A woman with a heart for training

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The missionary journey of Lornalee Benaiah, founder and principal of the St Ann’s Bay College of Hospitality and Vocational Training (CHVT), began in a phone booth.

At that time, 17 years ago, an office with a telephone to follow-up with prospective students was not easy to come by on a meagre budget.

With only $600 in her name, Benaiah said she set out to start a training school that would equip high school dropouts, and those for whom a tertiary education was but a dream.

“I remember in those times when we just started and we placed our advertisements in the newspaper, and we did not have an office phone and would have to go the phone box to call back persons and confirm them for training. And, when we started we barely had anything; we did not have a building. We started in the lobby at the Falcon Crest Hotel, where we rented. We did not have any desk or chairs, and we approached Food for the Poor who gave us desk and chairs for the classes.

“And then, I had this programme going called Helping Hands Across St Ann. I wanted to target high school dropouts, persons who were unable to access tertiary-level education. We would take persons from the communities and teach them how to reach and write, and then we put them unto a skill. And some of these persons, they were working but they could not read. We had large classes, and we taught them to read for free. At the time, we started with 16 persons and we got about 32 persons, and then the population just grew to 220, so we had to discontinue. But that’s where it started, out of a need to help persons who were unable to gain tertiary level education,” Benaiah told the
Jamaica Observer.

To date, that institution has trained and touched the lives of more than 11,000 students, most of whom have gone on to excel in the tourism industry locally and abroad.

“I have seen persons who could hardly read and write but were able to get a job at the end of their training with us, and who are now supervisors and managers. And that was really wonderful, because when we go to hotels and see them as managers, we feel good that they have really climbed up the ladder in such a short time, with such initial limited ability. Those are some of things that really brings joy.

“When I used to visit the hotels more often, and I go into the hotel and the entire dining room is just filled with our students and they see me, they just hold me and throw me up into the air; it really brought me joy to know that they really appreciate what we were doing. We feel good about that, to see our students making impact”, Benaiah said.

A former communications professional, Benaiah said she found her passion for training when she volunteered her time in hotels and observed the flood of young people looking for employment in that sector.

“At the time when I started, I was a public relations professional but I had a heart for training. So I went into a number of the hotels and I got on-the-job training and I also got training in the training department. That’s where I really developed that passion for training; through volunteering my time at these hotels. And at the time, I realised that that was where young people were going. I also had this focus on people who could not afford the training but wanted to be in there. So when I started, it was like a single-handed thing. But it really started from being in the industry and liking the industry, and realising that that was where young people were,” Benaiah told the
Sunday Observer.

Born in Hanover, in poor circumstances, Benaiah explained that she often uses her own life story to inspire her students to rise above and stand out, in spite of their circumstances.

“As soon as they [students] step into that classroom I tell them that it’s no rich kid they are looking at, I am coming from exactly where they are coming from.

Benaiah shared one of her usual anecdotes, recalling how she overcame the odds of being poor and moving to Kingston to pursue one of her first jobs at the Bank of Jamaica.

“I remember that the morning of the interview was when Hurricane Gilbert struck Jamaica. But that morning I got up and went to the interview well dressed. And when I got there, nobody was there and I stood on the steps waiting. When the woman who interviewed me drove in and saw me, she asked ‘what you doing here, it’s hurricane. And she gave me the job because of the fact that I came out in the hurricane.

“When I go through these little stories with them, they appreciate where they are and where they can go”, Benaiah said.

Also an ordained pastor, the mother of two described her work as a ministry, built primarily for impact, not money.

“I regard myself as a missionary from I started this business, and it was not for financial gain really. My mother was like that, she was a Christian woman who volunteered a lot of her time, and I think I got these values from her. During business, I was always trying to give and help, so giving is just a part of me and I do it because the need is there to be fulfilled. I was running the business single-handedly up until 2015, so if it was for financial gain, probably it would have been closed long ago”, Benaiah told the
Sunday Observer.

Having partnered with her husband, who is also a pastor, the couple now jointly operate a faith-based training institution, reaching several communities in St Ann and other parishes.

“In 2015, we shifted our focus a little, where we merged with the Mission of Hope, and we offer skills training and we do outreaches with students and we are now mentoring children starting as young as three years old.

“We also had this community project in Steer Town where we had over 100 young people coming in for training. We just went into the community and told them that we wanted to do free training, and they were all certified and are now working in hotels. We then went to Flour Hill in Montego Bay and did the same for the young guys there too. We were able to go into the community every evening and do that programme for them,” said Benaiah

Her husband, who only goes by his chosen name, Benaiah (born Hopeton Ridgard) described his wife’s achievements as “totally heroic”.

“The tearful part of her story is envisioning her standing in a telephone booth recruiting students with only $600 on her own. And you can imagine without remuneration and spending all that time in the industry and not having anyone supporting or even supplementing, you can just imagine the periods of need that she has gone through, and still had two young children to support.

“And to see my wife bring this school to the level that it is now is heroic, because nothing has happened here without sacrifice,” Benaiah said, adding that they have met up on past students from far and wide who sing his wife’s praises.

“We meet them as far as Cayman; some of them end up in the United States. We went to The Bahamas, and people were calling to her in the store by name because they have passed through her hands. The school has persons who have gone on to work for various shipping companies.

“We were at HEART Trust recently, and they applauded her because of just where she took the school from and where it is now. I have great respect for Mrs Benaiah, not just for being my wife, but for being a true hero of our society,” said a doting husband.

Through their partnership with the National Training Agency, HEART Trust NTA, students graduate from CHVT with a level 1 or level 2 NVQJ (National Vocational Qualification of Jamaica) certificate. But further to that, Benaiah explained that her reputable institution attracts recruiters from the hotels who hire her students upon their graduation.

“As soon as they are trained, they go on to work in the hotels. And sometimes the hotels will call us and ask for huge numbers, like 50 students at a time. So some of our students, even before they are finished, they get jobs”, she said.

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