On my second trip to Ocho Rios, Jamaica with a humanitarian, dental, non-profit organization called Great Shape/ 1000 Smiles, I again found myself working in a remote, jungle community called Walkerswood at the local school… in fact, the only school. It was a series of small, run-down, dirt-floored buildings joined together by sidewalks, metal bars in the glassless windows & surrounded by a rough-shod playground.
The kids, who ranged in age from 5 through 17, were more than curious as we hauled in box after box of dental equipment & chairs. They couldn’t wrap their minds around our odd ways either, whether it was petting or talking to the myriad of poor, starving dogs everywhere or wincing at the sight of bug-covered food that they would eat without a second thought… bugs & all.
Although the principal & staff cared greatly for these children, they were very strict about manners, obedience & the effort they put into their studies. I was even asked to speak at their monthly PTA meeting! The parents initially had a difficult time believing we would actually volunteer to take time away from our own jobs & families & pay our own airfare to come there & not want something in return. Their own survival had always depended on having to hold so tightly onto anything they could get.
It was also an expectation throughout the community that if someone’s child was caught misbehaving, whichever neighbor happened to see them could take it upon themselves to mete out punishment which often included hitting them… the old “spare the rod… spoil the child” mentality.
The second day there, I met a teenage girl, Dana… 15 years old… who lived nearby. Her developmentally disabled brother attended the school & although she was no longer a student there herself, she could often be found helping with him or just hanging around. Her mother was a local healer… a very spiritual, church-going woman who was well-liked & respected in the community.
As we struck up a conversation, I asked why she wasn’t in school. She had attended previously & had actually been a very good student. At some point though, she’d come down with an auto-immune disorder which slowly robbed her of her ability to function. Often exhausted, she would ask the teacher to be excused. Her mother, being very concerned, had taken her to various local healers with no luck. She was finally able to get a clear diagnosis from a medical center some distance away.
Unfortunately because of the culture there & a lack of understanding, that explanation wasn’t well-received by the school staff. Assuming she was just being lazy, her teachers became so hard on her she eventually dropped out of altogether. Fortunately by the time we met, her symptoms had begun to go into remission & her strength & energy were slowly returning.
Since we were short-handed, this seemed like an ideal opportunity to have her work with us as a team member & build her self-esteem at the same time… a win-win! She seemed to have a natural aptitude for dentistry & before long she was performing a number of tasks quite well. The change in her demeanor was palatable & it did my heart good to see her confidence in herself grow.
Each year as our trip came to an end & we prepared to go back home, there was always a dinner back at the hotel to say “thank-you” to everyone who had participated & give them a chance to say their good-byes to so many they had developed strong bonds with. Everyone shared how much it had meant to them to really be able to help but they also felt they’d received so much more in return.
Our team invited Dana to come spend the night at the hotel in my room so she could attend the dinner & with her mother’s permission, she excitedly agreed. I knew this would be a great experience for her but I had no idea what an adventure it would be as well… for both of us…
She arrived carrying a change of clothes and an old, ragged towel in a paper bag. I explained it wasn’t necessary for her to bring her own towel as the hotel supplied them for their guests. I then told her to go ahead & feel free to take the first shower. She headed into the bathroom as my roommate & I took that time to kick back after a long, hot day.
About 20 minutes later, out she walked… tears in her eyes… red blotches all over her skin. Surprised & concerned, I asked her what was wrong. “I tried to stay under the spout” she said “but the water was just SO hot, I couldn’t stand it anymore!” To my dismay, I realized she had never been in a shower with hot & cold running water before. I thought about how naïve I’d been not to realize that. Most Jamaicans shower in rainwater they trap in vats on their roofs. It’s a tropical climate so water heaters aren’t used, even though there are days I’m sure it’s chilly. They simply can’t afford the electricity or plumbing.
I apologetically explained the situation to her & helped her get ready for dinner, all the while trying to ease her extreme nervousness. By the time we got to dinner & seated ourselves, the poor thing looked like she was going to pass out!
As our dinners were served, I noticed one of the Jamaican waiters standing by the wall near our table, quietly & quickly came over to her, placed her napkin in her lap for her & showed her the silverware. Once again, I realized she had never been to a restaurant… never experienced the nuances of having her glass filled with water or ordering from a menu. Again, I felt like I’d failed her in not being aware enough of the circumstances she came from. No wonder she was so anxious!
There are many people who live in the U.S. who also go without these things as well but even more Jamaicans do. So many of us in this country are so blessed to have enough to eat, a place to sleep, a chance for an education, clothing, charitable organizations who are available to make up the difference & opportunities for some type of dental & medical care should an emergency arise at least. We can’t know what we haven’t yet learned & sometimes it’s easy to forget to appreciate what we haven’t had to go without.
Gratitude is our gift to ourselves & to the collective because if we can’t see our own reasons to be grateful, we’re not near as likely to be there to support & empower others.
GET CURIOUS… REMEMBER…