U.S. Sailors Help Revive Old Age Home in Kingston


It is a hot Sunday, a Mother’s Day morning. The Ozanam Home for the Aged, a long, low building just off Mannings Hill Road in Kingston, looks subdued and sleepy on the outside. For a moment I wonder if I have found the right place.

Busy people at the Ozanam Home for the Aged. (My photo)
Busy people at the Ozanam Home for the Aged. (My photo)

As I step inside, however, I hear the radio playing and find the building full of people – young men and women in mostly dark blue military fatigues, wielding paint brushes and rollers. The sharp tang of paint is in the air. The managers and board members of the Home are there too, ready to assist in whatever way they can.

First, I get to know some of the 44 volunteers from the USNS “Comfort,” the huge hospital ship which arrived here from Guatemala last week and will move on to Nicaragua next. The ship’s visit is part of a six month humanitarian mission called “Continuing Promise” in Central America and the Caribbean. Activities include “COMREL” (community relations) work like this at several locations in and around Kingston (and, of course, at all the stops on the ship’s itinerary). Besides this, surgeries are performed on board (at least 100 scheduled for Jamaica) and the ship’s staff are providing free medical services daily at the National Indoor Stadium and at Maxfield Park Clinic in Kingston from May 6 -13. The services include optometry, dentistry, general medical, women’s health and pharmacy. On Saturday alone, USNS staff provided medical services to some 800 Jamaicans; so thousands will have been assisted by the time the ship departs.

Petty Officer Latoya Wilcox hard at work. (My photo)
Petty Officer Latoya Wilcox taking pride in her work. (My photo)

I meet Petty Officer Latoya Wilcox, from Miami. I also meet the handsome Kenyatta Powell, Master at Arms Chief, from New Jersey. Both tell me how much they enjoy the opportunity to leave the ship for a day and “give back” to a local community. CSSA Chantal Woods, a young woman from Los Angeles with a charming smile, tells me this was her first deployment on the “Comfort.” Chantal is a culinary specialist based in Pennsacola, Florida. Yes, a cook, taking a break from the kitchen – or galley, as it is called on a ship, I believe.

Kenyatta Powell hard at work. (My photo)
Kenyatta Powell hard at work. (My photo)

Chantal tells me she is “missing home” just a little – or rather, missing a certain person. She just got engaged, and plans to marry next year. I wish her good luck and much happiness in the future.

Culinary Specialist Chantal Woods moving fast with the paintbrush. (My photo)
Culinary Specialist Chantal Woods moving fast with the paintbrush. (My photo)

Petty Officer 1st Class Jonathan Coreson (known as Johnny) tells me he is in charge of all COMREL activities. Petty Officer Coreson is 27 years old and has been in the U.S. Navy for seven years. I ask him how he approaches his work, which appears quite exacting (the military are well known for their attention to detail, of course). He prepares for each activity in advance, he tells me; each location has its peculiarities. “There is no ‘cookie cutter’ formula,” he adds, “We adjust to the needs of each individual organization, depending on its needs.” After each activity, there are detailed assessments – lessons learned, “What we could have done better,” says Petty Officer Coreson. He says the sailors enjoy the escape from the monotony of ship life, and that there is never any shortage of volunteers for COMREL sessions. It means a lot to the men and women to see a little bit of everyday life in the countries they visit, to meet people and make a difference to their lives. A taste of local home cooking, too, is always welcome, he laughs.

Petty Officer Jonathan Coreson's home town is Soldatna, Alaska, where it is a cool 56 degrees Fahrenheit today. Here in Kingston it was 86 degrees!  (My photo)
Petty Officer Jonathan Coreson’s home town is Soldotna, Alaska, where it is a cool, cloudy 56 degrees Fahrenheit today. Here in Kingston it is 86 degrees! (My photo)

The work of the U.S. Navy volunteers is a “lovely gift,” says the home’s board member and fund-raising Chair Charmaine Chin Loy. The new board took over just over a year ago, and is already pushing ahead with plans to revamp the building. Termites had nibbled away the roofs of the chapel, an adjoining hallway and the men’s ward, but now new roofs are installed. The Sandals Foundation has also contributed bathroom facilities and other equipment. “It was very run down,” says board member Margaret De Leon. Redecorating will continue; the board plans to give the home a new, less old-fashioned, attractive look, with coordinated furniture in every room, piped music and bright inspirational pictures on the walls.

Fund-raising chair Charmaine Chin Loy chats with (left) Terry Finn of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Jamaica and (center) fellow board member Teddy DaCosta. (My photo)
Fund-raising chair Charmaine Chin Loy chats with (left) Terry Finn of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Jamaica and (center) fellow board member Teddy DaCosta. (My photo)

Ms. Chin Loy reminds me the Home is always in need of volunteers, as well as donations (money or in kind). She tells me that a group from the U.S. Embassy in Kingston visits the home every month to spend time with the residents (there are currently 21, but the home can accommodate 50). The piano was refurbished, so now the monthly sessions include music as well as board games and general companionship. The residents look forward to it.

Freya McDonald of Project Hope - an Aussie in a sea of Americans - joined the "Comfort" in Miami for two months and will disembark at Panama. (My photo)
Freya McDonald of Project Hope – an Aussie in a sea of Americans – joined the “Comfort” in Miami for two months and will disembark in Panama. (My photo)

I am surprised to meet someone who is neither American nor a military person among the group. Freya McGregor is an Occupational Therapist from Melbourne, Australia, who works with the U.S.-based non-profit organization Project Hope – one of several such organizations on board the “Comfort.” Project Hope is named after the “SS Hope,” refitted after World War II as a hospital ship after a medical doctor serving with the military persuaded President Dwight D. Eisenhower of the need. One of the ship’s first voyages (its maiden voyage was in 1960) was to Jamaica. Since then, Project Hope in partnership with the U.S. Navy has been providing health education and humanitarian assistance worldwide.

After taking a few photos, I sip on a cold drink with Ozanam Home Chairman Rodger Braham, while thirsty volunteers visit the igloo to get refreshment. Mr. Braham observes that there are so many people – all over Jamaica – who are doing good work every day. They need – and deserve – our support. Mr. Braham is optimistic, though; he sees signs of a more aware and active civil society that is stepping up to the plate. “It will take time,” he notes, for ordinary Jamaicans to get involved, and start caring more for their fellow citizens. But he thinks the time will come.

On my way home, the taxi driver reinforces this hopeful note. As we chat about parenting and Mother’s Day, he says he notices more young men with their children on the street – especially in “inner city” areas. He sees this as a sign of growing responsibility – and he gives the fathers a word of encouragement (a “big up”) when he sees them.

This is how we transform societies: through partnerships, and one step at a time. Let’s get on board (pun intended)!

The Ozanam Home for the Aged, originally established with seven women in Half Way Tree in 1953, is now at 38 Mannings Hill Road, Kingston 8. It is operated by The Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Jamaica and is a registered non-profit organization, entirely dependent on donations. You can reach the home at (876) 924-3982. 

I visited the residents, who were relaxing in the shade of fruitful mango and ackee trees. Note the solar water heaters in the foreground. (My photo)
I visited the residents, who were relaxing in the shade of fruitful mango and ackee trees while the work was going on. Note the solar water heaters in the foreground. (My photo)

 


12 thoughts on “U.S. Sailors Help Revive Old Age Home in Kingston

      1. thanks to you as well. your post really struck a sensitive chord, and it’s so refreshing to read that our country is spreading goodwill – genuine goodwill – through these beautiful ambassadors.

        although i don’t have a diagnosis yet, i suspect that the past ten days’ illness is the lovely chikungunya. head back to the clinic today for another round of blood tests. z

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      2. Yes, it is genuine goodwill, and it is really heart-warming. The ship’s visit has made a difference to thousands of Jamaicans’ lives and I applaud these lovely young people for it!
        BUT…As you know if you have read my blog, both my husband and myself got chikungunya in September/October of last year. We still have pains as a result – and our energy levels remain low. I feel it has never really left us. Have you had a rash? I would recommend drinking lots of water and juice. And lots and lots of rest, that is crucial. I don’t think I rested enough! PLEASE take care. If it is chik v you must take it seriously.

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      3. thanks, and i am taking it seriously. i was very sick fifteen years ago from what i thought was dengue (but the tests last week showed negative)… because of the dengue history, i knew that a second case could be very dangerous.. even when i recovered so fast, i didnt trust that time, and i was right.. it returned.

        yes, i’ve had two different kinds of rashes, nd i will be returning for a third blood test on thursday for another look for dengue… my blood pressure stays very low, so all am abe to do is sit or lie down.. too bad i dont have boxes and boxes of chocolates to help me pass this time!!!!! z

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      4. Oh, doesn’t sound good. I’ve also had dengue and yes – that does have more than one strain. Chikungunya apparently doesn’t (at least not yet!) but if you don’t look after yourself and rest enough, it does come back for another go at you several weeks later! This happened to many of us. These things are so depressing, and boring! I hope you’ve got some good books to read! Get well soon!

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