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The Spirit of Bermuda – On the Waves and On the Shore

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

This may be the Atlantic Currents column most in keeping with the title of this series, because it starts with a boat on the Atlantic Ocean.

In Bermuda, to be exact — a small country of only 65,000 people, but one very important to Atlantic Philanthropies. It’s where we are chartered, and maintain a number of key staff, where our trustees conduct their business, and where we support community organisations working in two key Atlantic programme areas, disadvantaged youth and ageing.

I was in Bermuda this week to honor one of our trustees, Cummings Zuill, by announcing a leadership development and scholarship programme in his name – about which more in a minute. But I took the opportunity to visit one of our flagship grantees in Bermuda, the Bermuda Sloop Foundation. Last year, with significant support from Atlantic and other donors, this organisation completed the construction of a classic Bermuda sloop – 112 feet long, with 88 feet on deck and a 23 foot beam, a draught of 9 ½ feet and a main mast reaching 90 feet into the sky. They call it The Spirit of Bermuda.

Bermuda, a predominantly black country with both a significant local white population and a large number of expatriates working in banks, insurance companies and other businesses, abolished slavery and formal segregation 174 years ago. But as in the United States and many other countries, the long-term effects of those systems live on in present-day arrangements. Virtually all white children, and a number of black children from well-off families, attend private schools, and the public schools are not in good shape. This two-tiered system, and the poverty it reflects, produces all the familiar consequences of a high dropout rate, violence, drug use, teen pregnancy, and a rate of teen obesity that is among the highest in the world.

That’s why Atlantic helped to build a boat. The Spirit of Bermuda is an expeditionary learning programme which aims in time to reach all Bermudian youth in their early teens. Four hundred young people, 85% of them black, have so far participated in the five to 17-day ocean voyages designed by Bermuda Sloop Foundation co-founder Malcolm Kirkland and his team. Everyone works to keep the ship in shape and on course. They not only learn ship operation and receive technical training in electronics, mechanics, culinary arts and wood and metal work. The floating classroom also offers lessons on black Bermudians’ contributions to maritime history and the “Where Am I on the Planet?” curriculum, which teaches history and geography.

Visiting the sloop this week with my colleagues Rahsaan Harris, our programme executive for Bermuda, and Sarah Cooke, who heads our office there and serves as Atlantic’s corporate secretary, I was sorry we remained at the dock and envious of the life-changing experience young Bermudians have thanks to Captain Tristan DaSilva, 19, a watch leader with the programme, and Captain Chris Blake, OBE.

As Rahsaan Harris puts it well “Despite its reputation as an island paradise, there is as a great a need in Bermuda as anywhere for programmes to engage young people, give hope, and provide opportunities and skills. The Spirit of Bermuda is a huge step forward, making a big impact in a small place.”

In addition to the sloop, Atlantic also supports Open Airways, a programme to reach, identify and support young people with asthma, the rates of which are much too high, particularly in poor communities; The Family Centre, which provides supports and counselling services for families in crisis (i.e. youth with behavior problems and parents struggling to properly care for their children); and YouthNet, which engages older adults to serve as mentors to primary school youth, improving their reading skills. Atlantic has also supported a plan to strengthen youth programmes by supporting football organisations on the island. To lay the groundwork for future investments, Atlantic joined with Bermuda’s government to support a study by Columbia University Professor Ron Mincy to document the gaps in education, employment and earnings between young black men and other youth in Bermuda.

Back to Cummings Zuill for a final word. The scholarship programme Atlantic helped to launch was the brainchild of Bermuda’s Centre on Philanthropy, which Zuill helped to found and guide, and which is a key institution in Atlantic’s plan to help strengthen and sustain the not-for-profit sector in the country. One essential element of that strategy is to shore up the skills and deepen the capacity of Bermuda’s human capital, and the Zuill scholarships will make it possible for promising students and non-profit leaders to acquire training and advanced degrees in non-profit management, social entrepreneurship and public policy.

It’s a fitting tribute to a quietly effective man who, like the vessel providing a different kind of opportunity for the island’s young people, is very much The Spirit of Bermuda.

Gara LaMarche