PERU — As Peru Community Church prepares for its 15th-annual Jamaica Mission, Co-Coordinator Harriet Burrell looks back on the changes she has seen during her years of visiting the island nation.
“They’ve gone from bad to desperate,” she said of the poverty-stricken conditions in Jamaica’s interior.
“At the same time, the Jamaican people are the most hopeful people I’ve known.”
The mission has focused on the town of Mandeville and the surrounding area — too far from the coast to see income from tourism.
Its only industry consisted of bauxite mines that closed down five years ago, Burrell said.
At first, the closure was believed to be temporary, she recalled.
“People were saying, ‘When the mines reopen ...’ Now, they feel that the mines will never reopen.
“That kind of hopelessness is hard to see,” she said.
Such feelings are contrasted, however, by what she sees as the hopeful spirit of the Jamaican people.
“They have a deep faith that things will be taken care of. It’s a lesson to us.”
This year’s Jamaica Mission trip, with a group of nine volunteers, sets out on Saturday, Jan. 11. Two participants hail from Connecticut, but the rest are from the North Country.
“Other years, we’ve had people from all over the country, but this year it’s more local,” said Burrell, who heads the mission with her husband, George.
Since five of the nine people on the mission this time are skilled builders, once again, a building project will definitely be on the agenda. And that will require a difficult choice.
The mission relies upon Ridgemount United Church in Mandeville to narrow down possible applicants, and three have been selected.
The Peru Church’s own advance group — this year, Dee Doolittle and Hank Horn — will scope out sites for safety and determine who has the greatest need.
The applicants include an elderly woman with diabetes who is sharing a bed with a teenage granddaughter in a crowded home.
A building project could give her “her own little house” on the family property, with some privacy and a porch to sit on, while keeping her near her loved ones, Mrs. Burrell said.
Another applicant is an elderly man who is paraplegic; the mission may build a handicap-accessible home for him, also near family.
Their situations exemplify the difficult choices that mission organizers face, as they must decide among cases of clear-cut need.
“The sad thing,” Mrs. Burrell said, is having to tell people “we can’t do it this year.”
The Jamaica Mission builds homes of wood, because it is the sturdiest of the materials that would allow them to have the project completed in the five days they devote to the effort.
While cement construction is common in Jamaica due to hurricanes, the time needed for cement to set prohibits a five-day construction.
To provide some protection against hurricanes, the builders from the North Country use metal straps on the roofs.
“We do what we can,” Mrs. Burrell said, “and we haven’t lost one yet.”
In addition to the building project, the mission contingent will be bringing supplies and donations to the New Hope Children’s Home and to a medical clinic, and the volunteers will visit a school.
The Jamaica Mission relies on donations to fund its projects, and contributions for the coming trip are down this year, Mrs. Burrell said, likely because people have already responded to such disasters as the typhoon in the Philippines.
However, the mission will proceed.
“We’re going to go down and do what we have to do down there and face the music when we get back.”
The Jamaica Mission began when locals sought to bring assistance to Roy Jones, a Jamaican who was badly injured while picking apples in Peru. The group this year will be bringing a new wheelchair to him, expediting its delivery, Mrs. Burrell said.
“He’s been doing so well,” she said.
Over the past 15 years, 90 volunteers have participated in the missions to Jamaica, and they have spent 149,440 hours working to improve the lives of the poor there, the Burrells said.
HOW TO HELP
To donate money for this year's Jamaica Mission trip, make out checks to Peru Community Church with "Jamaica Mission" on the memo line. Send to: Peru Community Church, P.O. Box 38, Peru, NY 12972.
Another need is children's chewable vitamins and liquid vitamins for babies, which can be left at the church during regular business hours by Jan. 9.