I never thought I would feel at home in a garbage dump. But then again, I have never really felt at home, at home. And I’ve always seen beauty in the unordinary. And my heart has always yearned for something different.
I’ve read a lot of books that recommend you take heed to reoccurring situations or people you keep running in to or the omens we so often overlook. Everything comes in to your life for a reason, for a lesson. At the age of 29, I have now returned four times to Riverton, a community wrapped around the edges of the Kingston landfill. After my most recent trip, I am now taking heed to this place that the Universe continues to keep in my life. I am now realizing there is a deeper bond between this landfill and I, than just the few months of my life or a few piles of garbage. I believe this is my calling. Supporting Riverton and its audacious residents is my Personal Legend.
I visited a lot of schools that trip and on the next. But none hugged tightly on to my heart like Riverton Early Education Centre did. Built for some of Kingston’s poorest children, it is a place that emits hope. What resonated the most with me were the smiles of the children in their sunny gold and burgundy uniforms and seeing their determination to concentrate even with the wafts of hot garbage or burning plastics in the air. Also, seeing the inspiring leadership from the principal, Junior Rowe, I knew this was a special place. I returned to Jamaica for a month of volunteering the following summer of 2001.
In 2006, plans for a bake sale at Langara College turned in to about $8,000 and another trip back down to Riverton. It turns out bake sales truly are for kids and if I wanted things done, I would have to host club nights and join the International Development Committee in the Langara Students Union. I had to pitch my idea of donating students precious students fees towards other students in a distant country. A hurricane had just ripped through Jamaica, tearing off the roof of the school and damaging much of the community. Langara wanted to donate but didn’t feel comfortable just sending money down to this project they didn’t have any previous connection with. As fate would have it, I had a free ticket with American Airlines from the previous year…I suggested that I travel down with the funds, disperse them and document the projects. Done. On the way to the airport, I picked up the $5000 cheque, placed in my name, and bundled it in to my other cash to donate. I remember one staff member asking, “Uh, you are registered in Langara next term right?” as it dawned on them that they were completely entrusting me with a fair sized hunk of dough.
For the next month, I slept within view of Kingston’s solid waste disposal site. I am grateful for Junior Rowe and his family being so hospitable and welcoming me in to their home. There’s only been a handful of foreigners that have, one, been allowed to enter this inner city, and two, who have slept amongst the community as one of it’s members. I felt blessed sharing a bed with their six-year old daughter, Janelle. Junior has been the Principal of the school by that time for 32 years. He basically holds the respect and prestige of a sort of mayor of the town. Since I was staying with his family, I was safe. He is so well respected; I felt no worries walking to school every day. There were no hard stares or cold eyes that lay upon me. I only heard calls of, “a pleasant good morning to you!” or “Wagwan!” or a courteous flick of the head, for those who lingered in the pockets of shade along the dirt streets. It was a fulfilling trip; being able to be a part of the decision making in allocating money towards projects, teaching classes (Canadian geography and portraits of myself), and getting to know the inner workings of what it takes to run a school like this. It takes a lot of fricking work.
A positive move I made in the right direct was my recent career change. Moving away from the bar industry and in to the travel industry has opened some auspicious doors. Within six months of acquiring a job as a Travel Consultant at Flight Centre, Jamaica was thrust back in to my life. Our, usually locally held, Consultant Conference was changed last minute to be held at the Sandals and Beaches Resorts in Jamaica. Sometimes, I feel the Universe acts subtly and in whispers. The announcement of the conference was as though the Universe had just smacked me up the backside of the head. As if the Universe knew I was ready once again. As if the Universe was giving me yet another chance. I took it upon myself to start fundraising for Riverton. Within a month and a half I organized a very successful (and debaucherous) fundraiser. The Ja’mazin Race and Silent Auction. A photo scavenger hunt, hopping between bars, was a hoot. Check out #jamazinvancity on Instagram for pictures. Anyway, long story short, by the time I was getting on the plane to Jamaica this time, I was traveling again with just under $8,000 to be donated. My ever-supportive Flight Centre management also paid to extend my trip so I could personally hand over the funds and check in with the school for a few days.
So, once again I was being welcomed back in the dusty neighborhood of Riverton like I was a family member who had just been away for a little while. No questions were asked or resentment held about my seven-year absence, just grateful blessings that I had come back. Children I had taught were now in high school, teenagers who I used to play soccer with in the gravel lot were now parents dropping off their own children at the centre, and amazingly, Junior Rowe and most of the previous teachers were still patiently running the programs. Janelle, my little darling of a roommate was now a distant 13 year old, busy with the pressures of homework and trying to identify herself as a young woman in this world where years of youth keeps getting shorter and shorter.
Working alongside Principal Junior Rowe moved and motivated me. He relentlessly and tirelessly fights for the education of all youth and the betterment of his community. And this ain’t no 9-5 job for him. From the moment we woke and as soon as we returned from school, until late in the evenings, he was being approached by all sorts of people in Riverton for assistance, “Teacher Rowe, do you have a band aid?”, “Mr. Rowe, can I have a bag water”, “Do you have a ruler I can borrow for my homework”, “Please Mr. Rowe, can you write me a reference”, “Teacher, my mum won’t buy the books for my school”…it went on and on. I mentioned to Junior that being the Principal of the school for 38 years is a long, long time…let’s be blunt, are you happy? He replied, “Ya mon, no doubt. If God granted me another life to live, I would live it exactly the same. I am blessed.” In our modern, ever consuming, ever desiring North American society we are never satisfied. Yet this man chooses to live in, probably, Jamaica’s poorest neighborhood and he would do it over again. Incredible. Humbling. Mind – blown.
I’m thinking big. And I’m thinking, with your help, we can do this.