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Face To Face: Sandena’S Devotion - To Help Our Youngsters Build A Better Future

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FELICITY DARVILLE

By FELICITY DARVILLE

Spend just a few moments around Sandena Neely and you will find an effervescent character with lots of energy to go around. She is positive, joyful and very involved in anything she sets her mind to do.

Sandena has been that way as long as I have known her, going back to our days as young, hopeful seventh graders attending St Augustine’s College. Today, she serves as head of the Division of Youth and it makes perfect sense. She will motivate the young people, come up with new ideas and get the job done.

When Sandena first joined the Division of Youth, Ministry of Youth, Sports & Culture, in September last year she received a baptism by fire as she was immediately thrust into the responsibility of overseeing National Youth Month, held during the month of October. That first month of navigation was a joke compared with what Sandena would face during her second National Youth Month. As the commemoration of the month came to a close this weekend, Sandena shared with me how her division reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic and came up with new strategies to reach the young people who need encouragement now more than ever.

“In the midst of this global pandemic we knew we had to find ways to inspire our young people so the decision was made to host the always anticipated National Youth Month - this time - on a completely Virtual Celebration Platform,” she explained.

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ADJUSTING to the new normal, Sandena leading the division of youth in its first Virtual National Youth Month.

“The theme spoke to the spirit of the Bahamian people, most especially our youth, ‘Resilient Youth: Re-engineered for Re-emergence’. Over the course of the pandemic we have seen our young people rise up and show their resilience, whether to their studies or to assisting family members to cope through these daunting days and we are day by day seeing them re-engineer, reshape and retool themselves, through online courses, new and innovative businesses, capitalising on technology and carving out their own niche. We are confident that they are re-emerging fully ready to positively contribute to the building of the new normal for The Bahamas.”

To celebrate the month, Sandena and her team designed events that could reach everyone, including a Virtual Crazy Praise Party; Virtual Influencers Summit; Online Master Classes; a Virtual Scavenger Hunt; Virtual Youth March; Virtual Youth Parliament and even a Virtual Youth Awards. Patrons were recognised, including retired Chief Superintendent of Police and Youth Band Leader, Ronald Campbell and posthumously, Dr Judson Eneas, veteran nephrologist and founder of the Gentlemen’s Club that impacted more than 5,000 young men across the nation.

They also recognized and paid special tribute to Youth Frontline Workers who have been helping in the fight against COVID-19 and working tirelessly over the past eight months. Sandena says they were very proud that the 2020 National Youth Month was “truly national”, including participants from just about every Family Island and there was also had great participation from youth living, working or studying abroad.

“Honestly, it feels as though I’ve been here for years and years… of course I spent many years working closely with the Ministry - from an outside perspective - and I wondered how, if at all, the experience would be different now that I would be a part of the inner workings,” she told me.

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SANDENA Neely - then and now.

“To date, it has been a fantastic ride. I have learned so many things, I have been stretched and the growth has been phenomenal, my life has been impacted and enriched by the people I’ve met and the rooms I have had the opportunity to sit in. The decision-making discussions, the jockeying and weighing of positions, the hard and honest conversations. The look on the faces of eager young people hearing great news, the celebratory times with the team that I have the privilege to lead - these are all interesting mixtures indicative of life itself. The lessons learnt are innumerable. COVID-19 has made the journey all the more interesting and we are navigating our way in this new normal. Our nature is to adapt and adjust; as the Division of Youth we are doing just that!”

As easy as it is to say “adapt and adjust”, some people find this very hard to do. But Sandena embraces change. She “thoroughly enjoyed” a 13-year legal career before making an about-face and venturing into youth advocacy and leadership.

She says of her legal career: “It was transformational and foundational all at the same time. I had amazing experiences and learned more about myself than I ever thought possible. The law has helped to shape and fashion my life and I use it now as a foundation upon which I am building.”

Her educational foundation was laid at Romper Room Pre-School, followed by Uriah McPhee Primary School. I remember during our time at Saint Augustine’s College together, Sandena always spoke proudly about her primary school. After we graduated from SAC, She went on to pursue her studies at Bahamas Baptist Community College, followed by The University of the West Indies (Bahamas and Cave Hill Campuses) and then the Eugene Dupuch Law School. She earned her Bachelor’s of Law (LLB) and Certificate of Legal Education.

Ever since her childhood days running around Williams Lane off Kemp Road, Sandena knew she wanted to be a lawyer, as she was captivated by Matlock. Her dreams of higher education were backed by a strong family heritage.

She is of the lineage of Reverend John Julius Brown, originally of Little Farmers Cay, Exuma who migrated to Kemp Road where her maternal grandmother, Annie Delores Brown and Nellie H McPhee still live side by side in the same yard to this date. Her paternal grandparents, Whifield Joseph “Sheddy” Mortimer and Edith Maud Johnson-Mortimer lived just a heartbeat away, through the same street.

Sandena grew up with all of her family, and recalls that “we showed and shared love, long summer days and the best Christmases ever, and the food - on both sides of the family - was some of the most scrumptious I’ve ever had”.

“Today, with my own family, my husband Pastor Jevon O Neely and Reagan our daughter and son Jevon Jr, our kitchen is named in honour of my paternal grandmother, Mommy’s Kitchen,” she reflected.

“I feel her spirit as I cook delectable delights daily. My parents raised me up so that I can stand on mountains, they literally raised me up to be able to walk on stormy seas. I am blessed to not only call them parents, but with age and maturity, over the years they’ve become my trusted friends.

“They have nurtured me in the fear and admonition of the Lord and they have instilled in me the virtues that the preamble to our Constitution speaks of - that is, self-discipline, industry, loyalty, unity and abiding respect for Christian values.

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A COURTESY call on Prime Minister Hubert Minnis with the 2019 cohort of Youth Parliamentarians.

“I thank them for teaching me the importance of good citizenship and civility. My husband and my children are the wind beneath my wings and they see the long nights and they help me think through difficult moments and they ground me when I lose my footing. We celebrate and love hard.”

Sandena has a heart big enough to share with the young people who have crossed her path. She has been involved with youth advocacy and youth work for more than two decades . She started out as a Youth Parliamentarian, Youth Ambassador, Member of the National Youth Policy Consultative Team, member and ultimately Co-Chairperson of the National Youth Advisory Council, and all around volunteer and partner of the Division of Youth from the days at the Collins House, Pilot House, the Pan Am Building and to the present Ministry building on Thompson Boulevard. Mentors such as Charles Beneby, Autherine Turnquest-Hanna, Louise Simmons and the late Patty Michelle Miller and many others took her under their wings. “I love and enjoy youth work, I continuously commit my life to it, it is nation building,” she said resolutely.

“This is what made the transition from the legal field to full time youth work such a full circle moment. Accepting the position to be the Head of the Division of Youth is a divine assignment and the fulfilment of a moment for which I’ve literally been preparing for all of my life. It is my complete honour to serve the young people of our great nation.

“I enjoy working with our Minister, Lanisha T Rolle, the senior leadership team at the ministry and I have the pleasure to work with some of the most dedicated youth practitioners in the youth officers, technical and support team of the Division of Youth. We are a team that is all involved and consistent with our level of output and the drive for excellence.”

In addition to her mentors in youth, Sandena is driven by the support of her “village”, including her siblings, other family members, mentors, colleagues and even peer mentors who have all spurred her to “do more, reach further, go higher and stand stronger”.

Sandena shared this advice with young people:

  1. Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can - always - that is non-negotiable.

  2. The best way to predict the future is to create it - be disciplined, be diligent and always be creative.

  3. Capitalise on the great value of mentorship.

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