By Mo Scarpelli
In a small Jamaican mountainside community, a crowd of children gathered around 9 a.m. on the hill overlooking the Barnett Bush basic school.
School got out two weeks ago. But this was more entertaining.
“Will you ever quit?” the children heard Experience Mission leaders yell below them with shovels deep in the dirt.
“No! We want some more!” a crew of college students screamed back amid smiles and laughs as they hauled buckets of sand, maul and stone down a mountainside.
The children giggled and watched from above, and soon made their way down to play near their old school. Several even picked up shovels and started helping alongside the volunteers.
Experience Mission, with the help of local Jamaicans, formed several layers of the foundation for a new basic school for Barnett Bush in just four days.
But their impression on the locals meant something much more.
“You could move just a stone and they’ll cheer you on so much that you think you could move a boulder,” said Dean Bailey, a 19-year-old Jamaican living in the nearby Catadupa community, where he has helped EM since teams started arriving in early June. “That doesn’t happen around here–the people were really excited about it.”
Bailey and several other locals have spent their days helping with EM projects and getting to know volunteers in Catadupa, a community of around 3,000 people.
“Working with Jamaicans, I think it made me work a little harder,” said 19-year-old EM volunteer Courtney Werkheiser of Claxton, Georgia. “You learn a lot more about Jamaica because you aren’t just working next to them, you are becoming friends with them and hearing their stories.”
Pastor Leroy Gordon of the Christian Fellowship Church in Catadupa initiated the basic school project. In December, he visited the Barnett Bush basic school to find out how he could help with the school’s crumbling structure.
“It’s a dilapidated building, we needed something new,” said Cecile Clarke, principal of the school for the last eleven years. “The government does not fund basic school so early childhood gets forgotten.”
The building’s colorful walls were once formed from only slabs of zinc over a dirt floor, like many houses in rural Jamaica. The community then built walls of wood and poured cement floors, but the building was still too small and uncomfortable for students and teachers.
“Some parents don’t even want to send their kids because it’s so bad,” said Clarke. “If they are privileged and have the money, they will send their children to the city to go to school on a bus. But many do not have the money.”
At any one time, an average of sixteen students, ages three to six, attend the one-room schoolhouse that has been standing for more than sixty years. Teachers estimate thirty or forty more would come if the building were more suitable for learning.
Clarke says the entire community is excited about the construction.
“Man, when this building go up, man, it’s going to make a difference,” Clarke said, smiling. “It’s been a long time coming. They need this better facility, it’s a good, good thing.”
Beyond the building’s functionality, Clarke’s two biggest concerns for the area are early-age literacy and nutritional education.
Clarke says many parents in the area are illiterate.
“But even if the parents can’t read, they want their children to read,” said Clarke. “They understand children are the key to the future and they must start learning early.”
Nutritional education, however, does not have much support at home. Clarke says this is a direct result of poverty, as healthy foods are too expensive for those struggling with money. She brings lunch for the children several times a week, just to keep them coming to school.
EM volunteers brought their lunch everyday to the worksite, and some shared with their young audience when they could. Others snapped pictures, blew bubbles and played jump rope with the little ones on their breaks.
“These people are willing to move from out of their comfort zone and help other people,” said Bailey. “The Jamaicans that watch say, ‘Hey, these people are really on fire for God, they’re serving like God would serve us.’ It’s really awesome.”
“It’s cool when you work at the school and think about the building it’s going to make for kids to go to school, but it’s also cool to think it’s going to be a place for lots of mission trips like ours to come and stay as well,” said Werkheiser. “From what I’ve heard, the mentality in Jamaica is that if you don’t get paid you don’t want to work, because people need money here. But I think it’s more motivating for them that we’ve come just to work and have fun. Hopefully they’ll help out after we’re gone,.”
Jamaican locals estimate the school will be finished completely in the next several months, depending on community support.