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.