If life has taught me anything, it’s that we are made better by others. For instance, that title is something I borrowed from a coworker that perfectly captured the essence of my most recent wanderings; a trip that focused on being the “other” that made someone else’s life better.
Back in summer I joined a new company, Veterans United. It’s an amazing place filled with even amazing-er people. They coordinate (and subsidize!) several service trip opportunities. Given my lack of affection for winter weather, I was excited to jump on the January Jamaica service trip train. Along with 26 coworkers, we journeyed together for a week of serving the rural community of Harmons, Jamaica.
I’d never been to Jamaica. Sort of. When my mom was pregnant with me, she and my Dad attended a work trip there so I suppose you could say I joined as a stowaway. But I believe their trip was full of pool time and glass-bottomed boats whereas mine involved hauling marl (small rocks) and taking two-minute ice-cold showers.
Won by One has been serving materially-poor Jamaicans for over 30 years. That experience shows in the relationships they have with those they serve and with the skill and efficiency they demonstrate in building houses, supporting students in school, and creating economic development opportunities. They create a space that allows volunteers to step into a really unique serving environment.
The town of Harmons is small. So small you can’t easily Google its population or find any relevant information on Wikipedia. Jamaica is divided into multiple civil parishes (think of them like US states or Canadian provinces) and the parish of Manchester (which includes Harmons) has an estimated 190,000 residents across 500 square miles. That’s a lot of land and not many people. So, what? So, if you’re a service organization you’re going to need to travel far and wide to serve the community. And, we did.
Getting to Harmons isn’t easy and the last part of the journey isn’t very comfortable, even in an air-conditioned bus. The pot holes created by bauxite mining trucks are no joke. And they’re on winding, mountainous roads that barely accommodate more than one vehicle yet cram two into the space. We arrived in Montego Bay during the first quarter of the Chiefs/Titans game. I’m a life-long Chiefs fan and Mahomes was predicted to lead us to a division championship and Superbowl appearance. We landed and were down by 10. Ugh. As our team of service trippers snaked through the customs line, I would share updates on the game. Finally, by the time we all got through customs and immigration, we found ourselves at an outside bar/shack watching the game and witnessing our boys take the lead. Along the 3-hour drive to Harmons, I continued to share updates from my phone and, as a bus, cheered when we learned we were headed to the Superbowl — for the first time in 50 years. What a memorable moment.
By the time we reached the Harmony House (where we’d be staying), it had been a long day. But, we had 30+ suitcases full of donations that needed to be unpacked and sorted. So we got to it. It was pretty cool to see items that my friends and family had donated from Missouri get put into piles there in Jamaica. We also turned in our phones, officially going off-the-grid until Friday. Electronic-free, we retired to our bunk rooms and slept hard until the 7am wake up call.
We were given a tour of the property, including the “Blessings Store” that sells donated items at minimal cost. Again it was fun to see the luggage my brother and sister-in-law had donated sitting in a small room in Harmons, waiting to be used by a grateful Jamaican. We walked around the town and were greeted with warm, genuine smiles. We were taught the customary Jamaican greeting: “Wa gwan?” that sounds like a super-relaxed and lilting, “What’s going on?” We saw the library that Sunny had built for the community, complete with video games. It has two walls and the supports are made of wood. Yes, wood. Wood-wood. Tree-limbs-wood. It may not be a first-world library but imagine the world those books open to its visitors. Pretty cool. Next, we had our serving opportunities and I was assigned to the marl haul.
Marl is basically small rocks that get used during construction in a multitude of ways. We created an assembly line to pass bags of marl from the hillside where it was chipped from a rock to the entrance of a railcar that housed lumber for the newest economic venture, a saw mill. We were using the marl to build a ramp so they could use wheeled vehicles to move the lumber rather than physically stepping up and down into the box car. It was hard, physical labor but it was also gratifying to see the ramp grow with each deposited bag of marl. It was also delightful to connect with the foreman, Gangha. He sang songs and made jokes, making the time pass quickly.
That evening, still phone-free, we played dominoes (a Jamaican favorite) and cards. Although we were the only service group present, the board of Won by One was also staying at the Harmony House that week. One of the board members brought her mother who introduced herself and asked that we all call her, “Nana” and treat her like an adoptive grandma. We did, and how. Nana is an absolute hoot and a spit-fire. She loves playing cards and had brought along her own deck of “Five Crowns” which we played until late in the evening. I’m happy to share that I won handsomely that first night and was smart enough to quit while I was ahead and not stay up until 2 and 3am the subsequent evenings.
The next day was a full day of service assignments and I was sent to help with the foundation of a new house. We met Rose and her daughter — they were joyous about the prospect of having their very own home and welcomed us into their family. First, we arranged large rocks into a rough rectangle. Next, they put up wooden boards that would act as the casing for the concrete. There was quite a bit of adjustment until the boards were finally square and leveled strings were positioned. The boards were anchored into place with tree limbs. I didn’t ask but I assume that 2x4s are a valuable commodity and not to be wasted on something so temporary.
Waiting for the experts to square and level provided an opportunity to get to know Rose. Her friend Susan was also there, along with her son. Throughout the day other friends and family would also walk down the street and watch the progress of Rose’s foundation. The kids were extremely shy but equally interested. We had been coached that there was something we were there to do that was more important than building houses and that was building relationships. So, I put on my most disarming smile and started talking with the kids. Side note: I am so grateful to my 14 nieces and nephews for equipping me to do this with some degree of ease. We fell into comfortable conversation about the best Jamaican fruits, how we each spell our names, our favorite types of candies, and eventually played some pretty awesome hand-clapping games. “Double-this, Double-that, Double-double, this, that.”
Far and away, befriending Rose’s daughter was the highlight of my trip. I was so excited that I got to see her again on my second day of service. However, it’s also unfortunate. School is free to attend and so it would have been better for her to be there than at the house. But, with no local buses and schools being several miles away, transportation is expensive. Additionally, specific uniforms are required and she doesn’t have the approved shoes to wear. So, instead of being at school, she was with us on the work site. Building on the relationship we started, I asked if she wanted to practice reading. She said yes, so I started having her read different words — from my water bottle, the cement packaging, and wherever else we could find. The previous day, Susan’s son had shown me some Jamaican currency. He had wanted to see American currency so this day I had brought some. We played with the coins, even hiding them in the marl sieve to be ‘discovered’ and counted. A coworker later told me that I was a natural teacher and that it was a joy to see me with the kids. I say again, for me, it was the absolute best part of a really amazing trip.
In addition to the house-building service opportunities, we also visited an orphanage and an infirmary. The former consisted of pouring love out by playing soccer and reading to kiddos that had either lost their parents or had been given up for any myriad of reasons. The latter involved pouring love out by reading psalms and rubbing lotion on the hands of individuals with physical or mental challenges living in a government-run home. In both places, it would have been easy for the residents to choose despair and yet, many were smiling. Their reaction to our presence was emotionally overwhelming. I spent a good portion of my time at the infirmary sitting alongside a woman lying on the porch whose only control of her limbs included tapping her hands and feet. I sang songs and she tapped, I stopped singing and she stopped tapping. And so, I just kept singing songs and she kept smiling and tapping. My heart was broken wide open and just like the Grinch, it grew three sizes that day.
Part of building community is interacting with people in informal ways. During the week we had three different gatherings with the locals of Harmons that involved games, talking, and lots of dancing. While the leaders of Won by One are American, the majority of the staff are Jamaicans and they would bring their families and friends to the festivities. I got to meet Gangha’s daughter, I got to eat ice cream alongside Sunny, I got to do the Electric Slide with Nana. And so many others that I haven’t introduced to you in this blog post. Rose and Susan weren’t able to attend because of the distance they’d have to travel.
Although this was clearly a terrific trip that I enjoyed immensely, you may have noticed something I haven’t mentioned. It’s pretty expected that I’m going to talk about food and drink in almost every Wander with Josie post. Let me tell you, I ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and rice and peas — which actually aren’t peas at all but rather kidney beans. But, when you’re on a service trip surrounded by folks that don’t know where their next meal will come from, you don’t find any reason to complain. We did have one free day in Montego Bay and I was looking forward to a Red Stripe on the beach. However, we were informed that we were still representing the Won by One team and given the mixed feelings about alcohol among Jamaicans (many point at rum bars for the decline in their communities) we were asked to abstain. So, for lunch, I ordered a virgin piña colada. Honestly, I didn’t even miss the alcohol.
Jamaica marks the 29th country I’ve been privileged to visit (and probably the 1st in which I didn’t consume a drop of booze) but even more notable, it’s home to my newest friends and is a place I plan to return again and again.
Note: Since I wasn’t able to use my phone to take many pictures I’ve included some of the photos the Won by One team captured and if the pic is any good the credit likely goes to them. Also, if you’d like to sponsor a student’s transportation and uniform costs, you can do so here: https://www.wonbyonetojamaica.com/eligible-students/ Or, if you’d like to make a general donation, visit: https://www.wonbyonetojamaica.com/donate/