Thursday, April 14, 2016

“Look at me – I am special!”

Observer column for MON 11 April 2016 by Jean Lowrie-Chin
Their Excellencies Most Hon Sir Patrick and Lady Allen (centre) with Good Shepherd Founder Archbishop Charles Dufour and Representative of Vitas Healthcare 
As I write, the voices of the special needs children of Orange Bay, Portland are echoing in my mind: “Look at me – I am special!” We took a long walk of compassion last week, beginning in Florida, where we celebrated the 20th Anniversary of Friends of Good Shepherd International, which supports various charities in Jamaica.  Governor General Sir Patrick Allen, who with Lady Allen were guests of honour at the event, reminded us of an interesting legal case of Donoghue vs Stevenson in the UK in1932 which resulted in a significant legal ruling, with the judge declaring that people owe each other “a duty of care”.  He said this had echoes of Matthew 25:40 which reminds us of our Christian responsibility to protect and nurture each other.

Sir Patrick urged us to show more care in order to “hold the moral fabric of a nation together.”  He reminded us that no one is beyond redemption and congratulated Archbishop Dufour for establishing the Good Shepherd Foundation, and his sister Marie Dufour-Buteau for creating the philanthropic organisation.  The large audience, including Consul General Franz Hall, applauded heartily as the Governor General reminded them that Jamaica is a country of great promise, where the positives still outweigh the negatives.
As then Bishop of Montego Bay, Most Rev Charles Dufour had seen the plight of sufferers of HIV-AIDS, and decided to establish a hospice in 1996 to ease their discomfort in their final days.  Since then, the work of the Good Shepherd Foundation has blossomed into health care services, with the building of the huge Hope Health Teaching Clinic on the grounds of the Blessed Sacrament complex.

Mustard Seed’s Jacob’s Ladder
Monsignor Gregory Ramkissoon, Founder of Mustard Seed Communities (right) and colleagues, shows Mrs Catherine O'Brien the projects at Jacob's Ladder in Moneague, St. Ann

One of the charities supported by the Good Shepherd Foundation is Mustard Seed Communities, so it was serendipitous that I had a visit scheduled last Wednesday to the Mustard Seed Jacob’s Ladder project in Moneague, St. Ann.  I was accompanying Mrs Catherine O’Brien, wife of Digicel founder and chairman Denis O’Brien, patron of the Digicel Foundation, one of the largest private sector philanthropic organisations in Jamaica. 

“A joyous experience” was how Mrs O’Brien described her tour of Jacob’s Ladder, where over 300 special needs adults have been given permanent residence.  The founder, Monsignor Gregory Ramkissoon explained that many came from Mustard Seed homes for children, which they had to leave at age18.  “They would not have been able to survive on their own,” said the visionary priest, “and so we established this home with a farm, so it can become sustainable.”

The beautiful Care Plus Centre of Excellence at Jacob’s Ladder, funded by the Digicel Foundation was abuzz with activity. Residents were creating jewelry, mats, and learning the basics of computing.  The cool hills are dotted with family-type residences, each with an adoration room, and we saw a group of US visitors hard at work building additional cottages. Board directors Thalia Lyn, David Silvera and Howard Mitchell, Mustard Seed Int’l Executive Director Father Garvin Augustine, administrator Denise Perkins, volunteers Mike Lyn and Linda Mitchell were also on hand to show us the farming activities: lush vegetables, goat, sheep and rabbit rearing.  They are on the verge of solving their water woes which will allow them to extend tree-planting and other projects.

ESP now in Portland
The Children at the Mickhail Betancourt Special Needs Centre of Excellence sing "Look at me - I am special!"

On Thursday, we journeyed to Orange Bay in Portland, where the Digicel Foundation opened the Mickhail Betancourt Centre of Excellence for Special Needs. It was an emotional event, as Denis O’Brien had requested that we name the Centre in honour of a young Digicel employee who had lost his life by drowning in Chepso, Portland last October. The opening was the primary reason that Catherine O’Brien was in Jamaica, as she wanted to pay tribute to this extraordinary young man, who at 23-years-old, had developed an IT programme to promote productivity at the company.

Mickhail’s father, Donovan Betancourt, a Digicel senior executive, fought back the tears as he spoke of his ‘hardworking, hard-playing’ son ‘who went that extra mile to care’. Donovan, wife Sheron and daughter Imani are an exemplary family, who have made a commitment to give long-term support to the Centre.

This is the second Early Stimulation Plus (ESP) Centre, a programme of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, led by the devoted Antonica Gunter Gayle, who has developed the East Kingston ESP Centre into a model.  Minister Shahine Robinson said her Government was committed to strengthening programmes for the disabled, and would make the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities (JCPD) into a corporate body.  

The location for the centre was secured through the perseverance of Member of Parliament Daryl Vaz while he was in opposition; he lauded Elizabeth Stair of the National Land Agency for assisting with the process. This special needs centre of excellence is the seventh of ten such centres sponsored by the Digicel Foundation; all will be completed in the course of this year. 
The most heart-warming moment of the event came when the children sang, “Look at me – I am special!”  This is a profound call, as we tend to overlook our special needs citizens, causing families to feel embarrassment and keep such children home, instead of ensuring that they benefit from well-equipped facilities which are now available in most parishes. 

Autism Awareness Month
April is Autism Awareness Month, and the Jamaica Autism Support Association (JASA has planned several events. Please try to attend this Wednesday’s presentation on autism at the UWI Undercroft at 4pm. There are various types and levels of autism – the sooner this can be determined, the better for the child as there are now a wide range of programmes to guide parents so their children can enjoy fulfilling lives.

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