Bright teenager gives to less fortunate children
WHILE most teenagers were busy hanging out with friends or shopping for the perfect outfits for the various parties over the holiday season, 16-year-old Vanina Morrison was in the inner-city feeding 150 children at the Denham Town Basic School.
The teenager, who is now attending the United World College in Montezuma, New Mexico on a scholarship, has been doing this for over 10 years.
Vanina said that she started the Denham Town Basic School Christmas Treat when she was about six years old. Then a student at Hillel Academy, she decided that she did not want to have any more birthday parties, as there were children out there who could not celebrate as she and her friends did.
"They couldn't even enjoy themselves at such a wonderful time as Christmas because they didn't have the opportunity to," she said.
From that young age, she decided to follow in the footsteps of her older brother who would treat children in orphanages. Vanina said that at first, she would go with her brother to hand out treats but then decided that she wanted a project of her own.
"I began by just first going out and helping to give out food in the community at Christmastime and just cheer and sing carols and everything, and then eventually it became larger and I said that I wanted to adopt a school," she said.
She had discussions with her mother, who is a medical doctor, who then called the Ministry of Education to find out the process for "adopting a school". Back then, the family was living at Ocean Towers in Downtown Kingston and the ministry recommended the Denham Town Basic School.
A proud Dr Elena Morrison said that the family was at first a bit apprehensive because of the perception of the Denham Town community as a violent one. However, after consultation with her husband and a meeting with the school's principal, a relationship was forged that continues to grow stronger each year.
"Every year now at Christmastime, I go with a group of friends from school and we deliver presents to the children. We sing Christmas Carols. I play the violin with my friend Naomi and we basically just throw them a little party.
"We also do educational activities. We have games, like spelling games and Math games and in their Christmas baskets they get not only presents like toys (dolls for girls and trucks for boys), they also get stationery, including pencils, notebooks, colouring books, that type of thing. And we also have someone dressed up as Santa Claus to give them their presents," Vanina said.
For her, the pre-schoolers are the perfect age for her outreach project.
"I wanted to start with little children so that they would have the opportunity to learn and grow," she stated.
The treat is a labour of love and is done with the support of family and friends.
Dr Morrison scouts around for the right gifts and makes the purchases, while Vanina and her friends wrap them and hand them out. She hails the Bashco store in downtown, Kingston, for its support of the project by giving discounted prices on gift items.
"We give about 100 children, but this year it was 150. We also give out refreshments, which are donated or we purchase with the money people donate," the teenager said.
"I write a letter every year to family, friends ... anyone that I may know and I ask for either donations in cash or kind and that is how we purchase the food and the presents for the children," Vanina said.
Family members have also donated two laptop computers to the school. In addition, they have replaced the school's water tank that was destroyed by a fire during the May 2010 incursion of the community by the security forces.
The teenager said that the children are motivated to do well in school but they just do not have the resources. She is encouraging others to get on board and to do their part in helping those who are less fortunate.
"I think that if other people did this we could advance Jamaica so much more ... it is not that much work and it is really nice to see how much the little children appreciate it," Vanina stated.
The youngster has started her own foundation called VANISH, which is a combination of her first name and that of her Cuban friend Gabriela Gosh, who used to assist her in the initiative before leaving Jamaica. When asked if she had any plans to expand the treat, Vanina said that though she is willing, she cannot do it alone.
She said that it required "a lot of funding" but if others were to come on board, then expansion would be a consideration.
The Denham Town Basic School treat is held the last Saturday before Christmas each year.
In the meantime, Vanina is also blazing a path of academic excellence. From Hillel Academy, she went on to Campion College where she topped her class until fourth form when she left for the American International School of Kingston.
There, she received the Golden Pin from President Barack Obama for Academic Excellence and for being on the Honour Roll. She earned a scholarship to the college in New Mexico where students are equipped and inspired to become change agents.
Vanina relaxes by playing the violin, which she has been doing since age four, under the tutelage of the highly esteemed Paulette Bellamy. The teenager noted that it is a "great way to let loose and relax".