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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.