Father Gerard Pantin: Expert Listener
Father Gerard Pantin
Credit: Indigo Flores
The Daring Dozen Q&A
Who are your role models?
Three peaceful beings of contemporary history:
What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?
"Don't just follow your gut instinct and presume you know what is good for others. Before embarking on any structured project, engage yourself in dialogue with the people you are trying to help. They know more about their problems than you do. Be guided by the principles of attentive listening and respectful intervention to avoid the pitfall of cultural arrogance." And keep plugging away until things improve.
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Father Gerard Pantin was teaching at St. Mary's College, in Trinidad and Tobago, in 1970 when poor and marginalized islanders rioted in the streets outside the school. As they stampeded, Pantin realized he didn't know any of their names, although they lived just a stone's throw from the college.
In what he calls "a moment of divine madness," the Catholic priest ventured into the crime-ridden neighborhood of Laventille, where many of the rioters lived, to ask them how he could help. The residents -- angry and hostile as they were to a white stranger -- started small; they wanted a football. Pantin said that if they'd put up half the money, he'd get the rest, and they did.
Thus was born SERVOL (Service Volunteered for All), the community-based education organization chaired by Pantin. From the football, residents' requests graduated to a basketball court, then a cricket pitch, then help for troubled teens. SERVOL has also created early child-care centers, parent-outreach, and its Adolescent Development Program in the nearly four decades it has been around. All the projects are guided by the same priority, set by Pantin: listening. "Never assume you know what people want," says the priest, whose French-Creole family has lived in the Caribbean for hundreds of years. "Ask them what they want, and then let them participate, financially and physically."
SERVOL now runs eighty-five child-care centers and twenty adolescent-development centers throughout the twin-island nation. Though the child-care centers have earned accolades, the "basic miracle" of SERVOL, as Pantin sees it, is its work with teens.
Years ago, SERVOL started offering skills training for out-of-school youths to help them secure jobs, but Pantin and his colleagues found that many of them failed to complete the courses or hold down a job after graduating. So they listened, and they learned that most of these kids had grown up with absent fathers, abuse, and neglect, and held no hope for themselves.
In response, SERVOL members created a three-and-a-half-month course -- a prerequisite to job training -- in which teachers lead teens on a journey through their lives, starting in utero, and challenge them to consider all the influences that shaped who they are. Through small-group conversations, the teachers try to show these youths the power they have to overcome their traumas.
After tending to the teens' emotional needs in this way, SERVOL's leaders have found that the dropout rate from job training is negligible. More than 60,000 young people have participated in the program over the decades, gaining skills in such professions as carpentry, electronics, and catering.
"In the space of three months, those kids are transformed," Pantin says. "They become positive, they become hopeful for the future. I've seen this happen a hundred thousand times. I still get excited about it."
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