Love and life in the face of death

In Features /

By Jennifer McGregor

The six Ryerson students knew from the moment their plane landed in Jamaica that they would never again view the world in quite the same way.

Scott Payette still winces when, months later and back home in Toronto, he revisits the destitution he saw there. “These people had nothing. They didn’t even have shows. The dogs were living better than these people,” says Payette, a second-year urban planning student.

Payette, one of six Ryerson students who spent nine days volunteering in the city last May, worked with various nonprofit groups. The students were all affiliated with the Catholic Student’s League and St. Philip Neri House which was established by the Archdiocese of Toronto in the fall of 1998 as the chaplaincy for the university. Chaplain Father Thomas Trottier and executive director Claudia Brown of the chaplaincy accompanied the group which left immediately after exams finished and returned to Toronto in May.

The students, all from different programs, each had something different to offer, says Brown. But none realized the trip would affect them as much as it did, each in their own way. Their nine-day experience in Jamaica is now woven into everything they do.

“I saw extreme poverty. I saw desolation,” Payette says. The group offered their assistance at a home for pregnant teenagers, homes for mentally and physically disabled children and children with with AIDS and homes for the elderly. They read to babies and helped feed the elderly and children. They quickly realized that something as simple as talking to a lonely child was a much welcomed contribution. Some students picked up food packages prepared by nuns who work with the community services agencies on the island and distributed them to the community, says Shenelle Durham, a second-year social work student. She says it was difficult to watch people fight over the packages.

Durham says she was shocked at how deeply her trip to Jamaica affected her – something that really became clear after she got back to Toronto and started thinking about whether her contribution was just the tip of a much bigger iceberg. “Am I making myself feel better because I am giving back or am I genuinely making a difference? That is something I stop and think about,” she says.

But Payette says they simply had a job to do and their task was completed – just by being there to hold the hand of a sick child. “We went in and we helped them. We did what we were asked to do and left,” says Payette.

As an urban planning student, Payette is familiar with a trip to Cuba for Ryerson students that was cancelled last year because of ethical issues similar to the ones Payette raises. The trip was open to any third-year student in the faculty of community services. It grants an academic credit for research done in Cuba. Prior to cancellation, 16 students were paired with students from a Cuban university to study the living conditions of residents of Havana, the country’s capital. Some faculty members thought the students on the trip were building hopes that the Ryerson students would be working to change the community when they were there only to study it.

“I’m not there to build relationships with these people because I do not want to build up their hopes and have them become reliant on me. I am there for a very short time and there is so much work to be done that I can’t do it all. It is unrealistic for the residents and ourselves to build strong relationships,” says Payette.

The student group was celebrating their first anniversary when they began planning the trip. Their goal was to help as many people as possible, and religion wasn’t a big factor. There is a small Catholic presence in Jamaica. The situation in Kingston allowed them to assist in many places that needed help in the short time allotted for their trip.

Payette also found the desperation overwhelming, especially in contrast to his upbringing in Stoney Creek, near Hamilton, where the poorest person he’d met was making $25,000 a year. “I brought back the feeling that world is not as nice as a place as I thought it was,” he says.

Payette describes Kingston as a city surrounded by mountains and rolling hills dotted with massive mansions that can be seen at night. But in the inner city are the slums. “It’s shocking. You see these people on the northern coast of Jamaica who are basically millionaires who live right beside these people people and don’t give a damn about their condition, or even look in their direction,” says Payette. “It is very depressing.”

Cindy Tobar plans to graduate from the nursing program this year. She says the trip validated her career choice after working with children who are HIV positive. “Those children had such joy,” she says. Tobar says she was scared before the trip but she quickly forgot her fears when she was so busy helping the communities. “When I graduate in April I want to focus on international problems,” she says.

Around that time, the students plan to head back to Jamaica with a bigger group and an expanded set of goals for the communities they work in. Claudia Brown explains that the problems of building false hope within a desolate community are more serious when a group starts a long-term project like building a hospital and leaves without completing the project. This group has no intention of doing that when they return, she says.

“We would like to go back. We would like to have a relationship where they can have an expectation of us that we can fulfill,” says Brown.

For his part, Payette is eager to return. “I went down there almost as an observer to see what’s there so I can go back next year and help these people. Then I’m going to do direct intervention.”

While the students are eager to get back to Jamaica and continue their work, the vivid memories of holding the hand of a child dying of AIDS or an old man on the edge of death helps them feel closer to those people whose pain found a way into their hearts.

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