JAMAICA Customs is being blamed for obstructing a Jamaican philanthropist's efforts to start a breakfast programme in schools here.
According to Dr Vonnie McGowan, a former broadcast journalist who resides in Florida, Customs has held on to three barrels she shipped with food items from last October and has demanded that the schools pay $5,000 to clear each barrel.
McGowan said she decided to make the gesture after recovering from an aneurysm and stroke last year April.
She said she shipped five barrels with food items consigned to the John Rollins Success Primary School in St James and Robins Hall All-Age in Manchester after learning that students were going to school without breakfast.
Despite being wheelchair-bound following her surgery, she solicited the help of her family to take her shopping to pack the barrels with the intention of sending five first and others later to a number of other schools that had requested her help.
"I decided to help them because I know that you cannot teach hungry children, because hungry children cannot learn," she said.
"So I took it on myself to have an ongoing programme of sending breakfast supplies. In the barrels I have cornmeal for cornmeal porridge, oatmeal for oatmeal porridge, whole wheat for whole wheat porridge. I sent evaporated milk, I sent flour to make fried dumplings, I sent baked beans for the protein and, of course, sugar to make the teas," she said.
"I went as far as providing the little bowls and the spoons for them, and the arrangement was that we would hire some of the mothers within the community, who were not working, to come to the kitchen and we would buy local bananas to make porridge," she added.
But all her efforts, she believes, are in vain, since the schools are unable to pay the $5,000 required to clear each barrel. Although a man was eventually able to pay the $10,000 fee last week, so that two of the barrels could finally be released to John Rollins Success Primary, she fears the products in the barrel would not be of any use to the children at this point.
This is not the first time that McGowan has sent supplies to Jamaica to assist the most vulnerable. She has been partnering with Caribbean Ocean Logistics for years to ship items to infirmaries, hospitals and organisations such as the Women's Foundation of Jamaica. However, she said she has never encountered this kind of challenge.
McGowan, who was conferred with the Order of Distinction by the Government of Jamaica for exceptional service to the people of Jamaica and to the Jamaican diaspora, in 2011, said the most recent experience has left her in distress.
"I was deterred from sending other stuff because I didn't want to buy the things and they go to waste; so since they are having so much problems, we decided to hold onto stuff. Right now we have some other schools that we would like to help and teachers have been getting in touch with me," she said.
When contacted, Claudette Coombs of the Montego Bay Customs Department said she could not speak definitively to McGowan's case, as she was not aware of it. However, she explained that her agency has to abide by the Customs Act, which lists the items for schools that are duty-free.
"The school has its entitlement, but food stuff doesn't fall under that category, and when somebody sends something to the school it has to be routed to the Ministry of Education and then onto Customs, and that is the protocol involved," Coombs told the Jamaica Observer.
"The things that the schools are privy to are tools for education purposes and it speaks to like books, pens, pencils, etc, but the things have to be consigned to the schools, and the procurement officer in the Ministry of Education has to be aware and communicate with Customs as to the things that are coming in, for us to action," she said.
Coombs pointed out that one of the things that usually creates a delay is the sender consigning the barrels to an individual at the school, such as a principal, instead of to the school itself. She said she was more than happy to look into what was causing the delay in McGowan's case.
"We are constantly being audited, and we have to be mindful of that. Our procedures are entrenched in law, and any significant deviation can be consequential," noted Coombs
McGowan said that some time last year, during an event put on by the Coalition of Alumni Association in Florida, she had a discussion with Education Minister Ronald Thwaites about the issue.
She said he had assured her then that he would try to remove the hurdles that were preventing goods from getting to the schools.
"I made a call and I spoke to Mr Thwaites and he directed us to an office in Montego Bay," said McGowan. "They got letters and gave them to the principals and they (principals) went to Customs, and the Customs people still held on to the barrels. They are saying John Rollins School is a school that has a rich man's name on it, so they need to pay $5,000 for each barrel."
She added that the vice-principal at one of the schools has made at least 11 trips to the Customs Department since last October.
When the Observer contacted Minister Thwaites, he said that someone had been appointed by his office to assist people who want to donate to the schools. This person, he said, is responsible for facilitating the process that would allow these individuals to get a waiver.
However, he was not familiar with McGowan's case, although he has no doubt that she might have reached out to him in the past.
"Many people spoke to me, and indeed, that is a problem that persons trying to help schools have had; but if there is an enduring difficulty, I would be pleased to know the details so that I can help in any way," he said.
"It really is a tremendous generosity, but if we don't know and the school doesn't know how to handle the entering items, it is going to give a whole heap of trouble. Customs simply won't release the barrels, because somebody sent it to a school," he said.