Christa Soleyn has spent the last ten years of her life improving the lives of young people across Barbados. She sat down with Barbados TODAY sharing how the United Youth Leaders of Barbados (UYLB) started, the challenges the charity has had to overcome and the progress it has made in uniting youth and creating leaders in Barbados.
“UYLB started in 2007 when I was a student at Alexandra School. Principal at the time , Jeff Broomes, said we had to join an extracurricular activity and I did but I didn’t like it. Jeff Broomes asked me if I were to be in a youth group, what would I want it to be like and I said I want young people to be able to do their own thing under the guidance of adults. I want young people to create their own projects, speak on issues that affect them and have their ideas in motion.. And he said okay,” Soleyn recounted.
Broomes would then assist her in writing the objectives of the group before bringing other young people from different schools together. “We built UYLB from there, which at the time was known as Emerging Global Leaders of Barbados,” Soleyn explained.
Emerging Global Leaders of Barbados continued to grow and receive recognition locally but in 2011 the organization would face its greatest challenge, forcing it to rebrand and almost causing Soleyn to throw in the towel.
“When I started UYLB, I was just 16. I wasn’t an adult and we had reach out to an adult to help us and in turn they registered our name at the time Emerging Global Leaders of Barbados. In 2011 the adults said the group now belonged to them and I needed to turn over any accounts we had because now they’re in charge . . . and I was devastated,” she said.
It began to affect opportunities for the group as they sought out sponsorship.
Recalling the experience, Soleyn said: “It was strange because we would go to funders and they would say this isn’t your group, this belongs to ‘so and so’ and at a time when it was meant to destroy us, you saw the resilience of young people. We came together and decided this wouldn’t destroy us. Instead we would simply rebrand and I didn’t know anything about rebranding. I was still a teenager, but we sat down and asked ourselves ‘What would we change our name to? What would our logo look like?’ One thing that stood out was that we were united.”
It was Deputy Chair Rasheed Drakes who would rename the group United Youth Leaders of Barbados with full support from the other members. What was meant to destroy them actually made them stronger and opened doors of opportunities for the small group.
“It was that year that I decided to start the Barbados Youth Leadership Retreat, where UYLB would take about 50 to 60 young people, bring them together for three days and we would bring in speakers, do simulations and team building activities under a particular theme and after two years, the Commonwealth Youth Programme noted it as a best practice,” Soleyn said.
In 2013, Soleyn would receive the Commonwealth Youth Award of Excellence for that programme as well as for creating UYLB. “That was a major success for me, particularly because I left Barbados for three years and the group sustained itself. For any youth organization, that is extremely important. It is what you want; you want to create something that will be able to go on without you,” she proudly said.
Noting that what she loved most about UYLB is that all of the projects are planned and done by young people, Soleyn went on: “Every year we have multiple projects done by teenagers. They feed the homeless and they organize it from the cooking straight down to delivery. They have built two libraries at primary schools with a book programme and book collection. They have done gully clean ups, survival days and held workshops which focused on bullying and it is exactly what I wanted, I wanted young people to be designing their own projects.”
When the devastating hurricane hit our Caribbean sister island of Dominica, UYLB was also looking for ways to help. “One of the talking points was how would women and girls get sanitary napkins and the Pink Bag Project came from another UYLB member’s Facebook post. From there, we decided that every female would get a bag with sanitary napkins, tampons, wipes, hand sanitizer and water and we sent the pink bags to Dominica,” she said.
The UYLB has collaborated with other local organizations. “The National Council on Substance Abuse, we do a lot of their youth oriented programmes. We work with UNICEF, we’re always invited to their consultations. We also work closely with the Child Care Board CCB,” Soleyn said, noting that partnership was equally important.
Professionally, Soleyn, 27, is a teacher at the American University of Barbados, psychologist and project manager but her greatest achievement is United Youth Leaders of Barbados, where she has created a safe space for young people in Barbados to learn and to create but also to have a support system.
“Many times I get a call saying ‘I need someone to talk to’ and many of the older members in the organization have become mentors as well. That’s what it is all about. I want young people to know there is a space where you can be yourself, where you can be supported. It should feel like home,” Soleyn said.
Adding that UYLB is now her legacy, she went on: “400 young people between the ages of 14-25 have benefitted from UYLB over the last 10 years. My hope is that when a young person joins UYLB, they leave seeing themselves as part of the solution to the problems in their community. I hope that they would be driven to do charity work and become involved in the betterment of Barbados, leading positive lives.”