Monday, December 29, 2008

'Your burdens are my burdens'

Barbara Gilbert with a grateful young resident of 'Barbara's Village'

Robin Mahfood chats with a group of beautiful Haitian children

Jamaica Observer
Monday, December 29, 2008

They say a prophet is usually without honour in his own country. It's probably as bad for a Jamaican-born philanthropic organisation which was recently rated the number one charity organisation in the United States. That's right. Food for the Poor (FFP), a key resource for churches, schools, hospitals and government ministries, was acclaimed by the Chronicle of Philanthropy as the top international charity organisation in the US.

The figures for the 25-year-old organisation operating in 16 countries in the region, are impressive. "We have shipped more than 43,900 trailers of goods, fed millions, built over 50,000 houses, cared for orphans, supplied water wells and development projects, and much more," says FFP Chairman Robin Mahfood. In 2007, Food for the Poor's efficiency ratio was 3.22 per cent. That means that more than 96 per cent of all donations go directly to its programmes, an efficiency ratio lauded by Forbes magazine, which puts out an annual list of America's biggest charities. In Port-au-Prince alone, 15,000 people are fed each day by the organisation.

"I'm always deeply humbled by the generosity of our donors, especially those who give from their need rather than their surplus," says Robin. "The story of the widow's mite takes place each day at Food for the Poor." One such donor is Barbara Gilbert, a single mother and waitress who doesn't own a house, but who was so moved by a radio broadcast in Florida that she raised funds to build 14 houses in Bernard Lodge, St Catherine. The housing cluster is fondly called "Barbara's Village".

CNN was in Jamaica in June 2006 to cover the opening and reported Barbara's greeting to the new homeowners: "My name is Barbara and you are all my family. Your burdens are my burdens and you give me so much more than I could ever be able to give you. I don't own a house... and I probably never will because my money's going to go to keep building houses in Jamaica for the rest of my life."

One of the recipients responded: "Your gift of love is not being taken for granted. Thank you." Barbara had placed a collection box next to the cash register where she worked in Jacksonville, and as word of her mission spread, her generosity of spirit inspired others. "One man gave her a $1,000 cheque as a tip. A woman gave her $2,000," CNN reported.

FFP has fully equipped 18 fishing villages in Jamaica. What a proud day it was in September 2006 when six fishermen at Seven Miles, St Thomas, received not only brand new fishing boats, motors and storage facilities for their catch, but also certificates after intensive training to manage their boats and their business. "Today the fishermen work hard, earn a good wage and share their profits with the community," comments Robin.

A lesser known activity of Food for the Poor is its Prison Ministry led by Sandra Ramsay. With the help of FFP, 20 non-violent Jamaican prisoners were released and reunited with their families in time for Christmas. Over 300 prisoners have been released at Easter and Christmas, and have received training and tools to help them reintegrate in society. Some of their stories are positively heartbreaking: a good husband and father with no previous record, in debtor's jail, hard-put to come up with the small fine owing.

One of FFP's most massive programmes is REAP - The Rural Economic Agricultural Programme, established in August 2004 to assist with the development of small farmers in Jamaica. This programme is a partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture, the Rural Agricultural Development Agency, the Jamaica Agricultural Society and the College of Science and Education. Last year, FFP distributed over $199.7 million worth of agricultural supplies to small farmers including farming tools, basic food items and seeds.

FFP Jamaica Chairman Father Burchell McPherson urged his Jamaican Board to motivate local donors to show the same level of commitment as generous overseas donors. In collaboration with the Jamaica National Building Society Foundation, WISYNCO, Tankweld and other corporate donors, Food for the Poor officially launched the Islandwide School Sanitation Project on December 22, 2006.

Under this project, basic and primary schools across the island which are using pit latrines are having them replaced with modern sanitary facilities in an effort to promote proper hygiene in schools. Under the leadership of dynamic construction engineer Beth Carroll, FFP has since replaced pit latrines in 33 schools, improving the lives of over 6,500 children.

One of the most heartwarming projects this year was energetic fund-raising by a group of children at Hillel Academy Prep, who were able to present a brand new two-bedroom house, furniture, and school supplies valued at $369,200 to the Planter family in Hayes, Clarendon, in June of this year. "I can't thank Hillel and Food for the Poor enough for helping my family," said 13-year-old Kadian Planter, a student at Hayes Primary and Junior High. Ever since Hurricane Dean, the Planter family had been living in a small leaky shack. "It was really fun to help," said 11-year-old Raquelle Cross, one of Hillel Academy's sixth graders who had journeyed to Clarendon with parents and teachers.

"I believe God's divine providence teaches us day by day. I see His hand in my life and in our organisation," says Robin. "God teaches us, but it's up to us to recognise His teachings. Every day, I thank God for the tremendous work we are able to accomplish in His name."

As we gear for a financially challenging year, we can remember that what Ferdie Mahfood started in 1982 with a few thousand dollars and a mission to help the impoverished and the poor in spirit, has since provided US$4 billion in aid. It should be a year in which we share the little or much we have, remembering that "we make a living from what we get, but a life from what we give".

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