Tomorrow morning a group of students from Baylor will be embarking on the trip of their lives. They will be traveling to Kingston, Jamaica, to spend their Spring Break working for others as countless Baylor students have been doing for nearly 20 years.
I was one of those lucky students way back in the spring of 2000, and it was a trip that changed my life. It was my first introduction to international service, and it was my first introduction to some wonderful people who remain constantly in my thoughts.
I was also lucky enough to be able to return, traveling back to Jamaica 6 more times between 2000 and 2005. Each trip has its own unique memories, shared with those who traveled with me and those I met along the way, and each will forever occupy a special place in my heart.
I've been thinking a lot about Jamaica recently, about the children I met, the friends I made, the adventures we had, and the impact the trips had on me. I cannot believe it's been 14 years since my first trip and nearly 9 since my last. I find myself imagining all my little kids all grown up, wondering how they are and what they're doing. Little Kelly, who I remember as a brand new baby born during my first trip, is now 14, and her brothers Bob and Bobby are now in their 20s, which seems unfathomable to me.
And I remember Junior, our sweet friend in Ferry who was taken from us much before his time. He had such a gentle soul and was always wanting to do more for his community, and his spirit lives on in the lives of all those he touched during his life, mine included.
On the Jamaica Trip, it is a tradition that every evening before eating dinner, all the trip participants go around and say what they are grateful for. The list can be as short or as long as they want, and it provides a great way to reflect back on the experiences of the day and share your thoughts with others who are in a similar situation. Our group from my first trip took to gratefuls so much that we decided to meet once a week for lunch when we returned to school to continue those reflections. It gave us an opportunity to see how we had changed during that trip and to see how those changes implemented themselves once we were back in our normal environment. I will forever be grateful for that group and for the bond that we will always share, no matter where we are in life or how long it's been since that first trip.
In 2005 I had to return early from the trip to attend a wedding, so I missed out on the final two days of time with my fellow travelers and of reflecting on the trip. I spent most of the flight from Montego Bay to Atlanta writing, and the following is what came of that. Although I wrote this in 2005, it still rings as true today as it did on that steaming July day.
Tonight, as I sit on a plane leaving the island of Jamaica behind me after yet another incredible journey to my favorite place in the world, I am reminded, as I always am at this time, of everything in this world that I am grateful for.
I am eternally grateful for my family - for my parents and my brother - who have always taught me that I can do whatever I want and desire to. Without their constant love and support, I would not be the person that I am today, and not a day goes by where I don't realize how incredibly lucky I am to have the three most beautiful people in the world as my family. I am grateful for all that they have taught me, not least of which is to care for my fellow human being. They have taught me the beauty of selflessness and compassion, of losing myself in service to others. I am grateful for all that they have given me over the years, particularly the opportunity to return to Jamaica year after year. I am grateful that they understand how important this trip is to me and that they understand that it is my inspiration for everything. I am grateful that they allow me to follow my heart.
I am grateful for the care that I was given as a child, that I was always picked up when I cried, changed when I was wet, and rocked to sleep when I was tired. I am grateful that I not only had two parents and an older brother but also an entire foundation of family members and friends to look after me while I was growing up. I am grateful that I was surrounded by love, that I was fed and washed and clothed properly, that I never had to beg and scream and plead to bring attention to myself. I am grateful that I always had my own bed and my own toys and my own everything - that I never had to share any of my childish luxuries with fifty other children. I am grateful that I was taught to show and to teach love, not hatred. I am grateful that I was never so thirsty that I felt compelled to drink my own urine, and that I was never given one cookie and told that that was to be my entire dinner. I am grateful that I have always had my own space to retreat to when I felt the need to be alone. I am grateful that I was always treated when I was sick, that I never had a tumor growing unchecked in my cheek. I am grateful that I was never drugged or tied up as a child because of my behavior. And I am so incredibly grateful that I did not have to grow up in a place like Marigold.
I am grateful for the smile on Abigail's face every time I see her. I can think of no sweeter sight than her smile when she recognizes me. I am grateful for seeing Kevell share his guineps with a group of children because, despite everything he has grown up without, he has still somehow managed to learn to love and share. I am grateful for the complete joy that I see on Biscuit's face when she is dancing to songs along with Barney. I am grateful for Adrian's generosity when he gives up his swing so that others can have a turn. And I am so grateful that these children's spirits have not yet been broken by the system that they are forced to grow up in.
I was particularly reminded on this trip of how grateful I am for shelter, for the roof that I have always had over my head. I am grateful that I have never woken up in a puddle the morning after a hard rain or had to worry that a strong wind might blow my house over. I am grateful that, with a little help from a group of eleven outstanding young men, we as a group were able to ensure that those roofs won't leak for a little while longer and those houses will withstand one more storm. I am grateful to know that the children I love so much will be safe.
I am grateful for my friends in the community of Ferry - for Junior, who throws the best dance parties in the world. I believe Lynsey Stewart put it best last summer when she said, "He reaches into your chest and squeezes your heart and makes it impossible for you not to love him." Whether he's writing songs for friends fighting battles with cancer or dragging his music equipment to the community center so we can have a party, breaking up fights or simply just talking about nothing at all, his constancy and generosity are a lesson to us all in how to live our lives as good people.
I am grateful for the friendships we have formed and the memories we have made at Ferry over the years. I am grateful for trips to Dolphin Cove and White River Valley and even down the road to Kentucky Fried Chicken. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to watch the Jamaica video with the children at Ferry and hearing their shouts of joy as they see themselves on the screen. I am grateful to know that when I look at the stars and moon and think of the children at Ferry, they are looking at those same stars and thinking of me. I am grateful for picture frames made out of Popsicle sticks, for permanent tie-dye on my t-shirts and shoes, for icing on my backpack, for crowns made out of pipe cleaners, for finger-painting, for pinatas, for visors and masks covered in foam stickers, for recorders, and for noodle necklaces and friendship bracelets. And I am grateful for the opportunity to see the children of Ferry so openly embrace the concept of respect.
I am so grateful for my friends Bob and Bobby and JJ and their compassion and generosity and quiet strength. These three young men have shaped my life more than I will ever be able to express to them, and it is because of them and for them that I continue moving, continue living, continue working, and continue striving. I know that I will love them all my life, just as I know that they will always share and return that love. I am grateful that our relationships have grown so strong that we no longer have to speak to communicate - entire conversations can be held simply by looking into each other's eyes, and no words can express how grateful I am for that feeling. I am grateful that I have been given the amazing opportunity to see the three of them grow and develop into such beautiful people and for the knowledge, deep down, that I helped bring that change about.
As the television on the plane shows off the beaches and resorts of Jamaica, I am grateful to know the real Jamaica - the one where children go hungry every night, the one where a child never knows a loving embrace, the one where families of eight share one-bedroom sheet-metal houses, and often one bed as well. I am grateful that when people speak of Jamaica, I do not think of the beautiful scenery and the lush surroundings but instead of the children being found on the streets every day, of Daniel standing in his house with water halfway to his knees, and of Roy - generous, thoughtful Roy - who was willing to brave a hurricane to drive us to Ferry because he knew that was where we wanted to be. I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to eat jerk chicken at a hut on the side of the road and to speak with Miss Betty and Rasta Man and the late, great Jabbo about the things that are truly important in life. I am grateful that I know that the real Jamaica is not found in its scenery but in the hearts and souls of its most beautiful and impoverished people.
I am always, always grateful to Joli and for all that she has taught - and continues to teach - me. I am grateful to be able to say that I know someone who so truly defines the word 'humane'. Without her, I would never have known how good it feels to completely surrender yourself in the service to others. Without her, I would not know Jamaica, and to think of all that I would be missing breaks my heart. I am grateful for her generosity, for her compassion, for her strength, for her determination, and, above all, for the example she sets every day simply by helping others.
I am grateful, as always, for the wonderful people with whom I have gotten to share this experience. No matter where we go in life, I know we will forever share the truly unique bond of having spetn some of the most memorable days of our lives together. Although we may enter this trip as strangers, we leave it as eternal friends.
I am grateful for the looks on Alia and Alvisia's faces when they are in John's arms. I am grateful that each of the children in the nursery at Marigold has known the loving touch of Lindsey Pearson. I am grateful for the look on Mr Patterson's face when he showed off his new hat and shoes that Katherine had brought especially for him. I am grateful for being able to witness the mirrored smiles on Ally and little Alex's faces as they dance to a tune playing only for them. I am grateful for seeing the contentment on Tia's face when Blair simply holds her in her arms. I am grateful for Carl and his enthusiastic dancing. I am grateful for seeing Devon's face the first time he learned to say Elizabeth's name. I am grateful for how happy Rachel and Ashley are when they are singing songs and dancing with Lynsey like the children they so often don't get to be. And I am grateful for having had the opportunity to share this trip with so many thoughtful and caring people and for the knowledge that they will forever hold a special place in my heart. "Someday, the light will shine like a sun through my skin, and they will say, 'What have you done with your life?' And though there are many moments I think I will remember, in the end, I will be proud to say, 'I was one of us.'"
But as I sit on this plane tonight, speeding toward the world that I live in bt is not necessarily my home, I think I am most grateful for the knowledge in my heart that this will not be the last time I will have to say goodbye to the island and the people of Jamaica. Deep down I know that my time and my work here are not complete, and I hope that they never are. I cannot imagine a year going by in which I did not get to return to the place where my heart truly lies, and gladly, I know that this will not be that year. As JJ said when we left Ferry on that last day, "I'll see you next July." Yes, JJ, you will.
Although I've not been able to get back to Jamaica since this was written, I'm still holding out hope that I will get back there one day. Maybe this summer, maybe the next, maybe in 5 years. But I'll be back.
|[with my boys Joseph and JJ]|
|[Blair and Carlin with Rasheedi and Alex]|
|[with Paula and JJ]|
|[my sweet Bob]|
|[Joseph was so excited about this event]|
|[Carlin with Al George. he wanted so badly to bring him home with us]|
|[crazy Crystal. she was adorable, but she was a troublemaker!]|
|[with Tia. such a sweet little lady, and so good with her younger siblings]|
|[my wonderful little Biscuit-girl. I still wish I could have brought her back with me]|
|[you better believe he nailed that pinata, too]|
|[this precious little thing just turned 14. FOURTEEN. my mind cannot comprehend that]|
|[Junior in his favourite element -- DJ-ing for one of our dance parties]|
|[this was the day Alex learned to "wink" and kept "winking" at everyone he saw]|
|[with my boys Bobby and Bob. how I love them]|
|[Bob with his baby brother Ricardo]|
|[Joli with Willie, Tia, and Paula]|
|[Elizabeth and Blair with Alex and Rasheedi]|
|[with my sweet little JJ. one day I will get back there to see him. one day]|