Jénine Shepherd – striving to empower youth through education
“Definitely Shuri, I identify myself with her,” professes Jénine Shepherd, adding that Shuri (a character from Black Panther) – a scientist, engineer, and inventor, trained martial artist, among other things – has the indomitable spirit and energy that inspire her. The reference to this fictional character somewhere shaped Shepherd’s life,
Shepherd, 24, is making a mark in education and non-governmental sectors and winning accolades for her work. The most recent, the Anthem Award win in February of 2023 as Best Young Person in the category of Education, Art and Culture for her work with Youths For Excellence, which saw her being recognised among the company of Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation, Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote, Oprah Winfrey’s Charitable Foundation, Lady Gaga’s Born this Way Foundation, UNICEF, Lil Nas X, and others. And this is the just a tip-of-the-iceberg of recognition that she has received for her work. She has come a long way as a 17-year-old student of Campion College, when she began her NGO, Youths For Excellence (YFE).
Shepherd said she wanted to volunteer one summer. “I had no idea that it would evolve from tutoring to a full-blown company. My mother had to sign a lot of documents on my behalf because I was a minor trying to incorporate a company.
“I have a great deal of respect for mommy because she supported me even when she didn’t understand. She knew it was important to me.”
RISING FROM ASHES
For Shepherd, rising to these heights has been literally and figuratively from the ashes.
She was involved in a major accident in 2018, and her world, Shepherd said, came crashing down. She was travelling on a Knustford Express bus from Negril to Kingston that collided head-on with an SUV on the Rio Bueno bypass. The collision left several people dead and others with severe injuries. The driver of the SUV was burnt beyond recognition.
“I still reflect on the trauma of that day. I just remember there being broken glass and blood everywhere,” Shepherd recalled. “I had my headphones in and the song I Don’t Wanna Live Forever was playing. Looking back, it was quite ironic. Then the bus suddenly hits a “speed bump”, which I realised was the RAV4.
“My friend then said “Yo! What was … ?” and in a few split seconds, she was thrown out of her seat. I heard the blood-curdling screams of the people from the front of the bus. The screams drowned out my headphones and sent the coldest shivers down my spine. I looked towards the windshield and noticed the rocky mountain coming closer ... I just froze.”
She heard a little boy scream “I think your friend is dead”. Shepherd saw her childhood friend, with whom she was sharing jokes a second before, lying head down at the bottom of the staircase, covered in fallen suitcases. “She wasn’t moving,” Shepherd said. “A rush of adrenaline allowed me to hurl 50-pound bags across the bus to get to her. I then dragged her by her ankles off the bus ... .”
Shepherd recalled the gory sight of people whose faces were smashed after being flung through the windshield and hitting the rocks in the ditch below. The SUV was in flames.
“I’ll never forget the smell of her burning flesh,” she said. “I was lucky to only have a nasty concussion.”
Her life, she said, has never been the same.
“I didn’t sleep for three days straight after that crash. The nightmares returned every time I closed my eyes ... with the bus flipping over and plunging into the ocean.
“I would see my bloody, lifeless body just floating.”
The fact that she survived left her with survivor’s guilt, to overcome it she found solace in God. She turned to the Church and got baptised one month after the accident. Her nightmares decreased when she took home a dog, Mocha. Her fur baby was a calming influence, “I finally found sleep after I got Mocha.”
And somewhere, Shuri resonated in Shepherd as she started her NGO. “She is the first female Black Panther,” Shepherd said. “In a way I see myself pioneering a lot as a young person and as a woman in the NGO space.
“I admire her intellect. She is the chief science officer for Wakanda, so she has an amazing balance,” Shepherd said. “She’s not just a super heroine, but she has so many layers. She even seems to admire her work as a scientist a lot more than her role as a royal.”
Like her fictional world inspiration from the land of Wakanda, Shepherd said she would like to see herself persevere and to expand the footprints of her NGO. “I would love for YFE to finish expanding to the rest of the Caribbean. I also have my eyes set on Africa, but I’m starting at home.”
Looking back, Shepherd said the trials and tribulations have made her a stronger person. “A lot of pain and heartache. Try running a company with no money! We pulled through, obviously.”
Her NGO got a $2.5 million donations in 2015, which was, she said, a lot for a 17-year-old to pull off.
“Now that I look back on it. But it was like pulling teeth. A lot of rejected phone calls, ignored emails, and removal from premises went into making that happen.”
Later, Youths For Excellence Limited became a part of her healing process. Six months after the crash, she earned the Prime Minister’s Youth Award for Excellence in the category of Nation Building.
In 2022, she graduated from Amherst College, Massachusetts, with a double major in neuroscience and economics.
She is hopeful that her efforts will continue to make a difference in the lives of youngsters, and she continues to grow personally. She hopes that one day, she will delve into healthcare and business by marrying her two passions. “It is hard to believe that someone whose work has helped thousands of children and their families across the Caribbean and tens of thousands in the diaspora almost never came to be,” Shepherd said.
She said that she always remembers the words of her great grandmother, Cisyln Davis, who used to say: “You have your raw meat. It is up to you to seek the fire for it.”
Shepherd is both seeking fire and lighting candles of knowledge that bring hope and give purpose to life of youngsters ... her journey has just started.