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Ambassadors of hope 

Young Portlanders give back from their own pockets

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor - special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com ?

Monday, March 31, 2014    

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Agroup of young people in Portland is using their own pay cheques to transform the lives of the poor and destitute in the parish through a recently established charity which is literally changing one life at a time.

The Change A Life Foundation (CALF) was born out of the personal desire of its founder, 34-year-old Samantha Russell, to simply help someone who was less fortunate.

Months later, and after having feted 150 people to Christmas dinner, raising thousands of dollars to help a single mother start a small business and a stroke victim acquire special footwear, the 25-member group is vowing to become ambassadors of hope for the needy.

“We want to be ambassadors of hope because seeing a smile on someone’s face and the tears of joy that is the engine that propels us and so we want to take this nationwide,” a beaming 

Russell told the Jamaica Observer North East.

The foundation was established in October 2013 under the motto “Changing life for the development and empowerment of Jamaicans”.

According to Russell,who is currently employed in the hospitality industry, she was driven to do something to help the needy because of her own experience growing up in similar circumstances.

“I am from a humble background and persons stretched a hand to enhance my life and allowed me to be in this position and so I just wanted to be able to help others,” she said.

The launching pad for her, she explained, was when she heard about the financial struggles facing the family of a child who was diagnosed with brain tumour.

“The story was posted on Facebook and I just couldn’t get the picture of that little boy out of my head and so I started to wonder how I could help and so I just decided to reach out to the family,” Russell said.

“I explained to them that I don’t have a lot but wanted to be a part of his recovery and when I made the contribution, the feeling was so overwhelming,” she recalled.

Russell said she always had a desire to give what she could to the elderly and to children but soon realised that it was more than just a desire, it was a calling.

She immediately set about convincing her friends and family members to assist her to form a foundation.

“We knew it would be rough starting a foundation because people will think we were not for real and so we knew that the first task was to sell the foundation in a positive light so they could see we are for real,” she explained.

The first assignment for the group was to organise and fund a Christmas dinner for the less fortunate in and around Port Antonio. They were unable to secure adequate sponsorship for the event, but they were so determined to pull it off that they all dipped into their own pockets.

“We came together and cooked curried goat, pork and chicken and were able to prepare a lovely meal for about 150 people to sit down and have a nice dinner at Olivia Park ,” she said, adding that the group members also spent the evening socialising with those to whom they had catered.

According to Russell, the foundation is now seeking to make the dinner an annual event because of its success.

Its second project was a fish fry which attracted 152 patrons who bought tickets at $500 each. The proceeds assisted two needy persons.

One of the two beneficiaries is a single mother of four, Sharon Byfield, who had always wanted to set up a stall in the town centre to earn an income, but was unable to find the start-up capital.

“We gave her money to be registered to get a food handler's permit and then we gave her $25,000 to build the stall and purchase snacks for sale,” Russell explained.

The foundation, she said, will also be monitoring Byfield to ensure that the business does not go under.

“I appreciate what they have done for me because I was not doing anything and it is really a good start for me to go forward,” Byfield told the Jamaica Observer North East.

Byfield, who said she just started selling a week ago, explained that this will help to feed herself and send her children to school and for this she will always be grateful.

The other beneficiary is a woman who suffered a stroke and now needs a special type of shoes.

“We are sourcing that for her and will also be giving her a monetary donation after we know what the shoes will cost,” said Russell.

First vice-president of the foundation Dian McKenzie said having served as a member of the Leo Club of Portland and other charities when she left the parish to pursue a bachelor of science degree in Finance and Human Resources in Kingston, it did not take much convincing for her to become a part of the new group.

“I saw the change this could make in people’s life and there is no other foundation like this and so I wanted to be a part of something like this,” the 32-year-old said.

Second vice-president Janice Willis, who is a teacher with a Master’s in arts and teaching education, also said it did not take much convincing to get her involved.

“So many of our brothers and sisters are less fortunate and need our help and that grabs me because I also grew up as less fortunate and I have been waiting a long time to give back and this is a perfect opportunity to do so,” the 35-year-old said.

Secretary of the foundation Jodi-Ann Grant, a receptionist and room manager at Goblin Hill Villa Resorts, said although she was a late comer to the group, it is one of the best decisions she could have made.

“I had never been in anything like this before but just the idea of giving back and being able to do something instrumental in changing people’s lives made me want to be a part of it,” she said. “Jamaica is in need of change and if you start small it will get larger,” the 21-year-old said.

Akheem Rose, a catering student, said he too was motivated to be a part of the group because of his life experience.

“I didn’t grow up having a lot of things so I think it is time to give back and enhance someone’s life,” he said.

Samantha's sister Keyon said she quickly bought into her sister’s vision because their family has always done charitable deeds even from the little they had.

“We can’t just live for ourselves; we have to give back and the smile we see on people’s faces make us feel happy,” said the 32-year-old who holds an associate degree in business administration.

The eldest group member, 59-yearold Elva Brown, said she too grew up in a family which engaged in charity.

“My mother would send us to deliver food to the neighbours and that is a fabulous feeling,” she said.

The Change A Life team meets every other Saturday. Russell, who works overseas for part of the year, said the group is committed to continuing the effort when she is not in the island.

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