Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 25, 2006
Battling Jamaica's grinding poverty
St. Theresa parishioners witness people's struggle to survive destitution
By RAMON GONZALEZ
Fr. Martin Carroll
Carroll said there doesn't seem to be a middle class on the island. "People are either very poor or very wealthy." And he noted roads are bad and there is no public transportation. "So if you get a job out of town, you have to hire a taxi."
Many people make a living by selling fruit and produce by the side of the road.
"We saw the Jamaica that the tourists never see," Carroll said, noting there are high fences that extend miles and miles separating the resorts from poor areas. Security guards make sure the poor don't get into the resorts.
Dufresne said the Oct. 22-29 trip changed him. For one, he is not engaged in the hype of Christmas as much as he usually is. "I think I'm more contemplative now. I keep coming back to this: What can I do? What's the next step? I find myself reflecting a lot about this. Going on this trip kind of ignited that fire (for justice) in me."
Dufresne and Carroll said there are plans to educate the parish about the Project J Team observations in January so other parishioners can get involved. The idea is to sponsor some needy Jamaican children and families and eventually send another team to the island.
"None of us want to let it go," Dufresne said, noting a group from Holy Trinity High School has already expressed interest in participating in the project. It cost $1,750 per person to make the trip.
Catholics are only about four per cent of the population, but the Church spends a good portion of its resources housing, feeding and educating the needy regardless of their religious affiliation. Protestant churches, with 61 per cent of the population, help the poor in similar ways.
St. Theresa's Project J Team went there at the invitation of the Diocese of Mandeville, which runs a project to provide housing to the poorest of the poor in the diocese. The project was co-sponsored by the St. Peter Columbus Club, which contributed $10,000 to finance the costs of the tour.
The group stayed in a retreat-like six-bedroom home with a chapel provided by the diocese just outside Mandeville, Jamaica's third largest city with a population of 250,000.
At the Catholic Distribution Centre in Mandeville, the group, assisted by five Jamaican workers, pre-fabricated two houses and then erected them in two different rural areas. Carroll blessed both houses and handed the keys to their proud owners. The houses are small, 16 by 10 feet, and the cost of each unit is about US$2,500.
"They are glorified garden sheds, but people are really happy with them," Dufresne said.
"We didn't solve Jamaica's problems but at least we gave two families what they needed - a roof over their heads," said Michael Petruchik, a machinist and father of two who is an adult server at St. Theresa.
Many of those who receive houses from the Mandeville Diocese are women. The reason is cultural. In Jamaica, women are pressured to have children at a young age to prove their worth with no talk of marriage.
"A girl who doesn't have a child by the age of 17 is called a mule," explained Dufresne. "There is a huge cultural pressure to have children."
Denise Beztilny, a mother of three who went on the trip with her husband Orest, said the sight of so many young, impoverished single mothers broke her heart.
"I really want to go back there," she said. "I feel God is calling me to go back. There is a need to help these young people. They shouldn't be used as baby machines."
She noted there are no agencies to help the people, not even food banks. "This trip was a good eye-opener for us."
To be eligible for a house, people have to have some land and agree to build a cement pad on which to place the house. It takes about two years to get a house, noted Beztilny.
The Project J Team erected the first house in a rural area next to a small community in the parish of Clarendon. It was for Chase, a young man with a wife and two small children. Chase owns the 2.7 acres of land where his small deep-blue house was built and plans to raise goats on it.
The second house, a pink house, was built in an area of the island called Hadley, which is up in the mountains at an elevation of 850 metres. It was built for Jennifer, a mother of two, who works as a schoolteacher in one of the primary schools there.
The group also visited a number of people in Borobridge, in the interior of the island, who had received houses in the past. They visited Richard, whose house was built five years ago. On the 2.5 acres that his house sits on, Richard grows bananas and sugar cane.
"The most remarkable aspect of Richard's work is that he works his farm by moving around on his hands and hips because he has no legs," Dufresne observed.
Richard lost his legs due to diabetes some years ago.
Petruchik said the trip transformed him. "I'm a lot more aware of poverty now," he said.
"I don't accept the notion that the poor are happy (in their poverty) and that we shouldn't be concerned.
"Poverty can't be ignored. I would be very disappointed if nothing happens after this."
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