This blog post comes from Jessica A. Dutille, a participant on an Amizade Global Service-Learning program in Petersfield, Jamaica. Jessica traveled to Jamaica in January, 2013 with a group from Plymouth State University and shared her reflections with us.
The anticipation was overflowing into the cabin of the airplane. I looked around and took note of where the nine young women on my trip were sitting. As if the expressions on their faces weren’t telling enough, I could just feel their excitement surfacing, as Jamaica came into focus through the tiny windows. I took a deep breath as we touched down, satisfied that we had completed the first leg of our journey. We were there. We had made it after more then a year of planning, fundraising, and team building. Our Plymouth State University (PSU) Service trip to Jamaica was now in Jamaica. I had no more time to iron out details, to anticipate lessons, and to run through worse case scenarios. No longer would I be telling people that, “I am going to be the advisor for the PSU International Service Trip”. The moment had come and I was in it. It was time to trust in the planning, and to live the experience.
The heat embraced us as we left the boarding bridge. The pants and sweaters that we grew use to wearing during January in New Hampshire weren’t needed in Jamaica. After conquering the long line through customs, we made our way out of the airport. Waiting for us was Mr. Matthias Brown, the Amizade Jamaica Site Director, and others from his community center, the Association of Clubs (AOC). Their smiles greeted us, and instantly we felt as if we knew them. My concerns started to ease. This was going to be an amazing trip!
Hot Jamaican spicy beef patties were passed throughout the van to us. We were already smelling, feeling, and tasting Jamaica. My group members laughed as we oriented ourselves to the speed of driving on the opposite side of the road. Photos were already being taken, and faces were lit up with smiles as we peered out the windows at the beautiful landscape. Though I rarely eat fast food, there was something comforting about seeing a KFC as we passed. I even took a picture of it, so that I could show my three children the KFC that I saw in Jamaica. I settled into my seat and made a very conscious effort to take in my new surroundings.
We arrived at the Association of Clubs Community Center in Petersfield, and were welcomed by many smiles and the smells of delicious food. The Center was very familiar and reminded me very much of the Pemi Youth Center, where I serve at home. We sat down among new faces eager to meet us. Our apprehension about the food was put to rest, as we tasted every dish prepared. Everything was delicious. Some things tasted very different. Yet, the rice was familiar, and so was the fried chicken. I thought about my family sitting around our dining room table at home for dinner. My chair would be empty. My children were probably sharing the high and low moments of their days, as we always do. I looked around the room wanting very much to start learning about my new friends, and wanting to partake in our dinner time in a similar way. There is something universal about sharing a meal, and connecting through conversation. Mr. Brown was happy to learn about us, and where we came from. He made it clear that we were now a part of the community. He discussed the itinerary that he had planned out for our stay. We would soon come to find out that his schedule was more about making us feel comfortable, and less about having something to follow. In Jamaica, time was a different concept. This fast paced northeastern American woman had some adjusting to do.
After a very warm welcome, we met our host mothers for the week. I met my “mother”, Miss Norma Fenton, along with one of our group members, who would be my roommate and “sister” for the week. Our mother’s smile instantly made us feel at peace, as she explained that we would head “home” in just a few minutes. We stopped briefly at the market, so that our mother could pick up a few items. We were there long enough for us to take in some of the sights and sounds from the car windows. As we weaved through the streets, I breathed in the warm breeze. We arrived at “home” quickly, and I noticed that the house was my favorite color, yellow. This certainly couldn’t be a coincidence. Our mother showed us around her beautiful home proudly, and I was surprised how I instantly felt comfortable, as if I were really home. We unpacked our things, and ventured out onto the gated porch. We gave our mother a book about New Hampshire that we had brought for her. Before we knew it, we found ourselves in a deep and meaningful conversation with this woman who we had just met, but somehow knew forever. I shared the photos of my family with her. I proudly pointed out my husband and children, “This is Bryan, and our sons, Noah and Caleb, and this is our daughter Emma”, I said. Miss Norma must have seen the pride on my face, and her expression matched mine, as she was genuinely delighted to learn about my family. We hugged her good night after a while, and I laid my head down that night thinking about home, but also feeling very much like I was there. Home, I realized, was not just a place, but a state of being.
I was awoken by a rooster outside our window before the sun came up. I laid there listening as he welcomed the day, even before the day started. I was amazed how slowly the time was passing. At home, the strain of our routine advances the time by quickly, as we try our best to keep up. Here everything moved through life at it’s own pace effortlessly. I relished in this new sense of time. I felt like I had been in Jamaica for so long already, and the sun was just starting to come up on our first morning.
We got ready and our mother called us in for breakfast. Thick pieces of warm toast filled our plate, and we were delighted to try the guava jam set out before us. Our mother poured hot water into our tea cups, and we shuffled through the teas looking over each one carefully. I couldn’t remember the last time that I enjoyed a simple breakfast in this way. Usually, I shovel a bowl of cereal in without tasting it, before scrambling to get the kids to school on time. This Jamaican way of eating breakfast was a much more relaxing way to start the day.
The mini bus stopped in front of our house, and we were the first ones on board. We traveled around the little community picking up each one of our group members. As each pair came out of their host family’s house and made their way to their seats, I noticed their smiles and positive energy. They were really taking in the experience, and I was delighted to share their joy. We drove up a very steep, narrow and winding road. Mr. Brown, our mothers, and other family members were taking us to the Maroon celebration. The students learned that the Maroon nation was a nation inside of a nation. When Jamaica was a British colony, the Maroon slaves fought for freedom. They eventually signed a peace treaty and gained freedom in their own territory. We looked forward to the celebration with great anticipation, as we were consumed with the beautiful landscapes that passed by the window.
The Maroon Celebratory Festival was filled with the smells of food vendors, and the sounds of reggae music. Young boys drummed in the streets and everyone seemed to move to the beat. Many people wore Yankee hats, a sign that they loved American culture. We even found a man who proudly wore an Obama Family t-shirt. My students crowded around him as I took their picture. We climbed higher into the mountain village, and came across a group of people dancing and chanting underneath a tree. They radiated joy, and we couldn’t help but get as close as possible to be a part of it in some way. We didn’t know the steps to their dance, or the words they were singing, but just being close felt good. I took another scan of our group members. Their eyes opened wide, as they soaked in everything.
We headed back to a big tented area and found some front row seats by the stage. Reggae music filled the air, and I watched as the clouds blew by in the sky. Even the clouds seemed more peaceful in Jamaica, or perhaps I thought, it was because I was taking the time to notice the clouds. My students sat looking around and talking to local children. We very much felt like celebrities, as the children followed us around and played with our hair. Suddenly, the march of the Maroons entered the tent as they drummed and chanted. The ceremony had started and we had no idea what time it was, or if it was on schedule. There was a lot of drumming, and a band member came to invite me and one of my students up to dance. I didn’t want to offend him, so I went and did my best to move to the beat in front of the crowd, and everyone cheered. It was nice, but I knew they weren’t cheering for my dancing. Even so, we felt welcomed. Our time listening to the speeches and feeling the music turned out to be an amazing introduction to Jamaican culture. We made our way back to the bus and headed back home.
The rooster welcomed in Monday before the sun came up again. I was eager to get ready and to start our first day of service work. Just like the day before, our mother welcomed us to breakfast. This time big, fluffy pancakes sat on our plates. Aunt Jemima pancake syrup was situated on the table next to the teas. I smiled as I thought about my children who love Aunt Jemima. Today was my mom’s birthday. It was odd to be so far away from home during this day, specifically. I was thankful that she and my dad were spending the week with my husband and children to lend their help, which made it possible for me to be in Jamaica. I sat in the feeling of appreciation for the profound support, and love that I have in my life. My mom very frequently makes pancakes for my children, and I thought it so fitting that I was starting out her birthday eating pancakes, too.
Our tea was poured again for us, and I watched as our mother prepared us for the day. She is a strong, beautiful, and determined woman, and her spirit reminded me very much of my own mom. I ate the pancakes feeling like I was a part of the birthday celebration going on at home, in some small way. We got our gear together and headed to the Galloway Early Childhood Institution School, just down the road, where our mother teaches a classroom of four-year-old children. As we got out of the car, all the little children were gathered together in the outdoor hallway beside the classrooms. The school was a creatively painted cement structure, adorned with Mickey Mouse, and the Berenstain Bears. All the children turned and looked at us. They smiled and waved and seemed to study our every move. The teachers led them in their morning songs. They sang, “We are blessed”, and I soaked in the words. I even filmed their song, so that my children could see and hear this beautiful moment when I returned to them.
My students met us at the school pair by pair. They were as eager as I was to get to work. The volume of kids was outgrowing the school, and so the college groups that served them had worked to build a much needed addition. It was our task to paint it and to bring it to life. I didn’t have to ask the group to get started; they picked up their scrapers and brushes, happily. I watched with pride, as we worked together. Recess brought much excitement, as the kids, ages 3-5 ran to us with open arms saying, “White people, white people!” They wanted to touch us, and to play with our hair. My students and I couldn’t take enough photos of these precious children. Our time getting to know each child fueled our painting for the rest of the afternoon. I was delighted to witness how this service work was already transforming the hearts of my students.
After a very fulfilling day of work, we were brought to the local private community beach. I was happy to sit in the shade with my group’s belongings, while they enjoyed the warm water. One of them jokingly said, “Thanks Mom”, and I smiled. Once you are a mother, you are always a mother, even when you are so far away from your children. I listened to my breathing as I took in the beauty of my surroundings. I vowed to myself that I would listen to my breathing more often, and take in the beauty of life more once I was home. Some of my students came back up to our spot on the beach. After making sure that they had their sunscreen on, I ventured out to the water myself. I figured that even though I am not typically a beach person, I am not in Jamaica very often and needed to experience everything I could.
That evening we enjoyed an amazing curry chicken and rice and beans meal, prepared by our mother. She and her granddaughter, who she raised, sat with us for dinner. We discussed the differences in our cultures, and the many similarities. We talked about perceptions and misconceptions. I told them how folks back at home warned us about the violence in Jamaica. I explained that I felt that was really ironic considering that we were coming from a country that just experienced a tragic and heart-wrenching school shooting. Our mother placed her hand over her heart, and told us how she cried when she heard that news on the T.V. “They were innocent babies”, she whispered. We agreed that even though we spoke a little differently, ate different foods, and listened to different music, the way we love is the same. Love is love no matter where you are, what color your skin is, or what your religious affiliation might be. Love is the amazing force of life that connects us all intimately as humans. We really do share one heart.
We went back to the school for the Galloway Club Meeting. We enjoyed a great presentation about the culture of Jamaica. Then we engaged in an informative and thought provoking discussion about the differences and similarities of the Jamaican and American cultures. We learned that many of the young people in the community assumed that because we were from the U.S., we were all very wealthy. We were amused by that, and explained that certainly wasn’t the case. I discussed how our group members had to work really hard to fundraise enough money to afford coming on the trip. This surprised the young Jamaicans. They also seemed surprised to learn that in the U.S. there are people who do live in poverty and are homeless. My students and I learned a great deal from them, and all walked away with an appreciation of new awareness.
By Tuesday morning, I had grown accustomed to waking up to the sound of the rooster outside our bedroom window. Our mother served us delicious eggs, fresh fruit, and fried dumplings. Our dynamic brother drove us to the school, to meet the rest of our group. We relished in the sound of the children singing, before the van picked us up. We headed over to the local sugar factory for a tour. My students chuckled as they tried their hard hats on for size. We were assigned to a wonderful tour guide, who taught us the ins and outs of making sugar. It was interesting watching the workers, but it was even more interesting for me to watch my students. I could almost feel them thinking about the hard labor intensive work that unfolded before their eyes. All of a sudden those late nights writing term papers or studying for finals probably didn’t seem so terrible. These feelings were later confirmed through conversation.
As we walked through the factory, I enjoyed speaking with our tour guide, who I found out shared very similar political views as me, and whose best friend teaches at the college that my husband graduated from. Though cliché, I couldn’t help but utter, “Small world!” We truly are all connected. I watched as the group members followed our tour guide in and out of every corner. I was overcome with emotion, as I thought of how proud I was of them. They were representing PSU, and the United States with such grace.
We thanked everyone at the sugar factory and headed back to the school to start painting. Everyone was eager to get as much done as possible. The group picked right up from where we had left off. I was so pleased with how well everyone was getting along, and how well they worked together as a team. These young women supported each other, encouraged each other, and showed each other love. There was a sense of calm and peace within the group, and I just knew that it had a lot to do with their common passion, and goals that they shared. It was so satisfying being witness to the learning that was taking place. I could visibly see them picking up new painting skills, but I could just as visibly see them embracing communication and leadership skills. They were making a big difference in the community, and the way that they carried themselves definitely showed me they understood that. Their faces lit up when the children would run to them and hold their hands, and that is an image that I will always carry in my heart.
Later that afternoon, the van picked us up again and we drove to the Roaring River. We were greeted by another friendly tour guide, who showed us gorgeous caves carved by the river. The positive energy flowed from our group through laughter and excitement in this new place. We went swimming in the water holes deep in the cave, and I was so proud of myself for doing something so far out of my comfort zone. I laughed out loud thinking about what my husband would say when he found out that I went swimming in caves. I had to take a picture, because I was sure he wouldn’t believe me without seeing it. The brilliant colors of the sky were breathtaking as we traveled back to our homes. I breathed in slowly, consciously consuming this great experience.
A delicious fish dinner was served to us that evening, and afterwards we walked back to the school to gather for our cooking lesson. It was a delight working with our host mothers in the school kitchen. They taught us the secrets to their signature dishes. They were proud to include us in this important aspect of their culture, and we were so happy to learn. My students were obviously enjoying themselves, and interacted effortlessly with their family members. A wave of pure satisfaction and joy came over me, as I recognized how pleased I was that everything was working out so well. We all shared much laughter and such great food. I went to bed that evening so thankful for such a wonderful day, and hoped that my family at home enjoyed a great day, too.
Early the next morning, I found myself unable to ignore the rooster’s crows any longer, even though the sun had not come up. For a moment, I thought of how annoying the rooster had become, but then found myself realizing that I would probably miss it once back home. Even if I didn’t, it was definitely part of the experience, and so I smiled. We got ready, and enjoyed another great breakfast. I was really starting to appreciate the unhurried pace. I ate deliberately and thought of how I was nourishing both my body and my spirit. We laughed about the events of the previous day, and looked forward to the experiences of our new day with great enthusiasm.
We got to the school in time to bask in the beautiful voices of the small children singing. We noted how big their backpacks looked on them. I instantly thought of my own children going to school, and how so much was the same, and yet the surroundings were so different. My sister/student and I were each invited into a classroom of the Galloway Early Childhood Institution, while the rest of our group went next door to the primary school.
I entered the classroom filled with five-year-old children and was greeted. The children sat at their little wooden desks arranged in circular clusters. Homemade shapes, letters, and numbers hung from string tied to the ceiling. They swayed calmly in the breeze, and I noticed how soothing they were. Before class started, one little girl very much wanted to give me a page out of her coloring book. I accepted it with a grateful heart, and recognized it as something that I would always treasure. The teacher asked if I was a teacher myself. I explained that I teach college students, but that I have three small children of my own. She smiled and turned the class over to me, while she got to some necessary paperwork. I introduced myself and asked the children to each introduce themselves to me, and to remind us all what letter each of their names started with. Then I decided to teach the class some of my children’s favorite songs. They really enjoyed this. Again, I filmed them singing with great anticipation of showing my children the recordings. I went into a little math lesson for a while. The children watched my animation and soaked in what I was telling them. Snack time crept up on us quickly, and soon it was time for recess. The children swarmed my student and me, and they all wanted to have a hand on us. We were pushed and pulled in all directions, before finally organizing a game. I was having so much fun watching the joyful faces, and realized that I too was wearing a grin from ear to ear.
Back in the classroom the teacher urged me to write three sentences on the board for the children to copy into their notebooks. I picked up a small piece of chalk, and wrote on the old, cracked blackboard. I hadn’t seen one like that in years. Even when I was a child and our teachers used chalkboards, they were green. I wasn’t even sure if my own children had ever seen a blackboard like this one. All the children reached into their backpacks and pulled out their notebooks. A few of them dug around for pencils without any luck. They looked up at me. I looked over at the teacher, and realized that she didn’t have any extras. Luckily a few other students had spares. I started making a mental list of all the supplies that we needed to send, once back in the States. The children quietly wrote, and I had a chance to look around and study the classroom. There were cardboard boxes of toys, and a table with books. Everything was old, but well cared for, and obviously loved by all the children. My eyes fell upon the computer in the back of the room. It looked like the kind of computer that I had when I was a child. There wasn’t anything brand new, or shinny, and yet the kids seemed so grateful for everything.
My Jamaican brother, who was the cook at the school, prepared lunch for the children. Those who didn’t bring their lunches to school were given a bowl of soup. I grabbed the lunch that was prepared for me and ate in the kitchen with my mother, brother, and sister/student. It was nice to connect with my mother, and she was filled with pride as I told her how much I was enjoying the children and the school. After lunch there was another recess, and with it came another opportunity to play with all the kids.
As the afternoon winded down, I read the children a couple of books back in the classroom before it was time to for them to get picked up. I gave each child a sticker, which they loved. The teacher was so appreciative as I swept the floor. It was great to discuss the day with her, and to let her know how grateful I was to have spent it in her classroom. After reuniting with the other group members, we learned that they spent their day with what we would refer to as the special education students. The majority of the group members were studying education, and as they exuberantly spoke about their individual experiences, I listened intently to what they were saying. I recognized how this opportunity for experiential learning reinforced so much material that they didn’t even realize they retained. Our service work was closely linked to their academic disciplines. They were reaffirming their career goals, and were so excited to learn more. Not only were they strengthening their ties to each other, and to PSU, but they were strengthening this community at the same time. As they gave with intention, they grew into servant leaders before my eyes. It was meaningful for me to actually watch as learning took place. This was service learning at it’s best, and I was honored to witness its beauty. I urged them all to reflect in their journals, so to capture their excitement and to process their new perspectives.
That afternoon, my mother led a workshop at the school with the help of the other teachers about the early education system in Jamaica. My students soaked in the information, as their minds noted the similarities and the differences. I was asked by the teacher that I worked with during the day, to demonstrate a few of the songs that I taught the kids. I stood in the front of the room, and all the teachers clapped and tried to sing along, as I did my best singing. I looked over at my mother who smiled proudly at me. I laughed, partially because I felt a little silly performing, but also because I knew that if my mom were here she would be so proud, too.
We sat down at the table, as our food was placed before us. I was hungry, not only for the food, but for another soul searching conversation with our mother. Her convictions and her passion were so inspiring, and I didn’t just listen half heartedly, while thinking about what to say next. I really listened. This was the type of conversation that I cherished with my loved ones. This is the type of connection that we need more of in this digital world. I realized that I wanted these moments to occur more often than not. I needed to spend less time running around accomplishing items on my to do list, and create more time for significant conversations, the kind that unleashes creativity and reacquaints us with our true selves.
We gathered back at the school to learn about the entire Education System in Jamaica, from the early education, to the primary schools, to high schools, and colleges. We were able to gain a deeper understanding of the system. We discussed some obvious differences, but acknowledged the many similarities that we had previously talked about in the prior meeting. Afterwards, we watched a Jamaican made movie, and we all loved the great soundtrack. That night, I reflected on how my sense of time was starting to catch up with me in Jamaica, as I realized that it was almost Thursday. This was both disappointing and comforting at the same time. I knew that I had more to learn and more to take home from this experience, but I also very much looked forward to getting home to my family.
My love / hate relationship with the rooster progressed in the morning. We got up laughing about him, but there was a part of me that wondered if I would miss him if we ended up eating him for dinner. We eased into the day with breakfast, and headed back to the school for our last day of service. In the car, our mother told us that she wanted us to experience another school nearby, the Whithorn Early Childhood Institution School. We were excited to meet new teachers and students. We stopped briefly at the Galloway school, and picked up another group member. A few other group members were brought to yet another local school, while the rest of my students stayed in Galloway.
The Whithorn School was much smaller and much simpler. There were no paintings of characters, in fact the cement walls weren’t painted at all. We noticed that the kids had used chalk to draw on the front walls, but other than that, it was left undecorated. Inside the school, there was one big room that was divided by blackboards to create four different classes. It was noisy, as the kids’ excitement echoed off the cement walls. They were happy to meet us, and we were equally delighted to meet them. My mother had told the teacher who greeted us that I knew some great songs. So, after we introduced ourselves, again I was asked to sing. I had never been such a popular singer in my life, but it was a good thing that I had plenty of practice at home.
My two students and I then took over one of the four classrooms, while the teacher was at a meeting. The children sat at long wooden tables on wooden benches. We learned all their names, and went over letters, the days of the week, and the months of the year. I noticed how much more chaotic this class seemed than the one yesterday. It appeared hard for them to focus, and it was still very loud within the school. We had them write in their notebooks. The only pencil sharpeners around were the small plastic ones that the children brought with them. My students and I took turns sharpening the pencils. After our writing exercise, it was time for recess We followed the kids onto the playground, which consisted of one intact swing, and a bunch of tires stuck into the ground. This playground was considerably smaller than the one at the Galloway School, which had four swings, a slide, monkey bars, and two seesaws. Most of the children wanted to use the one swing, which made for a difficult situation. We tried to show them how to stand in line and wait their turns, but they preferred to charge the swing at once, as they all struggled to push themselves onto the one seat. Even though it seemed a bit stressful to us, the children had a great time.
The teacher of our class arrived back from her meeting, and her presence calmed the children. There was great mutual respect between them, and I adored the dynamic. The teacher spoke loudly so that the students could hear her over the other classes. I noticed the Cabbage Patch Doll in the corner that I had seen when I first arrived. It had caught my eye, because I loved playing with Cabbage Patch Dolls as a child. This doll happened to be white, and yet the children had put dreadlocks in its hair. This classroom also had homemade shapes and letters, as well as a map of Jamaica that hung from the rafters. The teachers obviously put in a lot of time and care into decorating the classrooms. Behind me was an old juice jug on its side, filled with water and tiny fish swimming in it, along with a sign attached that read, “Aquarium”. I loved the simplicity.
After the afternoon had drawn to a close, we passed out stickers to the children throughout the school. They received them with such pleasure. Our brother came to pick us up and we waved to all the children as we drove away. It was another incredible day of service. I thought about how wonderful it was for my students to be exposed to such reality. Any limits naturally created by their classroom learning at PSU, were so profoundly overcome here in Jamaica. They lived lessons that they could only imagine in a traditional classroom setting, which would surely improve their academic understanding. They were future teachers, teaching in another country. Certainly, this would be an experience that they would carry with them for the rest of their professional and personal lives.
We sat at the dinner table with our nephew, who carried a heavy heart, because his sister flew back home to the States during the afternoon. Before this last visit, she had accomplished her goal of completing cosmetology school in the U.S., and after reconnecting with her family, went back to the States to start her career. We encouraged our nephew to come dancing with us at the Jungle Club that evening, which was on our schedule. His demeanor lighted, and he accepted our invitation. To be honest, I was a bit nervous about going to the club with my nine beautiful female college students. Our trip was a “dry” one, which was mentioned plenty of times by Mr. Brown. I think this was because he really didn’t understand why we would chose not to drink. Being that it was dry, however, provided me with solace.
Before going out to the club that night, we gathered at the Community Center in Petersfield for the Petersfield Club meeting. There we greeted another college group that had arrived that day, and would be staying with local families in Petersfield. It was amusing to watch their faces, as I thought about how we must have looked only five days ago when we arrived. They were excited, but a little nervous and hadn’t yet had the opportunity to form the friendships that we had. I was asked to speak on behalf of our group about our experience. I sincerely thanked Mr. Brown and all of our community family members, and friends for such an amazing experience. I told them how we felt welcomed from the moment that we met, and how much our time with them meant to our entire group. After the meeting, the van picked us up and we headed to Negril for some dancing.
Our group was accompanied by our nephew, as well as other family members from our community, who were as excited as we were. When we got to the Jungle Club, we were all pleasantly surprised to see that the club wasn’t an overcrowded, smoky environment, but rather open to the night sky, and oddly peaceful. The music was loud, but not overly loud, and everyone enjoyed dancing. I was surprised by how many American songs played. My students knew every word to most of the music and had so much fun that they didn’t mind being “dry”. It had been another fulfilling day from the beginning to the end, and my heart was so grateful.
The rooster obviously didn’t realize that we came home really late after dancing. I had gone from loving the sound, to resenting it, back to loving it, (perhaps because I knew I wouldn’t be hearing it soon). Friday welcomed us, and we got ready and sat down for breakfast. We ate while we reminisced about the week. We ate slowly, and I vowed to taste my food like that once I was home. We stopped by the school after breakfast, so that we could sign our names on one of the walls in the room that we had painted. Then we said good-bye to all the children and teachers, after taking one last photo with everyone. One little girl hugged me and asked, “Will I ever see you again Miss Jess?”, I smiled and said, “I really hope so”. We filed into the van with great anticipation of our last adventure in Jamaica.
Two of the teachers came with us that day, and their excitement was contagious. We drove back to Negril to do a little shopping. My students and I excitedly purchased items to give our family members back home. We bought t-shirts, key chains, spices, sauces, and banana chips. Pleased that we had gathered everything we needed to bring back a little bit of Jamaica, we loaded the van again and drove to Negril Beach.
The beach was much more crowded than the private beach we visited earlier in the week. We were told that we would be treated as tourists there, just like the many other American tourists that lined the beach. Locals who made beautiful jewelry, mugs, and paintings were set up in the sand, selling their treasures. After purchasing some, I sat on my beach chair feeling sorry for the other Americans, who were obviously enjoying their time in Jamaica, but who definitely didn’t experience Jamaica like we did. I was pleased to have set up under a tree that provided shade. I was also happy that I had an Internet connection, as well as some delicious nachos that I had ordered from the restaurant. It was a good time at the beach for someone who doesn’t love the beach. My students had an even better time, as they went parasailing, and swam in the warm ocean. I went down by the water for a while to take pictures. I wanted to remember every moment of this trip.
After the beach, we stopped at a nearby restaurant on the water, not for food, but because there was cliff to jump from. Three of my students gathered the courage necessary to jump off of the 40 foot rock into the stunningly blue water below. It was exciting just watching them. They had another unique experience to bring home. We watched as the sun started to set, knowing that it would be the last sunset that we would see in Jamaica during the trip. The group had come so far and
done so much together. It was a sweet moment being there in that joy.
After cleaning up and eating dinner, we went to the Community Center for our going away party. As we pulled up, we quickly noticed the big tent in the field, which was lit up with small white Christmas lights. Community members gathered, as well as the new group who had arrived the day before. It was breathtaking, and I was struck by such awe inspired gratitude. We greeted our friends and family members with hugs, and played with the children on the seesaws. Mr. Brown gestured that it was time to begin and we all went into the tent to take our seats.
Mr. Brown sat at the long table at one end of the tent and sincerely thanked us for what we had given and what we had accomplished that week. He spoke about what a difference the volunteer work makes in their community, and how proud he is of the program. The work is planned and welcomed by the community members. They set the goals, and they decide what work needs to be done to accomplish the goals. It wouldn’t be nearly as effective if outside groups came in with a predetermined plan and goals of their own, but because it is driven by the local community, it takes on purposeful and beautiful meaning that bonds volunteers and community members. Mr. Brown went on to do what he does best, and told us all such beautiful stories.
Children of all ages from the community sang and danced for us, as we cheered them on. We were truly a part of this community and we felt that in the way that we were welcomed, and in the way that our hearts were open to everyone there. Mr. Brown asked all the host mothers to stand and to present their new “daughters” to everyone gathered there. Pair by pair, we were called up, as our mothers talked about our strengths and thanked us for what we had given. Then, we were invited to speak. I started, and again explained just how incredible our experience had been, and how grateful we were. I thanked Mr. Brown for his hard work, for his sincerity, and inspiration. Then, I thanked my mother and told her that her strength and heart was so inspiring to me as a woman and as a mother. One by one my students spoke, and as we all listened to what they were most grateful for, emotion fell over me. We sang God Bless America, as well as one of the songs that I had taught the children that week. Tears turned to laughter, as we hugged our new friends.
Afterwards, all the mothers put on a singing performance and we clapped along. We were then invited to celebrate by dancing, and enjoying the desserts provided. It was a magical night and a blissful occasion underneath the stars. We rejoiced together. I noticed how happy my students were, as they felt the pride in what they had accomplished, and all that they had learned. They were different from when we came. They understood more, they appreciated more, and they settled into themselves like they hadn’t before. The confidence that came from getting to know who they were on a deeper level, while in another country, was evident in the way they carried themselves.
That night I laid awake reflecting and processing in my journal. I wrote freely and calmly, as the words flowed onto the page. I thought about how I would take home my new sense of time, and how I needed to live the “No problem” Jamaican motto more often than not. I closed my eyes peacefully, happy to have had this experience and excited to go home to tell everyone about it.
The rooster woke me up on our last morning in Jamaica. I welcomed it, knowing that tomorrow I would be faced with my alarm clock, instead. We enjoyed our breakfast, and our time chatting with our mother. We thanked her again for the gifts that she gave us, and for the example that she provided. She headed over to the Community Center, while we packed our things, and explained that she would meet us there to say good-bye.
The van pulled up, and we boarded with our luggage. The air was filled with heavy hearts. My students told me how difficult it had been to say good-bye to their families. We had created such significant and meaningful bonds, and this was something that none of us anticipated. Truly we had family in Jamaica. We pulled up to the Community Center and headed inside. Mr. Brown presented me with a homemade Jamaican plaque and once again thanked each of us for our work. We thanked him and hugged him one by one. I then went to say good-bye to our mother. She wrapped me in her arms and emotion took over. How do you say good-bye to someone who made such a profound impact? I thanked her, told her that I loved her, and would visit again. She was still waving, arm stretched high above her head as our van pulled away. I snapped one last photo of her and waved.
That evening, while on the plane, I had more time to think. I listened as my students discussed the events of the week, and all that they were taking home with them; lessons of generosity, of compassion, and of love. I stared at the sunset out the small window. I thought about all the children that we met, and how grateful I was for the life that my parents built for me as a child. I thought about how thankful I was for my husband, for the dreams that we share, and for the life that we are building for our children. Away from familiar routines, and comfortable surroundings, we are able to sit with the essence of who we are, and truly appreciate all that we have. I thought a lot about family, and acknowledged that blood is not the only thing that binds us. Shared trust, hope, dreams, and admiration is also what builds family. At the beginning of the week it felt a bit awkward referring to our host mother, as “Mom”. However, by the end of the week, it rolled off my tongue naturally, as the connection that we shared deepened. This is what family is, and this is what life is about; the relationships that we build, the sacred connections that we make, and the love that we share with each other.
I leaned back in my chair, still staring out the window. I went to Jamaica to lead a service trip of college students, so that they could learn very important lessons. Of course, I ended up learning, too. I learned a little more about who I am, as a person, as a wife, as a mother, and as a professional. I thought about how ironic it is that many times in life we travel so far, just to find ourselves. I was reminded of what I had learned when I was a college student at PSU, while on a service trip so many years ago. In serving others, we are inspired, we learn about our own hearts, and we are freed. We connect with other people in ways that help us understand the importance of life, and the beauty in our own unique passions. This type of connection makes us feel alive. We are reminded why we choose to serve, and it opens us up to the power of gratitude. We become sincerely grateful for those who serve us. Service is an action of love. This is the greatest gift that we can give. In giving it, we grow and we receive such peace.
When we landed in the U.S., I overheard my students talking to their families on their phones saying, “I can’t wait to tell you about the amazing experience that I had”, and “This was the greatest time of my life!” These were the best kind of outcomes; outcomes that transcended our typical criteria. Of course, we could report on how many students served, how many were served, in what ways, and for how long. It is our tendency to try to evaluate our work in terms of the numbers, but the really important outcomes are those that tend to be more difficult to accurately measure. I smiled, and called my own family to let them know that we were back in the States safely. Later, when we walked off the plane, I took one more look around at the group; success. I hurried over to embrace my husband at the terminal, and the first thing that I said to him was, “We have family in Jamaica”.