Visitors from Siena College pose for a photo with friars Colin King and Jim Bok.
Looking back on our first trip to Jamaica in November 2019, we sheepishly admit that we were under-prepared to absorb all that our new colleagues (and now friends), Colin King and Jim Bok, would show and share with us about their adopted home, Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica. As we exited Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, we knew that we had to “go right” and “go right” again, where we would find Jim waiting patiently for us in front of the Groovy Grouper, but that was close to all we knew. From there, it was a whirlwind of getting the lay of the land (oh, the “thrill” of traveling the Jamaican roads!), learning from community members and visiting the incipient health clinic in Revival that Colin has been steadily and faithfully seeking to build.
We, Jenna Thate and Dan White, are faculty members and administrators at Siena College, a Franciscan liberal arts college in bucolic upstate New York. Jenna is a nurse and a professor, and Dan is an anthropologist and an administrator in charge of health professions. A providential introduction to Colin in the summer of 2019 by our colleague, Br. Brian Belanger, OFM, demonstrated that Jenna, Dan and Colin shared similar aims. Chief among them is an intellectual interest in and devotion to the health and wellbeing of underserved communities and the idea that, as Pope Francis said, “a preference for the poor is not optional.”
We would learn very quickly that Colin and all of the friars in Negril were “our kinda guys.” We started making plans to bring keen undergraduate students in our nursing and health studies programs to Negril and to figure out how we could somehow “come alongside” in the clinic building process. We saw that a key ingredient to future successes in this endeavor was the deep connections and trust that community members, community leaders and local authorities have with and for the friars. In our view, these relationships and subsequent trust is a result of the friars’ authentic concern and faithfulness in “showing up” day after day. We desired to emulate this through a sustaining partnership with the community served by these friars.
When, COVID-19 happened. We did our best to keep in touch and to keep our burgeoning partnership in sight, but it was a challenging few years. Fast forward to February 2022, when the time was looking right to reinvigorate our plans to get to Negril, and this time with students. Dan had won a small grant to travel in 2020, which was ultimately postponed (more than once) to March 2022. He spent a week in March shadowing Colin, talking to people and working out some remaining logistics to bring students. Jim connected him with the owners of local, family-owned property that turned out to be a perfect for our students, and Colin started to line up key folks for us to talk to about community health, health promotion and health literacy. We were on for May 2022. But would our nursing students still want to go?
Happily, yes! On May 2, seven Siena Saints (five students and two faculty members) descended on Negril to a generous welcome by the friars. Our plans were to document as much of the history of the mission in Negril as we could, as well as to meet with clinical and public health professionals who could give us some guidance about whether our skills matched any current community needs. We arrived with a beginner’s mind and we were welcomed by each and every person with whom we met. This is a testament to the work that the friars in Negril have done for over a decade, and we are grateful that they trusted us enough to vouch for us.
Our students had spent their fall semester learning about Negril, about what global health professionals call the “burden of disease” (in other words, what illnesses most affect people), and preparing some potential health promotion interventions based on this work. We knew that we would have to be flexible because, among other things, COVID-19 is still a thing, and we were not entirely sure what people would think about our ideas.
On May 4, Tim Lamb and the generous staff of St. Anthony’s Kitchen welcomed our team for a morning of conversation, blood pressure checks and data collection. Our students (all registered nurses) learned about how the kitchen supplied thousands of meals during the pandemic. They also learned about the friars’ commitment to getting kids to school with a meal, lunch money and clean uniforms.
We noticed on our first trip to Jamaica that small, Chinese-built motorcycles are the taxis of Negril. Unfortunately, only about six percent of riders wear helmets, and fewer than that wear any other protective gear. We decided to do some low-tech data collection and we spent a few hours counting cars, motorcycles and helmets. We hope the data will go toward future health promotion interventions.
Colin also connected us with community leaders who are working, day in and day out, to improve health and wellbeing in Jamaica. One such person is T’Ka, who is a current nursing student. She shared information about how nurses are trained in Jamaica and discussed the very real challenge of the brain drain of qualified healthcare professionals. The Jamaican healthcare system has to compete with higher paying positions in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom in order to keep health professionals in the country. We were also fortunate to meet a local politician and professionals who work in the regional Ministry of Health to plan for future work in support of the clinic.
We could not be more grateful for the tireless work and the generous spirits of the friars in Negril. Our students had the experience of a lifetime. They got to immerse themselves in a new culture, a new healthcare system and a new environment. They even got to have a little downtime on one of the most beautiful beaches on the planet.
We are anxious to return. Our plan is to travel with a second group of students in December 2022, to pick up where we left off and to add our efforts to those of others who have caught the vision that Colin has set forth. We hope that with each small step, we can help the friars come closer to achieving their dream to have a regular, well-stocked and reliable clinic for the people of Revival, and, ultimately, to enhance the health and wellbeing of the warm, generous people who call this place home.