Investing in the Future
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Every day we hear about the mayhem and heartache of many countries around the globe. We often shrug them off as being meaningless and “just the way it is.” However, the problems are often amplified in a small country, like Jamaica. Struggling with limited resources, a strained economy, rampant poverty and corruption, at times, it seems hopeless. But then you meet the children.
My 16-year-old daughter, Melody, and I were taking a taxi to town the other day and happened to end up in the same cab as some other Americans. Along the way, as often happens, we got into the “Why are you in Jamaica?” conversation, which is always followed by the “How long are you here for?” question.
Having answered those surface questions, we got a little deeper into discussions about how we spend our time, why we are here and what really matters to us. We all agreed that it was very important to have lives of purpose, even if retired or living in a tropical paradise.
One of the women, Evelyn, began to tell us about a program she is investing time and resources in called “Billy’s Bay Learning Center,” run in a little village, Billy’s Bay, about a thirty minute walk from my home in Treasure Beach, Jamaica. Melody and I had been looking for a volunteer experience while here so we queried the woman for more information.
Evelyn was excited to explain how the program exposes these marginalized children, often for the first time, to the written word and the wonders that books contain. They are shown how they can be transported to new and exciting lands, learn moral lessons and even master new skills, all from the pages of a book. Coming from families where illiteracy rates among adults are high, and little emphasis is placed on education, this is new and uncharted water for many of these children.
We were asked if we would like to help out, being told the learning was cloaked in playing games, reading books and doing crafts with the kids for a few hours each Saturday in an effort to help hone their reading skills, coordination and confidence. Ranging in age from 4 year olds to preteens, the group had grown to a size that really required extra adult supervision. That sounded simple enough and we committed to being there the following Saturday.
The “Saturday School,” as the kids have dubbed it, has been meeting in a small church in the center of town for about three years. Concrete and tile from the floor to ceiling, the building is the perfect amplifier for any sound above a child’s whisper. As you know, children rarely whisper and with the church property hugged closely by several elderly parishioners homes, discord quickly arose. It seems that “not in my backyard” is a sentiment in Jamaica, just like everyone else.
It had recently been decided that the group would be relegated to only using “the verandah.” Such an elegant sounding place, for such a simple spot…a concrete porch. Upon our arrival, that’s where we found the tattered but smiling group of children sitting on well-worn felt blankets and threadbare sheets. Many were already holding books, looking at the pictures or haltingly tried to read out loud. They called out to “Miss Siseenia” to let her know there were “people here.”
After a short while, Miss Evelyn and the rest of the class had gathered and the soft-spoken teacher, Miss Siseenia, called the class over to meet us. She asked them which action song they would like to start the class with. Designed to teach skills in listening and following directions, their faces lit up as they mastered the words and the correct actions. They were so serious as they sang a childhood classic that I hadn’t heard in ages, “Ten little monkeys, jumping on the bed…” made even more adorable by their Jamaican accents.
After singing and having a story read to them, we all moved to the reading area of the porch, the children chose books and sat in pairs or alone to begin picking their way through the stories. A girl with thick braids framing her adorable round face, tugged at Melody’s, arm and asked if she could read to her. Melody’s heart melted as she sank to the dirty floor and began reading a book out loud with other children gathering closely around to watch and listen. A thin little boy with a huge smile came to me and we sat down together.
As I read the stories that included castles, roller coasters, circuses and vacation trips, I noticed the boy was having difficulty focusing. It wasn’t really surprising when you consider he’s never seen a roller coaster, been to a circus or experienced a family vacation. How much better could he have related and focused if there had been stories about fishermen or farmers or goats walking down the street?
When Melody finished reading, she decided to take the braids out of her hair. The little boys became fascinated with her long blond locks. I found them all gathered around her, gently stroking her hair, commenting over and over on how soft and smooth it was. I had to take a photo to capture the moment.
Pulling out the camera turned out to be the highlight of the class for many of the students. Not only did they join the world-wide phenomena of children LOVING to see themselves in photos, but this group took it a step further. They wanted to shoot the pictures, not just star in them.
Making certain that everyone had a turn, both in front of the camera and behind it, we moved on to games, puzzles and coloring. The class was asked to draw a picture to give to someone they love on the upcoming Valentine’s Day.
Using stencils, they traced and then colored various shapes and animals. Very few could write their names on the drawings so they were asked who they loved and why. Miss Evelyn proceeded to write a short note for each of them on the papers, adding their names. One boy related that he loved his older sisters because they help him when he’s hurt or afraid and they share a bed with him at night. It was so sweet.
While the group cleaned up the craft supplies, I helped Siseenia pack up homemade popcorn into pouches we made from paper towels. Orange slices were ready as well. The children lined up and very politely asked for their treat. I was told that this food might serve as breakfast and lunch for some of them. Many children clutched the food tightly as they left that day. I found myself wondering if they had others at home to share it with.
It’s important to note that in years gone by, the expectation in a small village like this was that the boys would grow up and “go to the sea,” becoming fishermen like their fathers and grandfathers. Girls aspired to work in the handful of hotels and guest houses as housekeepers like their mothers had done. Very little emphasis was placed on education, a mentality that tends to hang on to this day.
With the most local schools being few miles from their village, regular attendance requires either a very long walk or taxi fare everyday. Added to this expense are school uniforms, lunch fees and school supplies. This is an investment that many parents in Billy’s Bay simply can’t make without extreme sacrifice, often adding to the lack of parental motivation to see that kids are in school.
More recently, however, the local tourism industry has moved into the computer age. As new, bigger villas and guest houses have been built, they’ve brought a different, often more demanding, clientage into the area. Even here, being “employable” often means knowing at least basic computer skills and above average social and problem solving skills. Additionally, over-fishing in the area has depleted the income of many fishermen to the point of extinction. Gone are the days that sons took over dad’s fishing boat.
Those of us “from farin,” as they call foreigners here, often pop in and think we have the answers. We see a child using an empty soda bottle to drive through imaginary roads in the dirt and make the assumption that he would be better off to have a shiny new toy truck. We often toss aside the fact that he is using his mind and imagination quite well in that scenario.
It’s easy to forget about cultural differences or the reality of the lives people live here and the limited resources many of them have. It’s easy to stand in our lives of comfort and say, “They just need to educate their children!”
The difference with this program is that it is coming from within. Yes, there is support being provided by outsiders but the workers and the participants are born and raised right here in Jamaica. It’s truly an effort that THEY place value in as they try to lift up their own communities and standards of living.
Small villages like Billy’s Bay can be found all over Jamaica. The story of despair will be repeated for years to come unless the cycle is broken and education is made attainable for all children across the island. The faces you are seeing here represent the future of Jamaica.
One of the many benefits of a program like the Saturday School is that children exposed to the joy that learning can be, feel better about themselves. As they begin to realize the value of understanding the written world around them, they beg their parents to send them to school. They start craving the mastery of new and exciting knowledge. This attitude can set them up for a lifetime of success.
If you have any interest in supporting this effort financially or would like to participate in this project or another one like it in Jamaica, please contact me and I’ll happily connect you with the appropriate organization. These children deserve a fighting chance. The early interventions they receive in programs like these are the building the blocks to a better Jamaica.