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.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Driving Miss Doris

As my time is starting to draw to a close, my memories of joyful times in Jamaica become more poignant, more treasured. And, some memories that I feel should be shared are those in which I drove Miss Doris.

Miss Doris is 79 years old and Mount Friendship’s resident church boss. She keeps tabs on the sick and shut-in of the community, hip-checks me out of the way when it’s time to distribute food bags, and manages to keep the altar linens snowy fresh and immaculately folded. She has a high-pitched voice that she’s not afraid to use, either to praise her Jesus or to scold a naughty child.

My first interactions with Miss Doris came when she told me to collect her at her home so that we could hand out the food bags together. I drove the van and after criticizing my driving, Miss Doris directed me. She told me when to “mind de gully,” and when it was time to abandon the van and walk. I followed her like a meek puppy as she strode on arthritic knees to feed Mount Friendship’s neediest, and through the driving (and the walking!) that day, I learned Mount Friendship the Miss Doris way.

I quickly learned that Miss Doris was never afraid to demand a ride, either to visit a shut-in or to pick up her mail from the village post office. And I became accustomed to driving Miss Doris because, frankly, she’s not the type of person to whom you say no.

As the weeks passed, however, I stopped seeing Miss Doris as a lady I drove and started seeing her for what she is—a damn good time.

She’s crazy. She pouts if I don’t come see her in my free time, but hugs and kisses me with joy when I show up unexpectedly. She grabs my bottom and tells me how fat I’ve grown in Jamaica. She regales me with stories of her girlhood and spanks me if she thinks I’m misbehaving.

Not only does she have a remarkable joi de vivre, but Miss Doris has helped me to find my own inner crazy. When I visit her, I stand and dance in her doorway until she notices me and starts giggling. I made a paper crown for her on her 79th birthday and the two of us laughed hysterically together when she wore it for an entire day and attracted stares galore.

But it’s in the quiet times that we share that I find myself wondering what really drives Miss Doris. I’ll be eating saltfish fritters on her kitchen steps or tucked cozily under her arm after church when I’ll realize just how extraordinary she is. At first glance, she’s a lonely widow with arthritic knees and lots of money troubles. But in the time I’ve grown to know her, she’s a deeply devout woman who keeps a faltering church community together. She’s a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who thinks constantly of her family—and her adopted family. She has a sharp intellect and a soft heart. I don’t know what it is that keeps her trekking the mountain paths, saying the rosary on her knees, or putting down her washing to dance with me around her yard.

Something is driving this woman to be everything for everyone, but I am not sure what keeps her going in the face of her adversities. Most likely, it’s her faith that keeps her eyes clear, her smile bright, and her heart buoyant.

I adore her—she’s my Jamaican grandmother, my inspiration, and my partner in crime (no one else will make absurd faces during mass with me). She is the force that drives me, everyday, to be a better missionary, a better volunteer, (a better driver), and a better friend.

And here I was thinking that I was driving her.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Dirty Hippie on Garbage Patrol – Part 2 in a Continuing Series

I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. Or the non-biodegradable Number 1 and 2 plastic bottles and bags. Whatever.

Since everyone in the first world is trying to find ways to reduce their “carbon footprint,” I feel a little foolish discussing recyclable plastics, but I did promise an update…

We’ve had a few setbacks, one of them being George. George is a man with special needs in the village who does odd jobs for community members. One of his responsibilities is burning the school’s trash…You, dear reader, can probably imagine where this is going…One morning, I checked the bin and found it empty. When I spun around in anger and disbelief, I saw George waving happily at me from the gully. “I burned your rubbish, Miss Betsy.” My anger naturally dissipated, but George and I have had a few heart-to-hearts since then. As a matter of fact, George has had talks with the principal and most of the teachers concerning Miss Betsy’s recycling project. He now knows to stay away (far away!) from the blue bin.

I played the role of Good Cop for the first few days—standing by the bin at break and lunch times, and positively reinforcing the actions that the children took to recycle. They were excited—“Miss, we recycled, Miss!” I hugged and high-fived them and told them that they were making Mr. Lorax—and me—so very, very proud.

I also played the role of Bad Cop—putting plastic baggies over my hands and digging through the bin with the children to retrieve the paper and metal that were wrongly placed in the bin. I inspected what the children tried to put in the bin. I went back into the classrooms and played games: “Can THIS go in the bin?” (NOOOO) … “Can THIS go in the bin?” (YESSSS) But I can’t carry the metaphorical big green stick forever—it is not my job to police recycling. If this is a project that will last, then I need to step back and let it last. And when I removed myself, I saw a few things that made that old green heart of mine swell with pride.

One morning, I came across a pair of legs sticking out of the tall recycling bin. I dashed to the bin and pulled out a very grim-faced Hayden Kinghorn by the collar of his shirt. “Hayden, kiddo, what are you doing?” I asked, brushing him off.

“Miss!” He said, his big brown eyes dark with fury, “Someone put a metal someting in wit de plastic dem. Mi wan’ fi get it out!”

Devontay, a second grader, ran to me the other day and threw his arms around me in a hug of greeting. But instead of his usual “Hi, Miss,” he grinned and said something entirely different. “I am the Lorax! I speak for the trees!” He chirped proudly. “Remember to recycle!”

But it’s the day-to-day monotony that makes me happiest. Seeing the students toss their plastics into the recycling bin without thinking twice is what brings me the most joy. They don’t all do it, of course, but the idea seems to be catching on. For a few students, it’s as natural as breathing: plastics go in the blue bin. There will probably be a Part 3 in this series, and with any luck, next year’s Mount Friendship volunteer will be able to add in a Part 4 or 5. But for now, know that the Lorax would be pleased with the progress occurring in a little mountain village called Mount Friendship.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Library Days

I was crammed into a taxi yesterday afternoon on my drive back down the mountain after a day of work in Mount Friendship when a woman in the front seat turned around.
“Yuh Miss Pepsi the liberryian up a Friendship School?” she barked at me. “Yuh mek de yout dem carry de book dem up a yaad?”

Four heads turned to me while the taxi driver, a man named Sugar, peered in his rearview mirror to wait for my response. I smiled weakly. “I guess you could say that,” I admitted.

I wear many hats. I’m “Miss” and I’m “Miss Pepsi.” I’m “de Catalic volunteer,” I’m “teacha,” I’m “whitey,” and now I am “liberryian.” And by that definition, yes, I’m the one who lets the youths bring books from school to their homes.

Mount Friendship’s first lending library opened last Tuesday thanks to donations on the part of my college friends, the enthusiasm of the school staff, and many willing students. The library isn’t much of a “library”—it’s a tiny classroom filled with broken furniture and rotting lumber. But all of that has been pushed aside to make room for two sets of shelves filled to the brim with gently-used picture and chapter books.

For months, children in the upper grades have helped me to prepare the books and have learned how to be “library monitors.” Through lessons I’ve taught in each of the classes, the younger students have worked hard to learn the rules and routines involved in using a library. And on Tuesday, April 28th and Thursday, April 30th, the library opened its doors for the first times.

Tuesday afternoon is the library day for Grades 1, 2, and 3, while Grades 4, 5, and 6 use it on Thursday afternoons. Grades 7, 8, and 9 are permitted to browse the library during their lunch and recess time on any days. The first Tuesday was filled with shrieks of delight and mass chaos, while Thursday’s group brought with them an awed quiet and a sense of purpose.

And these days brought moments that were filled with beauty and memories that will stay with me each time I walk into a library for the rest of my life.

Odain, a third-grader with special needs, tip-toed in cautiously but strutted out proudly after selecting his first library book. I asked him when he entered if he wanted me to select one for him, but he shook his head. “Me wan’ fi choose out my own,” he said, scrutinizing the shelves with the gravitas of a college professor.

During one of my home visits with Marcia, a hard-working single mother, she revealed to me that her little daughter Aliyah brought home a Cinderella book and that the two of them read it together every night. “It’s such a good story,” Marcia said, her face glowing, “And Aliyah love it.”
One of the rules is that students should leave the library after they check out a book to make room for more students to come into the crammed space. My monitors and I are pretty good about enforcing this one, but I found Grade 4 student Daijean hiding beneath an old table in the corner.

“Come on, DJ,” I said gently, “you’ve checked out your book, you need to move out, okay?”
“But Miss,” he pleaded, gripping four or five books tightly, “it’s just so nice in here. Please mek me stay.”

I let him stay.

Today, I was pleasantly surprised to see that almost every child returned the books in immaculate condition. I was even more pleasantly surprised to see the library running smoothly--my monitors had the scene under control, the students behaved well, and I had the time to just sit and read with several of the children.

Trips to the library were always the highlight of my life growing up—all those books, all that possibility. It is a joy to see my Mount Friendship kids experience that same exciting thrill for the first time. Our tiny library may not visibly increase the literacy rates in Jamaica, but being a “liberryian” isn’t about saving the third world. It’s about letting de yout dem carry home de book dem. And what a world will open to children when they can carry home a book or two.
Library monitors show off their books and badges

Monday, April 20, 2009

Nyam wit yuh hand.

Lunchtime is chaotic in Mount Friendship’s all-age Catholic school. When the bell rings at noon, the children close their books, clasp their hands, and say a brief prayer in unison. Then, all hell breaks loose as they race across the dusty schoolyard to the window of a small outbuilding that serves as the canteen. They grab plates of white rice, stewed chicken, shredded cabbage, and a ladleful of juice. The meals are devoured back in the classrooms, and then the children dump their plates and utensils into a basin filled with water to soak. It is loud, it is messy, and it is overwhelming.

During my first few months at work in Mount Friendship, I stayed far away from the canteen, choosing instead to eat a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich on the church steps. I was intimidated by the bedlam, afraid of falling sick from the food, and I longed for the salads and spinach wraps of Raymond Cafeteria at Providence College.

However, as the days passed, I developed a friendship with the school’s cook and I learned Jamaica’s school lunch culture. Slowly, I found myself digging into the lunch routine and then, tentatively, into the lunch itself.

The lunch culture is complicated: if a child has seventy Jamaican dollars (a little less than one U.S. dollar), he gives it to the Grade 3 teacher, Miss Rufus, who then gives Marie, the school’s cook, a head count. There are some children who receive a free lunch through Jamaica’s PATH program: Program of Advancement Through Health. PATH came about through a partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank, and it has strict rules, one of them being that PATH students must attend school at least 85 percent of the month.

In Mount Friendship, however, the school lunch is a source of pride and shame. Often, children would rather skip school than admit that their families can’t afford their lunch that day—it is the main reason for the poor attendance rates at school. But thanks to Miss Rufus and Marie, the school is a place where children’s minds and bellies are filled. These women are fully aware of who hungers; it is Marie who slips the neediest children a plate of rice and it is Miss Rufus who utters the magic words: “Mek Marie give yuh a someting.”

For many children, school lunch is the only real meal they eat in a day—and, as I realized this fact, I began to understand the mad dash to the canteen.

As my confidence grew, I began excusing myself from whatever classroom I was in or leaving the library around 11:30 to help Marie organize the plates or mix the juice. She, like Aggie of the food bags, is strict about the portions (“Too much vegetable, too likkle rice!”) but she is patient with me. The canteen has a frenzied atmosphere when the children are getting their lunches, but handing out the meal and watching the children’s eyes light up does make for a truly pleasant experience.

Not too long ago, Marie and I were eating our own portions of rice and chicken after the children had been fed. “In Jamaica we have a saying,” she said, her eyes dancing, “put dung de fork an’ nyam wit yuh hand.” Eight months ago, the patois proverb would have been nothing more than gibberish, but on that day, her meaning was not lost on me: “Put down the fork and eat with your hand.”

Essentially, Marie’s words mean to roll up your sleeves and dig in. The distance I put between myself and the canteen in the beginning of the year is one I now regret, but it takes time to grow accustomed to another country and another culture. It wasn’t possible for me to “nyam wit mi hand” eight months ago, but it is now. I nyam it all now: the rice, the chicken, and the noontime feeding frenzy.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Good Friday

Brevity reigns in the gospels when one examines Jesus’ walk to His death. His suffering--his falls, the assistance given to him by Simon--these details are given more clearly and passionately when Catholics throughout the world reflect upon that journey through the tradition of the Stations of the Cross.

My roommates and I were invited to join in this ritual in downtown Kingston with a Catholic order of brothers known as “Missionaries of the Poor.” As a third world order, the brothers are in Uganda, Haiti, India, and the Philippines—but their headquarters and their founder are in Jamaica. The MOPs have shelters throughout the Kingston area where they not only evangelize, but care for the destitute, the sick, and the physically and mentally handicapped. We have worked in these shelters before, but the Stations began at one we had not yet visited—Bethlehem House.

We arrived a few minutes early, and one of the brothers ushered us into the shelter for a brief tour, explaining that Bethlehem’s mission is to care for extremely handicapped children. During our past few months as volunteers, we have seen individuals with serious ailments, but the deformities I witnessed at Bethlehem surpassed all others. The sight of so many children with distorted and bowed bodies brought me to tears, and I barely had time to wipe them away before the service of the stations began.

The brothers that were to read the Stations of the Cross stood in the bed of a truck with microphones. Some brothers stood waiting to help the handicapped residents of the shelters to walk the stations, and still others stood waiting to take their turn to carry a wooden cross and wear a crown of thorns.

The first station was read, and we joined the procession of dozens of men, women, and children—either handicapped shelter residents or able-bodied community members—down the streets of Kingston.

My experience in Jamaica thus far has been in rural areas. Mount Friendship is a small village that is stunted by poverty, but its sorrows are tempered by cool mountain breezes and a natural tropical beauty. Downtown Kingston, however, looks as if it has been bombed, burned, and left to rot. It is stiflingly hot, dusty, and smelly. Shanties with zinc roofs are piled on top of each other, gang leaders known as “dons” mark their territories with violence and threats, and half-naked children scurry through the streets. There is no development and no industry on these mean streets, making Kingston the embodiment of third-world urban poverty.

And it was in this very setting that we began to walk. We sang simple hymns as we walked down unmarked streets lined with "tenement yards" and graffiti-filled zinc fences. And fourteen times, the brothers stopped, the crowd knelt, and the station was read. We went through the condemnation, the bearing of the cross, Jesus' three falls, the crucifixion...each station becoming more poignant with each step.

We walked these streets of the ghetto of one of the world’s poorest and most violent cities, in the noontime heat. We smelled the muck of the gutters, saw the grit of the streets cake onto our legs, and felt the sweat drip down our backs. Despite this, people were drawn to the procession. The sound of the hymns, the sight of the brothers dragging the cross, and the image of the faithful trudging through the ghetto made the procession swell from several dozen worshippers to almost two hundred.

Our walk was so very different from that one two thousand year ago, but like Christ’s, it was filled with suffering. The images of poverty: the zinc fences, the barbed wire, the filth, the crumbling buildings, and the haunted faces watching us reminded me that Jesus’ pain is always with us. I watched the brothers, Kingston’s poor, and the handicapped shelter residents sing of their love for Jesus and kneel on the blisteringly hot pavement. And, for the second time that day, I wept.

John, chapter 19 reads, "So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross himself, he went out to what is called the Place of the Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha. There they crucified him." The Stations of the Cross give us a chance not only to recreate, but to relive Jesus’ suffering for ourselves. I was granted an unbelievable opportunity to walk the Stations with God’s people: the least of our brothers and sisters. I walked with the broken, the beaten, the sick, and the deformed. And their faith put mine to shame. Walking Jesus’ fourteen stops allows us to experience the range of human suffering, whether it be in the broken bodies in Bethlehem house, in the filth of a third-world city, or in our own hearts. Have a blessed and beautiful Easter.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Return of the Crunchy-Granola-Dirty-Hippie

At home, I knew it was Saturday when I heard my father collecting the house’s trash bags to take to the dump. In Providence, the sound of the garbage truck woke me early each Tuesday morning. In Pittsburgh, when I found myself vaulting over trash bags on my morning run, I knew it must be Thursday—South Side’s garbage day.

In Jamaica, there are no such cues. Rather, the smell of burning trash and the sight of gray smoke spirals is a perpetual occurrence. These trash fires, seen in developing countries over the world, are a symbol of systemic poverty. There is no sanitation in Mount Friendship—or Devon Pen—or King Weston—or Tom’s River. The poor dump their rubbish into a gully and then set fire to it. The smells are terrible, the charred remnants are ugly, and the released fumes are toxic. But for the forgotten people in the hills, there is no alternative.

I was all about the Earth in college. Friends dubbed me the "crunchy-granola-dirty-hippie." I separated cans and bottles and ranted about going green. I ate organic and had a brief stint at an organic co-operative farm. I even wore a grubby “reduce, reuse, recycle” t-shirt that made my roommates Mandee, Nicole, and Sarah plot my death.

I quickly realized, however, that Jamaica is not particularly “eco-friendly.” (Much to the dismay of my crunchy-granola side.) It was not until we stumbled upon some Peace Corps Sanitation Volunteers that we realized we had options.

Bill and Gail, our newest set of Peace Corps friends, told us about a partnership they had developed with local government officials—if they could get the people in the poor mountain areas to recycle, a company would come collect these recycled materials. They invited us to join them, provided us with the recycling canisters and the rules, and told us to give it a try.

We, the Passionist Volunteers, decided to start small—we planned to start in each of our schools. As with any service or justice initiative, one must begin with education. The four of us designed a curriculum based on children’s books about pollution and on protecting the Earth. I, naturally, turned to the Doctor.

The Lorax is a Dr. Seuss classic that features a forest of Truffala Trees and an evil gremlin named the Once-Ler who chops them all down and pollutes a fragile ecosystem. The character of the Lorax speaks for the trees and urges the greedy Once-Ler not to pollute. I decided that the short, mustached and adorable (and so very eco-conscious) Lorax would be the perfect person to remind children to protect their world.

I presented my curriculum to the staff of Mount Friendship’s school and it was surprisingly met with enthusiasm. We planned to start by recycling plastic: plastic bags, bottles, bottle caps—everything plastic. The staff gave me their full support and encouragement and agreed to help me with the project.

We kicked off the initiative on April 1st and my dirty-hippie side, a side that had lain dormant for months, was unleashed. I brought up the barrel, posters explaining recycling, a hand-painted sign where the Lorax reminds us to recycle, and a handful of worksheets. I read each grade the story of the Lorax, gave them their own Loraxes to color, and talked about what their job will be over the course of the next month. They are to put any plastics they see into the bin and the best recyclers will get prizes each week.
This is an experiment. As volunteers, our hopes are modest: we know we work in areas that are destitute. The people with whom we work are not particularly concerned about saving the Earth—their worries focus on feeding their children and keeping a roof over their heads. But we hope that this project will give them dignity—a chance to escape the toxins of the plastics and a place to put their garbage. Volunteer work is all about sustainability: Can your project survive? How will it last if you abandon it? We are not yet sure that this project is sustainable. We are giving it until Earth Day: April 22. It is then that the schools will tell us if this is something they want to continue on their own terms.

I can’t give Mount Friendship a garbage collection day. I can’t even give them my recycling t-shirt (sorry, girls). All I can offer them is an alternative to their current method. Will it work? I don’t know—but I’ll keep you posted.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lots of Good Fun

I like structure and order. A lot. I like schedules, lists, and consistency. I have always known this about myself, and so living in a developing country tends to throw me for a loop now and again.

Due to this desire for stability, I thought it would be a good idea to run a camp for the children of Mount Friendship when the school closed down for the island-wide Grade Six Achievement Test last week. I wanted to give the kids a healthy and structured play day, get them off the streets, and get something into their empty stomachs.

I fancied myself as modern day Cat in the Hat—bringing “lots of good fun that is funny" and so I started to plan.

The preparations were very orderly: I asked for advice from teachers and church members, I made advertisement fliers, and I spoke in each of the classrooms to invite the children. I organized donations of cookies and crackers to feed the kids, I sorted out sports equipment, learning games, and arts-and-crafts supplies. I appointed a few student leaders to act as counselors. I struck a deal with my favorite taxi driver and arranged transportation for myself and all of the materials. I expected a turnout of maybe 15 or 20 children. I was set. Or so I thought.

The camps, or “Fun Days” as I called them, were held in two separate locations. Thursday’s was held at Iron River Ball Field and Friday’s took place at the Mount James Ball Field. Iron River and Mount James are two communities that feed into Mount Friendship’s All-Age School, and conveniently, have large dirt pits that serve as soccer fields. The five student leaders I had appointed met me at the ball field the first morning with shining, scrubbed faces and helped me carry the water and juice, a box of toys, and a bag of sporting equipment into an abandoned building. They had swept it out and picked up the trash on the ball field. I was delighted. But the starting time came and went and no one was there. I hadn’t planned on that.

And then, over the crest of the hills, they came! The children came in droves—with friends from other schools, with their brothers and sisters, with their mothers. My nametags quickly ran out, the learning stations I had carefully created were demolished, and it became evident that the juice I had brought simply was not going to be sufficient. I hadn’t planned on that, either.

But I also hadn’t planned on the concept of “no problem, mon.” Jamaicans don’t sweat the small stuff; why should I?
The children played freely with the supplies. An intense soccer match soon developed. Little girls took the buckets I had brought and went fishing in the river. One of the mothers appeared with sugar and more water and managed to stretch the juice for everyone. Another mother organized an efficient line at snack time and handed out the biscuits before I knew what was happening. The teenagers who had appeared created a schedule of races and jumping rope contests.

The second day had a few more hiccups, including a lost soccer ball, a broken Frisbee, and a fistfight between two 7-year-olds. But when I told them I needed their help, my student leaders stepped up their game; organizing the little ones, redirecting whining children, passing out the snack, and organizing a cricket game, complete with twig wickets. I plan. It’s what I do. I am learning, however, that even the most meticulous of plans do not always work in the wild bush of Jamaica. Children can be rough and supplies can run out. A small, one-day camp for children turns into a community event—but that is okay—it is wonderful. At times, the event was chaotic, but it was beautiful chaos. Here, it truly does take a village to raise a child—and a volunteer.

I owe the success of the Fun Days to my teen leaders and the mothers in the communities—my fun days were fun thanks only to their involvement. My plans were necessary--they were crucial to laying the foundation. However, the villages of Mount Friendship, Iron River, and Mount James taught me that planning can take you only so far.

Dr. Seuss tells us: “It is good to have fun, but you have to know how.” Even the Cat in the Hat falls when he tries to hold up two books, the fish, a little toy ship and some milk on a dish. I would have fallen too, if not for the community’s support. If I wish to accompany these communities as they grow and develop, I must rely on their wisdom, spontaneity, and enthusiasm. Last week, I brought the books, the games, and some milk on a dish. Mount Friendship, Iron River, and Mount James knew how to bring the good fun that was funny.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Stepping Aside

The job of a Passionist Volunteer is varied and wide-ranging. We are expected to visit the elderly, help the teachers, feed the poor, and be an advocate for the sick. But we are also asked, for one week during our year, to minister to a group of students from the Elms College in Chicopee, Massachusetts.

Alternative spring breaks are all the rage in the United States: college students step away from their lives of comfort to spend a week in a poor area as a volunteer. I myself gave a couple of weeks throughout college—to a reservation in Arizona and an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. Those trips are the very reason that I live in Jamaica today. Those brief immersions into the lives of the indigent poor opened my eyes, inspired me, and drove me to work for justice.

To be given the opportunity to step to the other side was quite an experience. It was unnerving to be purchasing the food, deciding on the projects, and leading the reflections. We were warned that it might be difficult to see others do the work we have been doing for months and to bond with people we consider our friends and family.

The Elms students experienced some bumps along the way—injuries and stomach issues being the top offenders—but we did watch them step, if only briefly, into our roles. We, as the PVI’s, gave the tours of the missions and made the introductions, and then put the students to work. They did everything from shadowing teachers in the classrooms to corralling goats in the evenings to painting the church in Devon Pen.

We PVI’s led small prayer and reflection services in the evenings to help the students process their experience. We asked them, over the course of the week, their motivation for coming, what they were learning and feeling, and how they felt that the experience changed them. These students came to Jamaica for many of the same reasons that we, as long-term volunteers, came to this island. They wanted to experience a new culture; they wanted to step out of their comfort zones; they wanted to make a difference.

Pope John Paul II, in his poem Shores of Silence, tells us “you must always step aside for someone from beyond.” Stepping aside during this past week allowed me a chance to see the beauty of Jamaica and its people once more. Seeing my work—my whole life, essentially—through greener and more innocent eyes was refreshing. Rather than grow possessive of our work here, stepping aside made us realize how poignant our everyday experiences are. The college students’ awe at the mountains made me appreciate the majesty of the misty peaks all over again. Their squeals during our rides into the hills made me remember my own initial trepidation at the winding roads. Their love for the people made me hug my children tighter and love my elderly friends more dearly.

The students with whom we worked are beautiful young women; they are bright, courageous, and eager to serve. It was a privilege to work with them over the course of the week and it was an honor to step aside for them. I tried to convey one final thought to them as they returned home; that this experience will change them forever. Once one has walked with the poor in this way, there is no return to the life you once led. And as JP 2 advised me to step aside, I want to pass on some more of his wisdom to these short-term volunteers:

You must know—there is no return
From this flow, this embrace within the mysterious beauty of Eternity.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Love Story

The longer I am in Jamaica, my harder my blog entries have become to compose. The people about whom I write are no longer characters in the book of my service year in Jamaica; they have become my friends, my family, and my home. I struggle to write this very entry because the people whose story I am about to tell are very dear to me. But I think that this is a story that needs to be told.

When I started this entry, I wanted to tie it in with Valentine’s Day. But then I realized that the story I want to tell is not about romance and flowers and heart-shaped boxes of candy. It is a love story, but it is an uncommon love story.

Mr. Osbourne Brooks and Mrs. Edith Brooks have been part of the PVI experience for all volunteers working in Mount Friendship. “Aunt Edith” was a faithful member of Mount Friendship’s Catholic community until she fell ill several years ago. Since then, volunteers have visited her, prayed with her, registered her for the National Health Fund, and enjoyed the presence of her peaceful nature.

However, to visit Aunt Edith meant that the volunteer would also come to know the gruff Mr. Brooks, for Mr. Brooks was utterly devoted to Edith and rarely left her side. He cooked for her on his coal-and-zinc stove, he fed her, and he bathed and dressed her. On good days, Mr. Brooks would help Aunt Edith outside to sit and enjoy the sunlight while he would do small repairs or sort out the food he grew on his bush farm. They would speak quietly to each other, often saying a great deal without exchanging many words. The couple had known each other for years, but did not marry until late in life. And although they did not have any biological children, the two “grew a ‘ole ‘eap a pickney” over the course of their marriage—they took in dozens of children and raised them as their own.

I loved to visit with them and to watch the adoring looks that they traded and the gentleness with which Mr. Brooks handled Edith. Mr. Brooks would give me callaloo spinach to shred while he teased me about my nonexistent love life or he would let me give Aunt Edith her afternoon cup of tea.

Sadly, Aunt Edith’s condition worsened and she passed away in early January. One of her adopted children asked me to come to the house the following morning to sit with Mr. Brooks. However, when I arrived, Brooks was nowhere to be found, and no one knew where to find him. I drove the winding roads, stopping everyone I saw to ask if they had seen Brooks. The responses followed the same pattern—he had been crying, and he had gone into the bush. He clearly wanted to be alone, and I reluctantly gave up my search.

At Aunt Edith’s funeral, Mr. Brooks sat silently in the first row and wept silently throughout the mass. Jamaican funerals tend to be dramatic affairs, but I could not pay attention to the proceedings—all I could see was a man grieving the loss of the love of his life.

It seemed as if Aunt Edith’s death was a blow from which Mr. Brooks could never recover. During the days following her death, he wandered the roads for hours, for there was longer a reason for him to stay at home. He went to every service that every church in the area offered and he seemed to be searching desperately for solace.

But then, I began to see glimmers of the old Mr. Brooks. I came across a photograph of Miss Edith and brought it into church one Sunday. He gazed at the image and mopped at his eyes with a handkerchief, but he was smiling at her image through the tears.

Recently, I found more evidence that Mr. Brooks was starting to feel like himself again. I stopped by his home one morning on my way to the school, and when my cell phone rang, he seized the opportunity to fall back on his old joke: “De boyfriend call fi you?” He asked. I assured him that he is the only man in my life, and he grinned widely at me before turning back to a chair he was fixing. After a few moments of silence, he spoke again.

“My girlfriend, my wife, she was my honeycomb,” Mr. Brooks murmured.
“Why is she a honeycomb, Mr. Brooks?” I asked.
“Because nuttin nah sweeter den honeycomb,” he answered.

For Mr. Brooks, nothing in this world will ever be sweeter than Edith.

The people with whom I spend my time are not characters in a story—they are people with their own flaws, virtues, and quirks, and they are more real to me than anything else I have ever encountered. But the lives they lead and the dignity with which they handle their challenges provides a story that I feel compelled to impart to others.

The story of Mr. Brooks and Aunt Edith is one that I think needs to be shared; it is not only a love story, it is a story of devotion, dedication, and, when it comes right down to it, it is a story that has the sweetness of honeycomb. I wish you all the happiest of Valentine’s Days and I hope that you find ways to celebrate the uncommon love stories in your own lives.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mom!

I am posting this a few days early because we are leaving for a community retreat in Mandeville, but this Tuesday, February 10th, is my mother's birthday!

For those of you that don’t know Mary, she happens to be the most beautiful, sweet, intelligent and loving woman I have ever met. I am dedicating this entry to her, as without her love and support, I would not be able to do the work I do here in Jamaica.
It saddens me greatly that I am not home to help her celebrate this day. Please bear with me as this entry will probably be the cheesiest I ever write. If you do know Mary, make sure you wish her the happiest of birthdays.

2 Nalgene Bottles…$16.00 U.S.

1 Pair Hiking Sandals…$39.99 U.S.

3 Pounds Red Peas…$500.00 JA

1 Bag Jamaican Coffee…$203.00 JA

Having your daughter's students, the Mount Friendship church ladies, a dog named Stubby, and PVI 2008/2009 wish you a happy birthday...priceless.

I wish I could be home to celebrate, but know this: I love you, Mom.