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The Other Side of Jamaica

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Today (Friday), Usain Bolt will compete in the 100m relay for Jamaica in his first ever Commonwealth Games. As the fastest man in the world, he is one of Jamaica's most famous exports, alongside the country's glorious, sun kissed beaches that thousands travel to every year.

But my trip to the small island in the Caribbean with Unicef was to see a very different way of life. I was in the country to see how the kids' organisation is using sport and their partnership with the Commonwealth Games to help give children growing up on the harsher side of the island a better shot at life.

Most people coming to Jamaica will probably have been warned to stay away from downtown Kingston. The capital's reputation for violence and drugs doesn't quite fit in with the posh beach resorts of Montego Bay. But for kids living here, this violence is just an ordinary part of their everyday life.

In the heart of the city, you've got these hard areas that are full of drugs and crime, with mural after mural along the walls of the faces of men who have lost their lives to gang warfare. I had heard about these places in music and from my friends that are from Jamaica but to see it first hand is a very different thing. Most neighbourhoods here are run by dons who control the local community through fear; they order when the shooting starts, pick and choose the girls they want and control the drug cartels.

Titi, who I met in the Drewsland neighbourhood, is 12 years old and has lived here all his life. His dad was killed in a shootout six years ago after being betrayed by a female informer from a rival gang. Now he lives with his mum, sister and gran in a small concrete house with a corrugated iron roof, which is typical of the neighbourhood. It overlooks the 'gully', which doubles up as a rubbish dump and a football pitch for Titi and his friends.

reggie yates

Reggie in Jamaica for Unicef

Titi is football mad. It means everything to him and it is this love of sport that is helping to give him a new life away from the streets. Through Unicef and its local partner RISE, he has had been able to take part in all sorts of different activities including the high ropes adventure challenge course, which is three hours outside of Kingston. This is one of the projects, which is being directly funded by the partnership between Unicef and the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games through the Put Children First appeal. It's deliberately a good drive away from the city to give kids living there a chance to escape for a few hours and see another side of Jamaica and a life not filled with violence. It is often the only time these kids leave the city.

The adventure course consists of several low level rope and wire challenges, a 15 foot pole known as the 'leap of faith', a 30 foot climbing wall and a zip wire. It's designed for kids like Titi who live in deprived areas in inner city Kingston.

The coaches who run the sessions start off slowly with the kids, getting them to do trust exercises with each other on the ground, building up their confidence before hoisting them into the air. Alongside Titi and his friends I managed to climb the wall and jump off the pole, which was damn scary, I didn't hold my poker face. When you are at the top of something like that you lose all your bravado and the mojo starts to shrink.

Cheering all the kids on as one by one they went through their own personal battles and conquered them, I could see what amazing things it was doing for them. When I was their age I remember going to places like Carfields and being made to build rafts with my mates, it sounds so clichéd but it does do amazing things for your outlook, especially for kids who don't normally get those opportunities or experiences to try different activities and push themselves.

Thankfully I have never had to experience the loss of a parent. I know people who have at a much later stage in their life and it is one of the toughest things in the world to go through, let alone for a six year old kid. Titi is 12 now - a similar age to my younger sister.

One of things I have learnt in life is that the most successful men I have met who haven't had a father have had to find their 'bits of dad' from different places; from people they have met who have crossed their life path. Hopefully that will happen for Titi, and the coaches at project he goes to, teachers at his school and the people in the community will become his strong male role model and his 'bits of dad' for him.

No doubt Titi and his friends will be cheering Usain on when he lines up for the 100m Relay. He represents everything that sport can do for someone and is a great example of someone who decided their path and kept walking on it. Hopefully Titi will be the same, not necessarily a gold winning athlete, but someone who stays on the straight and narrow and discovers that there is a life out there for him that isn't filled with drugs and violence.

Anyone wanting to support Unicef's Put Children First appeal can text FIRST to 70333 to give £5 or visit www.unicef2014appeal.com

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