Friday, July 20, 2012

Junot Diaz, in his novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, recounts the protagonist's trip from New York to the Dominican Republic to see his family. The novel, though about the Dominican Republic, is startlingly evocative of the entire Caribbean. Oscar, the novel's hero, talks about the "whirligig that was life" in his family's homeland. He lists the sights--the cops, the poor selling peanuts at intersections, the beaches, the "snarl of streets and rusting zinc shacks," the jokes, the music...but continually punctuates this list of spectacles with the "mind-boggling poverty" that he sees everywhere he turns.

I'm in the Caribbean, with the beaches, the snarling streets, the poor selling the peanuts at the intersection, the music. I'm in Jamaica. It feels strange to write that, now, as I sit in my room getting devoured by mosquitos and with a pounding dehydration headache. When will I learn to drink the water I haul everywhere I go? It's been years since I lived and worked here as a volunteer and this is my second return trip. Hi, Jamaica, remember me? The mosquitos sure do.

Logistics and history aside, it's hard to keep straight what was past and what is present on these visits back to the place that I once felt I owned. I forgot how to get to Barbican, and I forgot which one was the passing lane. The right one, right? Babies are kids, kids are smart-mouth teenagers, teenagers are grownups. Grownups, dammit. When did that happen? When did Nikki's baby become this shy child who doesn't know me? C'mon kid, you loved me once. Come here, come play.

But, in the words of Diaz, it is the "mind-boggling poverty" that most throws me for a loop on these return trips. When you live among the grit and the grime and grind of hunger, poverty, and disease, it's no sweat. It's a day at the office. If you're lucky enough to have a job that lets you participate, you do what you can to listen, to organize, to network, to link the poor with some zinc and a few seeds, or a chicken, or a homework group, or a library, or a hug. And nobody hugs like a Jamaican child. No-body.

But now, I'm superfluous. Entirely superfluous. I may not be frightened of the poor selling peanuts at intersections, and I sure don't blink at the rusting zinc shacks, but there isn't a thing I can do about the problems I watch my friends endure. The sixth grader who straight-up dropped out of school? The elderly man slipping into dementia, alone and forgotten? The kids so hungry I can count their ribs? Mind. Boggling. Poverty. And no way to participate. My redemption lies in my reason for being here, for this return trip is no vacation. This return trip puts me, for the first time, into the "staff" category of my beloved Passionist Volunteers International. I'm here to assist. To help the new tenth (tenth! can we even believe it? who woulda thunk!) group of volunteers transition into their new life. It is a blessing that redeems me and gives me hope. Bring it, mosquitos. Bring it.

This trip, this experience, these mosquito bites, give me the opportunity for meaning. I can see my friends, my friends for whom life remains relatively unchanged. I can spend time with the new volunteers and impart what little knowledge I've jealously guarded and retained. Mind boggling poverty? Of course. But returning to this whirligig of life grants me participation, grants me salvation. I'm back, Jamaica. Come here, come play.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Thank You

I’ve been home for two weeks now, and I struggled throughout those two weeks to think of an appropriate farewell entry for I have finally realized that any farewell entry must convey a sense of thankfulness, and that is what I have set out to do.

My return to the States was equal to any made-for-tv movie—my parents greeted my long-haired, khaki-clad, hippie self at the airport with hugs, a cooler filled with my favorite American treats, and a dozen pink roses. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!) The following days were a whirlwind of joyful reunions and how-was-its. I am more than grateful for the welcomes that my friends, family, and church community have extended.

However, I simply can’t erase from my mind the months of joy, sorrow, and discovery that my Jamaican friends, Jamaican family, and Jamaican church community extended to me during the past year. Everywhere I turn is Jamaica—from the necklaces I wear to my morning coffee to my missionary clothing tan lines. I am irrevocably tied to the concepts of poverty, justice, simplicity, and solidarity—as returned volunteers are wont to say, “I’m ruined for life.”

I spent my last week in Jamaica dissolving in tears whenever I tried to say goodbye. In between packing and orienting the newbies (who are fabulous and were fabulously patient with my rollercoasters of emotion), I had little time to say goodbye, and most of the time I did have was spent sobbing on Miss Doris’ shoulder. It didn’t feel right—these people didn’t ask for me to drop into their lives and play with their children. They didn’t ask for me to become their friend, but somehow, I did. And then I up and left them.

It is here in this entry that I can effectively list my gratefulness to the people of Mount Friendship: thank you for guiding me into the work I was sent to do. Thank you for letting me witness true compassion and devotion. Thank you for letting me hold your babies and for making me feel included in village politics and gossip. Thank you for your smiles and for your simplicity. Most importantly, thank you for forgiving me during those times in which I’m sure I let you down.

It is here that I can thank my friends, family, and church community for their support during the year: thank you for caring. Thank you for your cards and notes and packages and magazines. Thank you for the expensive phone calls and expensive plane tickets. Thank you for trying to wrap your head around the ideas of poverty and justice. But most importantly, thank you for letting Miss Doris, Mr. Brooks, and a village called Mount Friendship into your consciousnesses and into your hearts. Be assured that I am happy to be home with you all.

It is here that I can thank the Passionist Volunteers International staff and extended network for their training, patience, and development. Thank you for challenging me. Thank you for feeding me and listening to me whine. Thank you for talking about service and solidarity and the poor. Thank you for being available and for being a surrogate family. I couldn’t have done this without you.

Jamaica and Passionist Volunteers International will always be a part of who I am…those two entities have shaped me, for better or for worse.

I ache for it all--I miss the sunsets. I miss my roommates. I miss my dog. I miss my oranges. I miss the sweetly lilting rhythms of Jamaican Patois. I miss Doris and Brooks. I miss the earnest choruses before Sunday service. I miss the feel of Kadean’s little hand in mine. Unbelievably, I miss the god-awful smells of downtown Kingston and the hideous braying of goats in the bush.

I wish the best to Matt, Jared, Sarah, Charity, and Tracy, “newbies” no longer. They are well-equipped to handled the challenges that Jamaica will undoubtedly hurl at them this year. I envy them: they have it all before them.

But I now have the chance to join the ranks of PVI alumni—I’m eager to join the recruiting process and can’t wait to visit next year’s orientation. I’m currently working on what I refer to as my “big-girl life”—the next phase. I have the extraordinary opportunity to start another kind of service. Come fall, I will be a teacher in a Catholic high school and can continue the journey of justice. As much as I miss my Jamaican way of life, I understand that the next stage of my life will be no less exciting or fulfilling.

So, thanks. Thanks Jamaica, thanks Rhode Island, thanks PVI. Thanks for making me into who I am today, in this moment. I love you all.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

2 Weeks

Yesterday was the last day of Mount Friendship’s Camp—it was filled with beauty, with annoyances, with wonder…with Shemari, with Miss Doris, with Marie, with Jeneve, with with Orville, with Vernon, with people I have grown to love.

I did plenty of yelling, that’s for sure.

Lots of “clap your hands once if you can hear my voice,” lots of “Listen up, boys and girls!” But there were lots of hugs, lots of giggles with my favorite kids, lots of really beautiful moments. In fact, I’m not even going to pretend that I have the literary capabilities to describe some of the encounters I have had over these past few days. Let’s leave it at this: the time I spent hosting a camp in my home community was precious and has given me memories that I will treasure forever.

Holding a camp in Mount Friendship showed me that the relationships I have fought to cultivate really do have worth here. The women have told me that there will never be a volunteer as nice as I have been, that there never has been a volunteer as sweet as I am. They want to find gifts to give me and praises to shower upon me. They say this to all of this volunteers; of this I am certain. But still, it’s nice to hear.

I’m beginning to see just how difficult it will be to leave this place. I spent some time last evening chatting with my roommate, Lauren. We were sharing stories about Mount Friendship Camp—about my kids, about the community at large, and I realized how much I treasure my experience and how heartbreaking it will be to tell everyone goodbye. So many of my children are growing into teenagers, and so many of my teenagers are showing that they have the potential to be great leaders, thinkers, and doers in their community. I’m not saying that I can lead them into these talents; rather, I simply want to be there to watch them blossom. Because, dammit, I love them. And I want more than anything to see them succeed in this hard life they lead.

I’m not quite ready to leave my shut-ins and my older friends. I personally think that Mr. Brooks needs friends now more than he ever has. I just really got to know Mrs. Perkins. Selfishly, I don’t want to say goodbye to Ms. Doris’ crazy ways. I don’t want to leave behind her saltfish fritters, kisses on my cheek, and playful slaps on my bottom. I’m not ready to leave behind Mr. Frazier’s musings on the Jamaican economy and Miss Jean’s bananas. I’m sorry, but it’s going to feel like a betrayal when I hand over these people to the next volunteer. I don’t want to mislead you all. I am eager to get home—I can’t wait to see the family that has supported and loved me during this zany year. I’m aching to see my friends and the thought of a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee-and-bagel combo makes me giddy. Don’t get me wrong, people. I’m quite ready to trade in my view of Kingston harbor with the skyline of Providence.
But I have a life here that has taken me a year to cultivate. I have friends. I have a dog. I have a lady who sells me oranges, peeled and sliced to my liking, every morning. I know where to buy mangoes, and which taxi drivers I trust to take me up into the mountains.

I have mixed feelings the likes of which I have never had before. I love the people of Mount Friendship, of St. Andrew, of Jamaica. I’ve shed my fair share of tears over the poverty, confusion, and culture shock. I’ve been convinced that I could never make it here. And somehow, I have, and despite it all, I’ve grown to cherish this place.

Last week, I was racing through the Mount Friendship bush after a day of camp, trying to do a few home visits and still make it home before dark. In typical “Betsy” fashion, I tumbled down the side of a hill, through someone’s coffee plants, and skidded to a stop in the dirt at the bottom of a gully. I lay there, disoriented and smarting, for a few minutes, and then I started to laugh. We’re not talking a get-up-and-brush-yourself-off kind of a chuckle, mind you. I was seriously laying there in the dirt, belly-laughing at myself. A few children were with me, and after gasping in shock at “Miss Betsy” lying in the dirt, they too, started to giggle.

And that is my experience at its most real. If I’ve learned nothing, I’ve learned to stop taking myself so seriously and to start laughing at the small things. My Jamaican friends have rusty zinc roofs and damp dirt floors. They have children to feed and coffee to pick. But they manage to get through the hardships and laugh at the moments that bring them joy.

I have two weeks. All I can do is to implement the lessons that they have taught me through the year. I’m going to throw myself into the hills and gullies of Mount Friendship with smiles and laughter until I have to say goodbye. And when I do, I will do it with a heart full of joy and thankfulness. There will never be a people as kind and loving as those in Mount Friendship, of this I am certain. I’m sure every volunteer in every community in Jamaica says this. But—not only is it nice to hear, it’s the truth.

Friday, July 10, 2009

PVI Peace and Love Camp 2009

I love camp. Really. In a creepy, I-wear-hiking-sandals-and-can-follow-a-trail kind of way. I lived and breathed Camp Ok-wa-nesset at the Kent County YMCA for four summers. I dealt with upper pond canoeing, archery, arts-and-crafts, and family nights. I even tolerated their hot dogs during the vegetarian years. I wore the yellow staff t-shirt and taught preschoolers hiking songs. It was the best job of my life—until now.

Naturally, I was pleased to start planning a Passionist Volunteers International tradition—Peace and Love Camp. For six years now, PVI’s have hosted summer camps in each mission village. The length and times vary each year, but the routine is consistent. Volunteers secure the village church and a classroom for a few days, and turn it into "PVI Land." The children receive a morning snack and a noontime meal, as well as instructional activities, sports and games, and arts and crafts. Volunteers employ a local woman to cook the lunches for a modest stipend, and ask church teenagers to act as counselors. Children receive a t-shirt, and one of the activities is to “tie-and-dye” it to make a camp uniform. Camp Ok-was-nesset it is not (no archery or swimming lessons) but we’re making it work.
The other volunteers and I have given our camp a “health and hygiene” spin and orchestrate daily hand washing and tooth brushing instructions and competitions. We’ve invited members from the Archdiocese of Kingston’s Family Life Commission to present talks about healthy living. Children leave on the last day with a hygiene kit, complete with soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a pencil. We’re reinforcing our already-existing sanitation initiative by re-reading the Lorax during story time and insisting on proper recycling habits. But mostly, we’re playing, we’re laughing, and we’re being silly with the forty or so kids that come to each camp. At the present moment, we’re almost halfway through our camps. We’ve spent time in Devon Pen and Tom’s River, and Mount Friendship and King Weston await us in coming weeks. As I type this very entry, my hands are stained with the green dye from today’s camp in Tom’s River, and our car is packed with tomorrow’s rice, snacks, and equipment for relay races and jump roping contests.

Our days are hot and tiring, but every time I squeeze dye out of a t-shirt or help a camper braid a friendship bracelet, I realize how happy the camps make the children. This is one of the few opportunities they get for structured, healthy, and creative playtime. They are rewarded for good behavior, they have plenty of prizes, and everyone leaves with a present on the last day. Their snacks and meals may be simple, but they’re filling. They can sing and dance and run and jump to their hearts content. And, when I think about it, it's not all that different from Camp Ok-wa-nesset.

My friend Lisa was just here with us a few days ago for a visit, and she asked me if I’ve always loved children and camp. I’ve always loved children’s hugs and giggles over the simplest of things.

But I especially love children and camp in Jamaica. I’m in a country and a culture that I sometimes fear has hardened me. I must fight every day against the struggles of poverty, injustice, and all of the tribulations that life in a developing country presents. But kids, especially during these camps, help me to hug and to giggle. The routine of the day reminds me of the camp counselor I was for so many years and why I do this kind of work.

As my time here dwindles, the camps give me a structured purpose for each day and lets me know that PVI has a special place in the hearts of the families of these villages. And it shows me just how special these families and these children are to me.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


Peter and I with Nicki's boys

This year has brought many exciting days and many joyful moments, but none quite as special as receiving visitors. A year away from home is difficult, but I’ve had good friends who made it much easier. February and March brought my friend Pete and my cousin Ryan, and June and July brought girlfriends and former roommates Jana and Lisa.
Ryan showing some pictures to Devon Pen's schoolchildren

They arrived with wide smiles and came bearing gifts: Cheez-its, books, fashion magazines, Season 3 of Nip/Tuck, toothbrushes, peanut m&ms…(visitors know the rules). They made in with my roommates and charmed the people of Mount Friendship (and Devon Pen, for that matter). They hiked through the bush and tried to understand Mr. Brooks’ thick patois. They asked questions, they struggled with the poverty they saw, and they listened to me vent about a year’s worth of challenges. They gave me a taste of home and reminded me of the blessing of friendship that awaits me upon my return to the States.

Roxanne stole Jana's heart

At times, it was an unreal experience…to have someone with whom I planned JRW to charm Nicki and her five children…to have a member of the O'Grady clan chatting with Mr. Brooks…to have someone who danced around our Aquinas dorm room to Cher with me keep my kids on-task in Mount Friendship’s library…to have the freshman year roommate who has seen and heard it all worship at Mount Friendship's tiny hilltop church.

Lisa met her fourth grade class' pen pals!

All of my guests were tremendously good sports...they battled the heat, the bugs, the water, the language...and smiled through it all. I am so blessed to have Peter, Ryan, Jana, and Lisa in my life. I can’t thank them enough for coming to see me down here. From the bottom of my heart, thank you, thank you, thank you. I love you all and will see you all again so very soon!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

This One's For The Boys

A great deal is said about women in Jamaica—they are the cornerstones of the churches of Jamaica and I am of the belief that they are the backbone and the silent leaders of this country. It goes without saying that they are my heroes.

But I want to talk about men. Boys, really.

Jamaican men—boys—are a unique bunch.

They harass me at the bus stop and as I am getting into my taxis; they tell me in no uncertain terms what they think of me: my hair, my face, my legs. They follow me onto busses and stare at me as I walk children home after school. They sit in shops and drink cheap white rum and smoke forests of ganga and hiss at me as I walk past.

But these men are the ones who chase after busses to make sure I get on one that is pulling away. They are the ones who notice the cuts and scrapes I acquire while tramping through the bush and offer to clean them out with rum. They are the ones who carry me on their backs over landslides and who check the fluids in PVI’s car engine. They defend me against ravenous dogs and chop down coconuts for me.

And the boys! The boys at Mount Friendship’s school do all of my heavy lifting and teach me how to pack a soda bottle to make a really great soccer ball. And no matter their grade, be it one or six, they hug me and do their best to recycle their plastics.

It is these men and boys that break my heart. There are few employment options in Jamaica, but even less for the rural poor. The boys and men of Mount Friendship have little hope. They can become taxi drivers and bus conductors if they are lucky. They can be hustlers and farmers and the men who chop away the bush on the sides of the road. If fortune smiles on them, they may go to the States or to Canada for farm or hotel work. These men and these boys have good hearts, but many of them are trapped in a country, a culture, and a way of life that offers them little opportunity.

It is when that I am re-tying a uniform tie before afternoon devotion service or listening to nine-year-old Jona chattering on about mongoose and birds that I wonder what the future holds for my boys. My boys, boys that will be men all too soon. I don’t want my boys to become the troubled young men who are responsible for Jamaica’s often violent, drug and gun-riddled society.

A great many of my library monitors are boys. I didn’t appoint them because they’re the best workers or the best organizers—rather, I constantly struggle keep these boys on-task. But my hope is that if I can give these kids a sense of responsibility and pride, as well as a skill, they might have a fighting chance in this world. I hope that the kindness that years of female volunteers have shown them will teach them to respect women. I hope that our after-school activities, art projects, camps and Sunday School lessons teach them that they have potential, talents, and gifts that should be recognized and shared.

Often, I’m at a loss. I break up so many scuffles and fights between boys and often, the harassment I receive on the roads leaves me exhausted. Boys and men here make getting through my day a challenge. But, at the end of the day, I love my boys and I can only hope that wherever they end up in this life, they will be happy. Say a prayer for my boys today.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Just So You Know

When I made my decision to come to Jamaica, my father, Richard, sent me an email with the subject heading of “Just So You Know…” In the email was the U.S. State Department’s official warning about travel to Jamaica, and their information was grim.

Spending a year in a third-world country, particularly one as violent as Jamaica, was not my father’s ideal choice for his only daughter. However, he has been the most supportive father any volunteer—any person, for that matter—could ever ask for. He’s encouraging, interested, and (I hope!) proud of this year’s work. I couldn’t do what I do without his love and support. His concern and enthusiasm for my projects this year mean everything to me. I’m putting out my own Just So You Know right now…Just so you know, June 13th is my father's birthday! I may not be home to help him blow out all er…36…candles, but know that I’ll be doing it in spirit.

Now, on to the delightful little link at the bottom. Some children in Mount Friendship, particularly Cecela, Maya, Cristina, Ronique, Jevoy, and Nicolas (cameraman extraordinaire) wanted to wish my dad the happiest of birthdays. After two weeks of hitting every internet cafĂ© in Stony Hill, I’ve managed to find a way to get the video online. I am no techie, so the video is rough and without editing, but I think it just adds to the charm. :-)

Happy, happy, happy birthday, Daddy. I love you.