Helping the homeless: Kemar Saffrey’s story
Kemar Saffrey is the exception to several rules.
He’s from Jamaica but calls Barbados home; he didn’t have any qualifications when he finished school but is a successful entrepreneur; he was virtually penniless and just 19 years old when he began working with the homeless and has since received several awards for his charity work.
Kemar believes he was called by God to help people who’ve been living on the streets and his charity, the Barbados Vagrants and Homeless Society (BVHS) was founded in 2009.
Yello spoke to Kemar about his homeless advocacy and why he started BVHS, which has helped over 500 people living on the streets, and seen him travel to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen and receive a Commonwealth Youth Award for Excellence in Development Work.
Tell us about your childhood.
I was born in Jamaica but came to Barbados with my mum and three brothers (including identical twin brother Lemar) at the age of eight.
I still remember Jamaica and growing up with my family. We lived in a yard with three or four houses and there was a shop at the front that sold produce. I also recall having to help out around the property with chores, like feeding the chickens, so there was always a lot going on in terms of school and home life.
In Barbados, I went to the Vaux Hall Primary School and then St George Secondary.
How did you fit into your new home?
It was hard because we are from the countryside not the city, so we had a real, raw Jamaican accent and the boys in the area used to pick on us and kind of expected us to be bad men.
I remember one time we were picking ackees in a tree and some boys started pelting us, and we had to stay up there for hours and after that we decided that if they wanted to us be bad, we were going to be bad.
So, from then we started to beat up other children and took part in street fights to protect ourselves, but that followed me into school and became an image I had to maintain. Then some teachers would refuse to teach you because you had a reputation as a bad boy and they would move you to the back of the class.
I decided not to sit for CXCs because the teachers had given up on me, and my school only put me forward for the basic level, I knew that wouldn’t get me far with any employer, so I left school without qualifications.
What happened after school?
I used to have a summer job in a place where you rent out videos and DVDs, known as Chubbies, and I did that for a couple of years.
I also tried a few businesses on the side, so for instance I got an opportunity to provide security for a school pageant and then we picked up a few more security contracts after that, including the Barbados Music Awards which we did for five years.
I probably had about four jobs in a short space of time before I realised that I was more inclined to becoming an entrepreneur.
When I was 18 I registered a kitchen cleaning business and it was quickly ranked one of the fastest growing small businesses within the Americas region. I started a fruit business, car valeting, just trying my hand at a few different things to make some money here and there.
Since the age of 18 I’ve never worked for anyone else but myself.
How did your charity work begin?
I had the chance to put on a gospel concert and I met a girl who came over as one of the back-up vocalists for a Jamaican artist.
She took me to church and I accepted Christ during a Crusade in Bridgetown held by the Women of Excellence Spiritual Conference Ministry. At the same time, I clearly heard a call from God to work with the homeless, but I’d only just started a business about six months before, so I was reluctant to give that up.
I was about 19 but I heard a clear message from God, so I gave up my rights to the business and started working with the homeless.
What challenges did you face at the beginning?
I don’t know if I would use the word challenges. I’m just the sort of person who gets things done.
When I got the call to help the homeless I remember saying to the Lord, but I haven’t got any office space, soon I got a call saying that I’d won an office about 15 months previously.
I’d actually forgotten that I pitched to the BIDC (Barbados Investment & Development Corporation) and won an incubator space for $125 (Bds) a month because the kitchen cleaning business was doing so well. So, I told them that I wasn’t doing that business anymore but wanted to do something with the homeless and they said it didn’t matter, I could still have it, and I moved in.
One day I was sat there with no furniture and a lady passed by and saw that I had nothing, and she asked me what I needed, and she furnished the whole place.
Then I told the Lord that I didn’t have any computers and I called an online consultancy company and the first one I called said ‘come and get what you need’.
I was sending out proposals because I didn’t have any money and then people started calling us to say they’d heard about the work we were doing and wanted to help. The BVHS was registered in 2009 and in 2011 I got a call from the Maria Holder Memorial Trust, they gave us over $200,000, and they’ve worked with us a lot over the years.
I bring it back to God all the time. He has favoured us by providing whatever we need and because of that we’ve helped about 500 people.
How do you balance charity work and being a husband and father?
I met my wife in 2014 and she found me doing this work, so she knows that it’s part of me and who I am.
I’m actually doing less work now though, because I have competent staff who can help in lots of areas and that gives me the opportunity to focus on other things.
But I’m someone who says, ‘if I get myself into something then I have to balance all’, it might not always balance right, but you try your best.
What are your plans for 2018?
I plan to surround myself with the right people. I want to grow the charity, expand into the rest of the region, and get a building that can house women and men who are transitioning from living on the streets.
Personally, I want to grow more spiritually and do more public speaking. I also want to make sure my family is financially stable.
I’ve been approached by politicians to run in the upcoming general election, but I’m not ready for that yet, although I wouldn’t rule it out in the future.
Visit the BVHS website for more information on their programmes and how you can help.