When you meet Jermaine Gunter, you will probably only see an unassuming, quiet and seemingly shy entrepreneur who designs, and creates headstones with marble and granite finishes to embellish the graves of deceased people.
He does that through his company N & J Tombstones. However, there is much more to him than what meets the eyes.
If asked, he would probably tell the sad and painful story of how he was raised by the streets. He did not have the luxury of being surrounded by a ‘village to raise the child’, and he did not have the comfort of a mother’s love or a father’s protection.
ROUGH TEENAGE YEARS
“I did not know my mother and longed to know who she was. So, I decided to connect with her when I was 16. I was living with my father at the time in rural Jamaica. When I located her, I chose to move to Kingston to live with her. That was a bad decision as not long after I went to stay with her, I was kicked out of the house. She chose her husband over me,” he said in an interview with Our Today, hinting that he was an unruly boy.
Gunter’s mother chose to push him out of the house after a disagreement that would arise with a teenage boy going through puberty. When he tried to return to his father, there was nowhere to go as his dad disowned him for making the decision to live with his mother and get to know her.
He was not aware of any other family member who could assist him in his time of need. So, he looked to friends whose parents allowed him to stay for brief periods at a time. “I ended up in the streets and lived there, or I stayed with friends and strangers,” he explained.
“I was literally couch surfing as I sought the next place to lay my head,” he said.
Gunter’s situation forced him to learn how to fend for himself and that resulted in him dropping out of school at grade 10. However, with his street smarts, he found ways to make it and survive.
“I found work at a car wash and saved some money to start selling phone cards for prepaid cell phones,” he said, hinting at his early start as an enterprising young man.
He did this for a while until 2008 when he met the man who changed the trajectory of his life forever.
APPRENTICESHIP TO ENTREPRENEURSHIP
“At the age of 17, I met Dwight Robinson of D & M Robinson’s Marble Works in Spanish Town who took me on as an apprentice. He initially hired me as a headstone cleaner and from there, he taught me masonry and how to make headstones. I did not go to a trade school like HEART. Everything I know was taught to me by Mr. Robinson,” Gunter said, adding that he has been successful in everything he has put his hands in since.
Gunter revealed that during his apprenticeship, he would sleep in the shop at nights because he had nowhere else to go. He did that for a while until Robinson stepped in and asked some of his family members to assist the then youngster.
As an apprentice, he saved his earnings at every chance he got. Whenever enough was in the kitty, he would buy a new tool to help him become a better tradesman. He did that until he had enough tools required to comfortably learn and prepare himself for what the future had in store for him.
“During that time, I had even started a delivery business hoping to get additional income that way. I used some of the money I saved, but that business did not work out too well for me, ” he said.
Undaunted, he never once lost sight of his skill development, which he knew would be a source of income once he mastered it.
Apprenticeship lasted until 2022 when Gunter branched out and created his own company, N & J Tombstones.
“The N and J stands for the first letter of my partner’s name and my name. Nadine is one part of the business and I am the other. She supports me and I love her for that.” he shared.
Gunter, who also works with the Social Development Commission (SDC) as a contractual facilitator says that he currently does not have a home-base for his headstone making business, so he uses the space at his house until he can afford an official location for the business.
He has two children over whom he beams with pride when he speaks. Determined to give them a life different to what he has known, Gunter said, “I work hard and I mentor them daily as I want my children to live a comfortable life where they are loved and also know how to give love and receive it. I don’t want them to know the life I’ve lived. Though they do not live with me, I keep in touch with them and make sure that they want for nothing physical or emotional.”
He shared that having them as part of his life is crucial because he knows what it is like to be a child without parental support. He also said that his children have given his life much more purpose and he is even more determined to succeed in his business so that they can continue to live a better life.
As he envisions the future, Gunter says he has every intention to pay it forward to teach young people how to make headstones, just as Robinson taught him. He shared how grateful he is for what Mr. Robinson did that he “would love to be in a position to help others too. The only thing standing in his way right now is the lack of resources to expand and facilitate a transference of knowledge,” he added.
“My business is in its baby stages so I know it will take some time for me to get to where I need to be. I am not worried. I’ll just continue to work hard and ensure that my clients get the best service so that one happy customer will lead to many,” he said.
For troubled youth, Gunter pleads with them to “stay focused on your dream and never give up on life. There are many roads out there but choose the ones with the light. There is nothing down the dark path.”
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