience in management, she was able to fulfill her dream and become an entrepreneur during the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, her restaurant, “Back Road Gal” pays homage to her island roots and is a popular eatery and catering business on the southern end of Harbour Island. Known for savory dishes, and great service, she has built a solid reputation with locals and guests. Vernanchia’s restaurant has created full-time employment for others in her community, and she often hires her former staff to assist with catering jobs. 

“I started my studies at The Hotel Training College at The College of The Bahamas in Nassau, but I couldn’t finish. When the CTI course came around everything just fell into place. I wanted to show my children that I could finish something and do well. I said to myself you MUST do this. Graduating helped my confidence big time and helped to open new doors for me,” she notes. 

Looking through OEF’s “education and training lens” you can see the clear connection between providing ongoing access to technical and vocational training and increasing employment outcomes and entrepreneurial pathways. The result is an increase in household earnings and a trickledown effect that positively impacts the community and strengthens the local economy. Often, we examine success in numbers and that is important data, but the true social impact does not always show up in the spread sheets. 

Over the last decade OEF’s work has expanded as evidenced in the lives of those we serve and the strategic and consistent expansion of our programs, training capacity and campus training facilities. The Shared Vision’s framework, concepts and ideas continue to guide OEF’s trajectory, programmatic approach, and evolutionary process. What is interesting to observe is not only the interconnectedness of it all, but how the many beneficial overlapping outputs align to strengthen our communities, connect resources and people, increase momentum, and undergird the mission of OEF and CTI, while always putting people first. 

I am incredibly proud to be a part of an organization committed to building people and creating pathways to success and economic empowerment through education and all aspects of community development.