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Protecting the powerless

When single mothers are one day away from having their electricity turned off or unsure where their family's next meal is coming from, it's often philanthropist Sheelagh Cooper to the rescue.

The founder of the Coalition for Protection of Children has been helping struggling families get back on their feet for nearly 20 years.

She said the need has grown so much in the past five years she sometimes arrives at the office to find women waiting in need of food or other support.

On a monthly basis she helps an average of 100 families who are unable to make ends meet the need only increases as the Christmas holiday grows near.

Mrs Cooper sat down with

The Royal Gazette to talk about her charity's work and ongoing passion to see the children of the Island have a safe and nurturing environment to grow up in.

She said she has seen the gap between “the wages at the lower end of the economic scale and the cost of living” continue to grow exponentially since the 1980s.

“That has left the bottom quartile of the population really excluded from the economic life of this community in the sense that life for them is impossible,” Mrs Cooper said.

She believes much of the violence we are seeing in the community is “a direct reflection” of the economic climate.

“For example many of the people we see being convicted of these major violent crimes most of them were born in the early to mid-90s.

“Between 1990 and 1995 the rents literally doubled within a five-year period and during those years these little boys were born so they have grown up with struggling mothers who are barely able to put food on the table and often not able to pay the rent.

“The mothers are highly stressed and vulnerable and these circumstances make it extremely difficult for children, particularly little boys, who want to be the head of the household, particularly if there is no male involved.

“It's hard for them to watch their mothers struggling and not react in some way. The way some of them are reacting is to lash out or become drug-involved and get involved in a violent, gang-related area,” she said.

A criminologist by profession, Mrs Cooper moved to Bermuda from Canada in 1981.

She ran a number of businesses, but soon realised there was a lack of legislation “with any teeth in it” to protect children from abuse.

“The only piece of legislation dated back to 1943 and only imposed a minor fine for abusing a child,” she said.

In 1992, she set up the Coalition for Protection of Children in order to lobby for changes to the legislation, raise public awareness on the impact of abuse and promote other forms of discipline that would be “more positive and more effective” than hitting.

Through these measures she hopes to stem the tide of abuse, particularly sexual abuse, which has affected generations of people in the community.

Some of her lobbying efforts have been successful, particularly in regards to encouraging people to speak out.

In 2000, they were able to promote new legislation that is much stronger in its ability to protect children.

“I guess I am passionate because I see a very direct link between parenting styles and aggressive behaviour in children. If we are nurturing and supporting and positive with our children they will become adults who reflect those same qualities and if we are harsh and brutal and demeaning towards our children they will grow up to treat others like that.”

The charity currently operates a host of programmes to help children and single mothers. Three years ago it launched its first breakfast programme for students at Victor Scott Primary. It is now operating in five schools around the Island.

She said the difference in student's academic scores before and after the programme was introduced “was dramatic”.

“I am not saying the breakfast was responsible for the huge increase in scores, because the teachers are dedicated and did a huge push to improve grades, but clearly it had some impact.”

She said the primary school's teachers also noticed an “overwhelmingly positive” response from the feeding programme children's behaviour, willingness and readiness to learn had all improved.

“These programmes are so much fun, more than anything else we love doing it. The children are so grateful.

“[Last Thursday] morning for example I was at Victor Scott and one of the companies provided a special breakfast because it was Thanksgiving; even the CEO was there serving breakfast.

“And these employees of this company made scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages and pancakes and you just can't imagine the faces of those children to see the assortment of breakfast items,” she said.

All mothers who come to the charity for support must undergo counselling provided by the staff social worker. Together they make a plan in a bid to change the trajectory they are on.

Mrs Cooper said the Coalition also helped by paying for tuition and books at the Bermuda College and helping with resume writing, so single parents might find better paying jobs.

“We work closely with them in an effort to break the cycle of poverty, but that is increasingly difficult when there are no jobs available.”

She said it was hard watching families struggle and knowing there was little safety net for them in terms of social services. She said she was also saddened to hear of some of the funding cut to charities helping in this area.

Despite the challenges, Mrs Cooper said her job was still rewarding. “Because we have been doing this for 20 years there are now young people who are in their early 30s that have come through the Coalition and we have some amazing success stories. [We have seen] children who would have otherwise been following down a path that could have potentially been quite destructive, but are now university graduates.

“One of our young ladies is finishing a law degree now. Another is studying social work. These are cases that make it all worth while.”

Activist Sheelagh Cooper founded the Coalition for the Protection of Children in 1992 to lobby for changes in legislation and to intervene in family crisis situations.
How you can help

The Coalition for Protection of Children needs the public's help to make this Christmas season better for struggling families. There are several ways you can assist:

1. Toys for Tots Coldwell Banker has launched its annual gift-giving drive. To donate you can drop new toys or monetary donations to the Coldwell Banker office on Par-la-Ville Road in Hamilton by December 6. Call 247-1800 for more information.

Extra toys will go to the Salvation Army, Hands of Love, Family Centre or the Children's Ward at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital.

2. Family to Family programme People can be paired up with a needy family with children of similar ages over the holidays or throughout the year. Through e-mails and other forms of contact they have an opportunity to assist the needy family with buying a Christmas tree, food, clothes or other items to get them through the season. In some cases people even help pay for electricity bills to keep the family's home alight. For more information call the Coalition on 295-1150.

3. Food donations Non-perishable food items are needed throughout the year, but particularly at Christmas. The Coalition's food store has become “almost unsustainable” and they are looking to the general public to donate food directly to the store by phoning 295-1150.

4. Watch or buy the documentary 'Poverty in Paradise' to educate yourself about the struggles facing single mothers on the Island. It will air on ZBM at 8pm on December 6. It will also be for sale at certain retail outlets for $20 in the near future.

To donate online go to www.coalition.bm.

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Published November 29, 2011 at 1:00 am (Updated November 29, 2011 at 7:59 am)

Protecting the powerless

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