“Be the change that you wish to see in the world” – Mahatma Gandhi
I had been planning my vacation to Jamaica for almost a year! I envisioned tropical beaches, Pina Coladas, fun in the sun! I did not count on another version of Jamaica – one filled with poverty and hunger – the other side of the Island in Kingston, Jamaica.
Two weeks ago, I flew to Jamaica to represent Mrs USA in the United Nations pageant system, a pageant based on service and a desire to make a positive and global impact with the less fortunate. For more than a decade, I’ve been mentoring with Big Brothers Big Sisters, Kinship of Greater Minneapolis, and as a Career Advocate and speaker for Dress for Success. As Mrs. USA United Nations, I’d been promoting ‘Become an Everyday Hero: Mentor a Child,’ hoping more adults and families would consider mentoring a young person, helping them to grow and develop into productive young people with a promising future.
Over the years I’ve been partnered up with children who didn’t have much in terms of familial support or material things, but nothing had prepared me for what I was about to experience on my trip. The Director of the United Nations pageant is a Jamaican gentleman with a heart for the orphans living in the Jamaican Christian Boys Home in Kingston, Jamaica and, once all of the delegates arrived, we headed to the Boys Home to paint the exterior of the building the boys lived in.
Driving up I was struck by the condition of the home and property – it was dilapidated, the yard filled with junk and garbage, broken windows, old mattresses stacked up, dangerous wires and pipes, cinderblocks strewn around . . . and the boys ran around with old, dirty, torn, ill-fitting clothing and bare feet. Occasionally, one shoe was seen on the driveway but there was no one to tell them to bring it inside. One boy was trying to bounce a basketball that was worn down to its innards and toss it into the rusty basketball hoop with no net.
Twenty boys lived in this orphanage, and they slowly peeked out and crept over to see who was coming to paint their home. One 12-year old wasn’t afraid and began asking me questions about the USA. I asked him what they really needed there. He said “We really need another bike. We only have one bike and we need a bike for the smaller boys so we can race.” “You only have one bike for 20 boys?” I asked. “Yes.” he replied. I was thinking that, in the US, that would not happen – there would be drives, churches would get involved, people would donate from their excess but, here in Jamaica, there is no excess and no Target or Walmart with inexpensive bikes. “We also need church clothes – pants and a buttoned-down shirt.” All the boys had now were ripped jeans and shorts and old t-shirts. Going to church was their one day out of their compound since it was summer and there was no leaving for school. They spent 24/7 at the home – riding one bike and playing with a few old balls.
The delegates from around the world painted all day in the hot sun and 100 degree heat (Why didn’t I bring a hat! Why am I wearing jeans?! Why didn’t I bring suntan lotion?) Those of us from colder climates found ourselves with sun stroke after a few hours and had to lay on the shady porch to rest and rehydrate . . . did I mention there was no air conditioner inside this home? After 8 hours, the home had a fresh coat of red paint on its exterior. Inside was a 90-year old woman who owned the home and had the most beautiful, full smile I’ve ever seen! To everyone who passed by, she would smile her toothy grin and then go back to her crossword puzzle, occasionally dozing off mid-word, while her stocking fell down to her ankle. She and her husband had taken boys in to her home decades ago, along with older boys who were not mentally able to live on their own and, now that he had passed, it was just her. She has a heart of gold.
As we left for the day, I thought about what more I could do – the bed sheets were filthy and old, the pillows had no pillow cases, the pots and pans were warped and looked like they were 100 years old. In America, all of these things would have been tossed decades earlier. We rarely ‘wear’ anything out – we buy new even before something is old! When I told my daughter about these boys and their single bike, she agreed: first things first – we needed to buy them a bike!
In Jamaica, a mid-sized bike is $125; Chloe picked out a green one that looked like a racing bike. We also bought chicken, pasta and the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies for the upcoming cooking contest to be judged by all of the boys; then we headed to the orphanage.
The excitement on the boys faces when they saw their new bike was a sight to see! The jumped up and immediately starting pumping the tires up, adjusting the seat, testing out the bell on the handlebars, and then the first boy jumped on it for its first spin up the bumpy driveway – they didn’t mind! They stood up on the foot pedals so they didn’t feel the bumps, and sailed back and forth with the freedom a new bike gives – as well as the joy of riding on a bike that has speed since it had 2 good tires! Here’s the video:
That day my family cooked fried, breaded, pounded cotoletta chicken chicken breast (an Italian favorite), penne with tomato sauce, and I made large, soft chocolate chip cookies (giving tastes of dough and chips to the boys along the way). I wanted to represent a traditional American dessert – plus I gave each boy a Snickers bar (chocolate is a real treat since it’s expensive there). After all the different countries’ foods were tasted, the boys started chanting “USA USA USA” – we had won the cooking challenge! (Thank goodness my husband was there to help me cook for that many kids!)
A few days later, I won the title of Mrs. United Nations 2016, my daughter won Little Miss United Nations 2016 and, with it, we plan on doing what we can to create more smiles around the world – as well as feel more gratitude for all that we have and are able to give.