A group from Riverside United Methodist Church, consisting of seven youth and five mentors, traveled to Brown's Town, Jamaica, earlier this month on a mission trip to build a security fence and install playground equipment at Retirement Primary and Infant School for students ages 3 to sixth grade.
Brown's Town, which is one of the principal towns in St. Ann, is located in the Dry Harbour Mountains roughly eight miles from the island's north coast.
Nicole Brandt, who is the Mission Chair at Riverside United Methodist Church and lead the group to Jamaica, said the area is very primitive.
The youth on the trip had to have completed their first year of high school prior to the trip.
"We wanted them to be in an emotional place where they could handle this trip," Brandt said. "It's a different environment, when we were sleeping we were in quarters where there were no screens on the windows, so you have geckos and bugs sleeping with you."
Riverside United Methodist Church has sent missionaries to Jamaica before, but it had been many years. In the past, the group has always been hosted by Pastor Earl Harrison and his wife June, who were kind enough to host the group again.
"It was an existing connection, it's just been quite a few years since we've gone down there," Brandt explained, adding that for fellow group member, Spike Wellman, this was his fifth trip to Jamaica through the church.
At the beginning of October 2016, the group contacted Pastor Earl through an email explaining that they were interested in traveling to Jamaica on a mission trip to complete a project and spend time with the community members.
"Our intent was to go in 2018 or 2019, something like that," she said. "He emails back at the end of October and says, 'I could really use you June of 2017.'"
From October 2016 to the beginning of June, the group threw the trip together in a whirlwind of fundraising and planning.
"It was kind of a fast and furious planning session, luckily we had funds halfway there already for a trip, that was a blessing in disguise to have that sitting there," Brandt said. "It was a quick turnaround."
Before leaving for Jamaica, the Riverside group had to fund the logistics of the flights, they paid toward the cost of food that was prepared by June Harrison and the project costs of $8,000.
They booked their flights through a company that explicitly handles planning mission trips. They left Park Rapids on June 2 to drive down to Minneapolis to catch their flight the morning of June 3.
On June 4, the group visited an orphanage in Kingston, Jamaica, spending an hour or so with them, where they delivered some much needed supplies for the children living there.
Then, on June 5, the group began the major project they had traveled to Jamaica to complete.
Through the week, the group continued their work at the school and they were presented with some challenges along the way.
"They knew that with only five days, that would be very difficult. At first I didn't understand why until I got there," Brandt explained, adding the majority of their job was to remove dirt and backfill an area. "The school was built in the mountains, so you have this steep hill, we had to dig down and move dirt over to level off this playground area. For us here, easy peasy just rent a backhoe or something. But there, we used shovels."
The first day they had two shovels, a hoe and two wheelbarrows. As they continued the project they accumulated a few more shovels but it was still back-breaking work.
Brandt said the group worked with two contractors from Jamaica that were paid through funds raised by the Riverside group. They would bring the contractors the rock and sand they needed to mix up concrete for the brick bottom of the fence.
"None of this premixed Quikrete kind of action going on," she joked, adding that it took a lot of creativity to figure out how to get things from point A to point B.
"It was very difficult but luckily the kids were still in session for school so they would come out on breaks and spending time with them was the encouragement that we needed to keep going," Brandt said, referring to the students who would benefit from their hard work.
By the end of the week, the group had completed the brick bottom of the fence, the start of the chain link and the slides were put in.
"It was just going to be four slides and we thought, 'that's not a playground, what can we do?' Brandt said, adding that Christian Zweerink and Matt Brandt created a teeter totter out of a stump and other things they found around the school. "It was nice to give them a little something more and hopefully they'll enjoy it."
The group did get to enjoy watching the kids utilize the playground prior to their departure.
The last day they were in Jamaica, Brandt and her husband Matt, who are both teachers got a tour of the school and spent some time in the classrooms, which was converted from an old church. The building was an open space with temporary partitions dividing the individual classrooms.
"We are blessed. I looked at the kindergarten classroom and it was a third of the size of my classroom here," she said, adding that the class sizes are comparable to here. "I think there motto was bigger bodies, bigger room. It was also interesting to see what they have to work with as well."
She explained that the church supports the school and school supplies are limited for the staff and students, "They are very limited in what they can afford. They do a lot with a little, it's amazing."
The Riverside group stored their belongings in what the school called their library.
"That was about the size of a supply closet in a school in the states," Brandt said. "Now my new goal is to fill some of those shelves because I noticed a few were empty."
She has already begun to collect books to ship down to the school due to poor condition of the books they do have, which is very few.
After primary school, the students go on to high school in seventh grade and they are expected to purchase their own books.
"You can tell the stress level, because they knew their parents couldn't afford that," Brandt said in explanation of conversations she had with the sixth grade students.
The students are also expected to pass standardized tests with a score above 75 percent to be accepted into a high school and eventually on to college. Those with scores lower than 75 percent will only be able to go to high school part time and the options for their future will be far more limited.
"The better score you have, the better choices you have going into high school," Brandt explained, adding that the group got to watch the students learn their scores and where they would be moving on to the following school year. "Every one of them at that primary school were able to go on to a regular high school. You could tell the emotion on their faces, there was one girl who fell to the ground when she found out where she got to go. They knew the weight it carried."
"It was interesting to see the level of investment they had in their education because they knew this was important," she said.
American students are supplied with a proper high school education regardless of whether they want it or not, while the students there are struggling to earn it.
According to Brandt, the students did realize how many small things they take for granted, for example taking a shower whenever they want. In Jamaica, water was a limited source and showers were very restricted.
The group flew back to the states on June 13. Brandt said, other than some sunburns and a run in with fire ants, everyone returned home safely.