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!