Humanitarian and Youth Programs


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Religious Youth Service

Religious Youth Service Gives Jamaica School a Facelift

Portland Parish, Jamaica - Seventeen young people from six nations assembled on August 3 for 13 days of service-learning on Jamaica's northeast coast, organized by the Religious Youth Service.

After travelling through the mountains from Kingston, the capital, 22 youths from various religious and cultural backgrounds in Guyana, St. Lucia, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and the USA as well as Jamaica arrived at the work site, an elementary school with 250 students in the community of Buff Bay in Portland Parish. The participants and staff met each other and sleeping areas were assigned to males and females at the work site; participants then enjoyed a home-cooked meal. Later, everyone met in a common area for registration and introductions. Ice-breaker exercises were introduced by staff, and participants began to be comfortable with each other by lights out. For some of the youth, it was their first experience sharing a communal sleeping space and it served as a bonding experience.

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The next morning began with a Unificationist morning meditation led by Jonathon and Mario. After a healthy breakfast, project director Georgia Pearson started the orientation with two videos, one about RYS and one about the parent organization, UPF. Participants responded positively. Then the history of RYS was presented and participants worked on a "Vision 20/20" activity in which they were randomly split into four groups and individuals were asked to identify the values that they could not do without. Each group was then asked to choose common values, create a vision statement incorporating them, and then illustrate the statement on a poster. All groups came up with innovative ways of expressing key values such as love, trust, family, health, and life in their posters.

Participants attended Sunday Service at the Buff Bay Independent Baptist Church, where the group was specially welcomed by Pastor Vernon Allen, a friend of the RYS club in Portland Parish. Although the service was long, it was far from boring, and participants commented how patriotic Jamaicans are; all the songs sung were national songs, and the gathering closed with the national anthem. After lunch, orientation continued with the "Lion, Fox, and St. Bernard" exercise that helped participants understand their leadership styles.

Although Monday was scheduled to be the first work day, it was also the celebration of Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of independence from Britain; hence the work was postponed and participants joined the celebration, which began with a flag-raising ceremony and continued with a concert in the street.

The following day, Mario Glasgow, the work site manager, assigned work tasks to the various teams: cleaning classrooms, repairing and replacing a picket fence, and landscaping. No repairs had been made for the previous five years, and a face lift was much needed. Different team leaders using various approaches to motivate team members. All leadership styles were seen, from "lions" taking charge to "St. Bernards" helping by carrying out even more tasks than assigned, to "foxes" determining what was the best way to get tasks done and the most effective use of time.

Participants worked tirelessly to complete assignments, despite the heavy rains and threats of a hurricane. The youngest male worked whole-heartedly despite the fact that he had never done physical work such as gardening or painting. While some were daunted by the tasks, Rila from Guyana didn't mind, commenting: "Lot of work, good for me."

After the second work day, the participants enjoyed a trip to Dunn’s River Falls, where they climbed a mile and a half to the waterfalls. About 180 feet (55 m) high and 600 feet (180 m) long,the waterfalls are terraced like giant stair steps, of which some are man-made improvements. Several small lagoons are interspersed among the vertical sections of the falls. The demanding hike was an opportunity for participants to bond and establish trust as they encouraged and assisted each other. "On a scale of 1-10, Dunn's River is 11," commented Jaiwansign from Suriname. "This place was in my dreams."

A group of campers from the International Volunteer Academy assisted with painting the school as well as the netball and volleyball courts; it was the longest work day because participants were full of energy and didn't want to stop with tasks undone. “I loved the painting aspect of the work," said Kymani from St. Lucia. "I wish we had a cartoonist.”

Later that afternoon, Ambassador for Peace Ivan Coore gave a lecture on the history of Jamaica, and Dennis Salmon, Secretary General of UPF-Jamaica, talked about character development.

Jamaicans prepared and served local food. “I cooked so much food and got tired but when I see the smiles at meal times, my tiredness goes away,” said Cleve. Some of the Suriname youth especially enjoyed the food: "Great menu!" (Kabieta), "I want the recipes" (Charisma), and "I got the true taste of Jamaica; the food is the bomb!" (Taravel). Debbie, who helped plan the menus, noted that the Americans wanted more fruits and vegetables. However, she explained that during the hurricane season fruits and vegetables are very expensive.

On the weekend, participants and staff worked hard but were unable to finish painting all the rooms. The school looks renewed and is ready for teachers and students. The principal and her assistant were inspired by the transformation and invited the Religious Youth Service to return next year.

An exercise called "Strengths I See/Strengths Others See," led by Georgia Pearson, started a memorable reflection process. Initially, several participants had concerns about giving up their mobile devices during this period. However, the concerns were allayed when the purpose of the reflection was made clear. Participants were asked to consider what values they held most dear and use words with the initial letters of their name to write a mission statement and to identify their strengths and best qualities. The Strengths I See/Strengths Others See exercise also emphasized these positive attributes.

The group journeyed to Somerset Falls for relaxation and writing poetry; there the reflections became very intense and emotional, ending with a flower ceremony during which participants showed appreciation to each other by exchanging flowers. “Somerset Falls was the perfect place to get rid of stress," commented Seweon from Guyana. "Jamaica is so beautiful!"

A number of participants commented about traveling on the mountainous island. “I love the crazy driving through the mountains," said Landon from the US. "I get car sick and I love it." Mario from Guyana commented: “I now understand the phrase 'Jamaica me crazy mon.' The drivers are crazy, the roads are always wet, and the drivers always look sleepy ... I would do it all over again, now I am crazy.”

The time together was a cultural exchange, offering opportunities to experience and appreciate the diverse cultures of Jamaica and the other nations represented. “Very interreligious and multicultural, I love the mix,” said Shaday from Jamaica. Some international participants began thinking of ways to make an impact in their own nation. “Well done, I want to do this back at home,” commented Jaiwansign from Suriname.

The project was featured twice on evening television news and on the Buff Bay local cable channel.

The Portland RYS Club members worked to finish painting the classrooms after the international participants departed. The club is planning to build a relationship with the school and create a Big Brother/Big Sister relationship with the students, visiting them regularly to assist with homework and promoting cultural activities and character development.

See also reports about previous service-learning projects in Portland Parish in May 2009 and in March and November 2010.

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