PORUS, Jamaica — As Harriet Burrell sat with Roy Jones on his shady veranda, neighbors smiled and waved; some stopped to chat.
“No one’s surprised anymore to see white folks visiting with Roy,” the Peru woman said via cellphone from Jamaica, laughing. “Unlike the first year — people stopped and gawked.”
That was 15 years ago, a span of time that has seen Peru Community Church Jamaica Mission volunteers bring assistance to the poor of the central region of the Caribbean island every January.
And they visit Roy, whose catastrophic fall while picking apples in a Peru orchard was the catalyst for the mission project.
In the beginning, the focus was largely on the Jamaican, who was left paraplegic from the fall.
Invariably, someone visiting with Harriet will recall the Americans building Roy’s covered handicap ramp.
Before that, Roy had been carried in and out of his small home in his wheelchair “with four people each holding a corner,” she said.
The Jamaica Mission, while running medical and dental clinics, visiting schools and otherwise conducting a broader effort as the years passed, also doubled the size of the Jones home with the addition of a handicap-accessible bathroom and bedroom.
They also built a kitchen and a retaining wall in the backyard, among other projects.
“I was treated so very good,” Jones said by cellphone, thinking of the missioners’ faithfulness in returning year after year. “I was so blessed to know that they would come visit me.”
The missioners also count their blessings.
“It’s been a humbling experience,” said Sally Osborne Greenwood of Peru, taking a few moments from construction of a small home for Velma “Miss Gem” Henry.
“The people don’t have anything, and they are so grateful,” she said. “And giving somebody a home is an extraordinary thing.”
The mission group numbers only nine this year, but the construction experience of Sally and her husband, David Greenwood, helped the Jamaica project unfold quickly.
“We’ll anchor the roof to the main structure with hurricane hooks once its done,” Sally looked ahead.
“We just get better and better at the procuring of materials,” said Dee Doolittle, who with her husband, Hank Horn, come from Connecticut to take part.
“We streamline things every year.”
Miss Gem placidly hung laundry on a clothesline as the American and Jamaican volunteers lifted cross beams in place in her new home and children darted, laughing and yelling, amid all the activity.
A quiet woman with a quick smile, she is 76 and suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes.
Miss Gem had been living with her son nearby, sharing a bed with two older granddaughters.
The 12-by-16-foot house built by the Jamaica Mission, Harriet said, would “give her privacy but be six steps away from family.”
“Having a place of my own is very good,” she told the Peru woman.
‘SO MUCH NEED’
Jamaicans need no lessons on paying it forward, said Dee, who is Harriet’s sister.
From one year to the next, recipients of Jamaica Mission homes often help out with the next project.
This year, it was Luther, who busied himself on the construction site daily. He also brought his donkey, bought for him by the mission a few years ago to help him haul water, to show the Americans.
She’d had two “cubbies,” as he called the foals, a financial boon.
“She looked great,” Dee said over the metallic rattle of sheets of zinc roofing sliding off a truck.
Dee and Hank, veterans of the past 13 Jamaica trips, are charged with deciding who gets a new home from among candidates selected by Ridgemount United Church in Mandeville.
“It’s a struggle sometimes,” Dee said of wanting to help everyone. “But there’s so much need, you would drive yourself crazy if you went away feeling you hadn’t done enough.
“So you keep on doing what you can do and hope everybody does what they can do, too.”
FROM A TINY SEED
This year, the Jamaica Mission brought a new wheelchair to Roy and acquired his medications and medical supplies, paid for by Workers Compensation.
“I think the most amazing thing (over the past 15 years) is that Roy’s health has stabilized,” Harriet said. “Insurance company nurses have told us offshore workers who are paraplegic usually don’t live this long.”
The care of his wife, Paulette, and other family members is a large part of his longevity, Harriet said.
And his faith is very strong, too.
“That’s what sustains him.”
Jones has seen the mission’s impact on Jamaicans beyond himself, beyond his own family.
As if he were a seed that grew into an apple tree, maybe even an orchard.
“Yes,” Jones said simply, “that makes me feel good.”
Email Suzanne Moore:firstname.lastname@example.org
HOW TO HELP
The Peru Community Church Jamaica Mission set out this year with too-few funds to cover the cost of materials to build Velma "Miss Gem" Henry's new home, so continued donations are welcome. It costs the mission between $4,000 and $5,000 to construct a home -- a project undertaken yearly -- depending on size.
As well, due to lack of time and the small contingent of volunteers who took part this year, the group left money to pay for needed improvements at Roy Jones's home. Those included repairs to the handicap ramp, a hot-water-tank overhaul and replacement of the shower, which corrodes quickly due to high mineral content in the water.
Despite the funding shortfall, said Harriet Burrell, who directs the mission with her husband, George, "we spend what we need to because we've come a long way (to Jamaica). "And once home, "it's amazing -- the money always comes in, somehow."
To donate, 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.