Inside a workshop on Charles Street, downtown Kingston, a battered looking pedestal fan fights off heat as Kimarley Tomblinson and his young apprentices work against the clock, crafting shoes from leather.
When JIS News visited Tomblinson, there were only days to go before the start of the new school year.
The orders for school shoes were pouring in and the former ‘street youth’ whose fortune changed when he enrolled at the Heart Trust/NTA Learning For Earning Activity Programme (LEAP) Centre – could not be happier.
“It was the best decision I ever made. It brings joy and happiness in my life,” said Tomblinson of his decision to learn a skill at the Duke Street based institution in downtown Kingston.
The shoemaker and his production team – a group of boys from nearby inner-city communities – churn out at least a dozen pair of shoes weekly.
The money is “not bad”, the entrepreneur noted, adding that his earnings allow him to give his children a sound education – something he never received.
“Me never get any father care so mi mek sure them get that. Me mek sure them go school,” he added.
Life on the Streets
The shoemaker revealed that he dropped out of the formal school system at age 11, due to a lack of financial support from family members.
With no proper parental guidance, he was forced to fend for himself, and the commercial district of downtown Kingston became his stomping ground.
He spent his days pushing handcarts and selling bag juice in the streets. At nights he, along with other street boys, spread their beds inside the Coronation Market.
But during those times living on the streets, he had a burning desire to go back to school and learn a trade. It was a brief encounter with a student from the LEAP Centre that placed him on the pathway of change.
“One day I see a youth in a uniform and I asked him ‘which school that’, and him tell mi.”
Armed with the information, he went in search of the school.
Barely 15 years-old at the time, administrators at the Centre were reluctant to accept him into the programme as he was too young. They later made an exception.
“I start off learning things from Grade One. I was studying music, but I never too like that. One day me see Mr Brown, (an instructor at LEAP) a mek a shoe and from that day I decide that’s what I want to do.”
“When mi first try fi mek a shoe, I buy two packs of needle and broke all a them in one day,” he reflected.
Within two weeks, however, Tomblinson was able to fashion his first pair of shoes and it was then that his love affair with the trade began.
“I wear my first pair of shoes right up until the school year end, because me felt so proud fi know say a me build my shoes.”
While attending school, administrators at the centre encouraged him to give up life on the streets. Eventually he returned to live with his mother in Arnett Gardens.
He graduated from the programme in 2000 and was placed on job experience at a shoe-making company in the Corporate Area where he was later employed fulltime.
Dissatisfied with his weekly salary of $1,300 at the time, he decided to venture into business on his own, using the government stipend he saved while attending the Centre.
“The money HEART used to give, mi used to mek it pile up in my bank account and a that mi use and buy leather by the pound and start off my thing.”
Reflecting on how far he has come, Tomblinson said he could not have done it without the help of administrators at the centre, and the visionaries of the LEAP programme.
“Them (administrators) really looked out for me. The Learning for Earning Activity Programme is one of the best thing, because by the time you done study you can earn a living,” he said.
The programme at the HEART Trust/NTA LEAP Centre was initially designed to target street children and other at-risk youth. The programme evolved over time and started accepting other youngsters who dropped out of the formal school system, giving them a chance at learning a marketable skill.
The Government of Jamaica, under its guiding principles of vision 2030, is moving to ensure that like Tomblinson, all Jamaicans are empowered to achieve their fullest potential.
Vision 2030 Jamaica is a strategic road map to guide the country to achieve its goals of sustainable development and prosperity by 2030.