The many faces of charity

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Not unlike many other motorists, I often approach Kingston’s traffic lights with a bit of trepidation. On occasions I have found myself reflexively bracing for the onslaught of street boys charging at the vehicle — their cleaning wands in hand.

Dishevelled and menacingly solicitous, the teenagers invite the inevitable judgement: that they represent the worst human manifestation of a social safety net fraying at its seams.

There is a supreme paradox to their unflattering public image, for as improbable as it seems, they are the luckier ones.

Hungry but ambulatory and healthy in body and mind, the youngsters can still hustle and eke out some sort of living, however insubstantial. They are by no means the most tragic victims of an economy that has remained stagnant for decades and whose cruel footprints criss-cross the country like a pandemic plague.

Those who are most in need of charity and who have the least capacity for independence are generally not on public display along the island’s roadways and townships; they can be found ensconced within the relative safety of homes operated by charitable organisations.

Children trapped in disfigured adult bodies, contorted wheelchair-bound infants and adults, some with the double-tragedy of being mentally challenged — many of them abandoned at hospitals from infancy by families that were unable to cope physically, emotionally and financially with their special needs. This, in a nutshell, is the brutal if uncomfortable reality of what Jamaica’s most extreme charity project looks like.

"This is the work of God, it is a special calling," declares Jeevan Viem, a missionary who came all the way from Pakistan to serve at the female branch of Jacob’s Well Home, a charity founded by Roman Catholic priest Father Richard HoLung. "Everything we do is for Jesus," he whispers.

No one could doubt that assertion. The downtown Kingston facility is decidedly not for the fastidious, and neither are the other numerous eventide or children’s homes and special residencies that cater to AIDS patients, and which are run primarily by missionaries.

Jacob’s Well is not unlike other charity-operated homes. The branch visited by the Jamaica Observer caters to over 75 females, many with debilitating conditions ranging from Down’s syndrome to a variety of psychiatric illnesses. Some of them are bedridden, while others are unable to move around on their own volition. Many have to be fed and assisted with the most basic biological functions.

Typically the individuals arrive at the hospice after family caregivers call to say they are no longer able to support them; some are placed there following referrals from hospitals; then there are those who are picked up when word of their abandonment in communities gets to the managers of Jacob’s Well.

"When they call us we respond," offers the Pakistani missionary, his voice betraying an almost divine sense of duty. Natives of far-flung places like India, Haiti, The Philippines, Belize, USA, and Africa, Viem and his colleagues were driven to Jamaica "to serve God", as he puts it.

However sincere their claim to theurgical providence, the missionaries no doubt appreciate the near impossibility of feeding, clothing, and caring for the residents of their community without the financial support of the numerous philanthropic individuals and companies that have stepped forward to help.

Our journey to Jacob’s Well and to other institutions that are beneficiaries of charity came about because of the decision by the
Jamaica Observer newspaper to use this year’s Business Leader Award programme to cast the national spotlight on companies that have a culture of corporate social responsibility.

Eight of Jamaica’s most generous corporate givers have been nominated for the award being held under the theme ‘Business Leader: Corporate Philanthropy’. While the eight nominees are by no means the only firms that support charities like Jacob’s Well and Mustard Seed, they are the standouts within the donor community — for the size of their generosity and the scale of their impact. Together they have contributed more than $7 billion to public good over the past 10 years.

They are: Jamaica National Group; Red Stripe/HEINEKEN Ltd; Digicel Jamaica Ltd; Scotiabank Jamaica Ltd; Sagicor Group Jamaica Ltd; National Baking Company Ltd; NCB Group Jamaica Ltd; JMMB Group Ltd.

But the needs across Jamaica and the requests for help that percolate all the way up, in some instances to the boardroom of these corporate givers, are wide and varied — and so are the forms of philanthropic intervention.

So while corporate givers spend millions of dollars to help individuals with no ability for self-sustenance, much of their philanthropy is also directed at sustainable transformation. Through thousands of annual scholarships and bursaries, mentorship of small business owners, capacity expansion at educational institutions, nutrition programmes for infant students, and a host of other good causes, donors are making short- and medium-term investments in Jamaicans.

A good example is the Laws Street Trade Training Centre in Kingston — a place that has benefited from charitable donation of many companies.

This is where Keneisha McPherson, a vendor at the Redemption Arcade in Kingston has been learning the art of embroidery for the past few weeks, after a friend introduced her to the establishment.

For McPherson, the twice-weekly trek through one of Kingston’s most seedy communities to get to classes is not just about learning a new craft. She is also seizing the opportunity for vertical integration within her current line of business that the embroidery skill promises.

"If I learn to do the embroidery I can make things and sell them at my stall in the arcade," she points out. "I can develop a new business to add to the one I already have."

Jeneive Laing, an instructor, says that sewing and dressmaking are also taught at the centre, but that the women tend to do much better at drapery work.

"I have a few of them now doing sheet sets and drapery and making good money," she says. "They take easier to drapes than dressmaking."

As part of its corporate social responsibility outreach, Digicel Jamaica refurbished and outfitted the science labs at several high schools — three biology labs at St Hugh’s High School for Girls in Kingston among them.

The project was undertaken about five years ago, enough time for the school’s vice-principal, Jennifer Murray, to have noticed an uptick in interest in science among the girls.

"We have seen an uptake in the students who want to do science," notes Murray. "The children want to be a part of the new space... this has translated into good passes in biology. We have over 90 per cent pass rate in CSEC (Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate)."

Now equipped with gas taps for the Bunsen burners, water taps, and a generally clear and uncluttered space, the labs are given thumbs up by fourth former Sasheika Hayles.

"The subject is compulsory," says Hayles, an aspiring lawyer and a student with an affinity for the arts who might have eschewed biology classes, if given the option. "But," she hurriedly points out, "we now have all the resources we need to do well in biology."

Paul Cox, who has taught the subject at St Hugh’s for four years, says that labs like the ones at this school make a positive difference because they allow "students to put into practice the content they are exposed to and make learning more meaningful".

Thalia Lyn, the chairman of NCB Foundation, asserts that no matter how much resources companies like NCB throw behind their charitable causes, it is never enough.

"Even though we have a budget, sometimes I get a call and have to go back to Patrick (Hylton, the NCB CEO) and say can we do this?" Lyn told executives representing the companies that have been nominated for the award at the recent Business Leader Nominee luncheon.

NCB has given $1.3 billion to good causes over the past 10 years, and in particular endears itself to thousands of students whose CSEC exam fees for principles of accounts and principles of business it pays each year.

Richard Byles, the CEO of Sagicor Jamaica, organisers of the annual Sigma Charity Run, agrees with Lyn’s assessment of the enormity of the unmet needs across the country and encouraged attendees at the luncheon not to be overly concerned about overlapping with other donors when giving to charitable causes.

The luncheon, held at the Jamaica Observer headquarters in Kingston, is an annual event just a few weeks before each year’s Business Leader formal banquet and presentation. This year is the 19th renewal of the award, which will take place on Sunday, December 4 at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel beginning at 4:30 pm.

Like other members of the donor community, Jamaica National has a multifaceted approach to how it pursues its mission of helping the country transform through giving.

The establishment of five Source Centres within various neighbourhoods reflects its preference for getting involved in projects that can ultimately self-fund and provide services in perpetuity in mainly underserved communities.

At the centre that is located in August Town, St Andrew, residents get help in taking their first steps towards finding employment. They can have their resume done, their job application formatted and printed, use the Internet, and get material photocopied. Students can find help with their homework.

Kevian Witter-Armstrong, the centre’s administrator, says one of the biggest challenges faced by students who use the facility is lack of adequate computer literacy.

"There are lots of high school students who can’t use the computer," she notes. "They can play games, but they need help in that department. That’s the biggest need I see."

The facility is now operated by Kairos Network, a faith-based organisation.

Still, the STEP centre on Tremaine Road (off Mountain View Avenue) in Kingston is the archetypal showpiece for how a caregiving institution can bring new hope and comfort to infants and youngsters who face some of the most daunting challenges that nature throws at the human race.

The school serves children two to 18 years old, many of whom display some of the most complex psychological and mental issues imaginable.

Four years ago, Digicel built the special purpose building that now houses the institution — enabling it to relocate from the church hall where it once called home. Since then, other charitable givers have chipped in, including the Canadian High Commission that built the periphery walls to enhance the safety and privacy of the school.

"I can’t tell you the difference it has made," beams Hilary Sherlock, the principal. "This is a specially built building that actually works. It allows us to have a better quality programme for the kids. We have quality working space, it is airy, keeps the children healthy, and we are able to expand our curriculum using the outdoors. It enables us to have very individualised programmes."

The school has capacity for about 35 children with 26 currently on roll, many of them confined to wheelchairs. There is a sensory room to stimulate the development of their five innate senses, and also to help the more anxious ones to relax. The plants and green areas and butterflies around the yard also help the students interface with nature — an activity that is taken for granted in the world of normalcy.

Sherlock says that there are always budgetary constraints facing her institution, with inadequate governmental subvention, and revenues from school fees and sale of Christmas cards typically falling 30 per cent short of meeting ongoing expenses.

"There are lots of kids who should be here but who can’t get to come," she says. "It’s an act of faith."

There is no shortage of heartfelt stories about people whose lives have been touched by one or the other of Jamaica’s many charitable organisations.

In 2010, Michelle Smith was still struggling to make a breakthrough with the chocolate manufacturing company she started six years earlier, when she got a call from Gary "Butch" Hendrickson, the principal of National Baking Company.

It was the inaugural year of the Bold Ones, a project bankrolled by National to help small but promising companies gain market exposure and expand.

At the time Chocolate Dreams was a cottage industry operated by Smith and a few family members — making white rum truffles and chocolates of different shapes which they retailed at Devon House and a shop at the Losushan Plaza in Kingston.

"I saw a tremendous impact on my business," Smith offers. "That is where we really burst out. My brand has grown tremendously. It is bigger than the factory due to the help of Butch (Hendrickson)".

Today Chocolate Dreams employs 28 workers at its 900 square foot factory on Roosevelt Avenue in Kingston. Its products can be found in seven hotels in addition to an expanded range of retail outlets.

Chocolate Dreams is one of nearly 40 companies that have benefited from this biennial programme. The participants have their logos and names plastered all over National’s trucks; they appear on television programmes, earn advertising spots in newspapers, and are showcased at the biennial JMA/JEA expo held at the National Arena in Kingston.

Spur Tree Spices Jamaica Ltd is another company that has seen the benefits of the intense market exposure that the owner says would have been beyond his financial reach without the Bold Ones programme in 2010.

Six years after, Mohan Jagnarine remains effusive in his praise for Hendrickson and National.

"It definitely impacted our business," he says of the initiative. "With our ads on the trucks, we could not get that visibility anywhere. I applaud him. This is a man who took his hard-earned money to help us. He knows that lack of marketing is a real problem for small businesses and set out to help. That is really patriotic."

As its name suggest, Spur Tree Spices is a manufacturer of Jamaican jerk spices for a wide range of meat products. As a measure of the fast-paced growth, four years ago the company relocated from its 3,000 square foot factory where it employed five workers, to its current 20,000 square foot facility on Marcus Garvey Drive in Kingston. It now has a workforce of 30.

Last year Hendrickson added a new dimension to National’s drive to help nurture the growth and development of small businesses when he introduced the Jamaican Made Christmas at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel. For this year’s renewal, held yesterday and today, the products of some 67 promising companies are on display — allowing visitors to the many stalls to sample them and see first-hand some of the best quality work being produced by the hands of mainly young entrepreneurs.

From shoes, handbags, beachwear, condiments, to decorative items and furniture and foodstuff the Pegasus was abuzz with a burst of colour and entrepreneurial energy as guests mingled with the creators of these items.

Yet, Saffrey Brown, the head of JN Foundation, says her organisation sees itself as a support structure for individuals who are working to bring positive changes within their communities. She cites some cases.

"There are persons such as Claudette Pious of Children First, who leads a small, quiet revolution in Spanish Town, working almost single-handedly to keep children off the streets and out of child labour situations.

"There is also Julien Pringle, who has spent the past four years building his community through their local resource centre, The Source Savanna-la-Mar. Pringle believes in the power of the collective need and in enabling others to achieve their own goals through inclusion and education. In addition, the advocates and educators at the Jamaica Cancer Society (JCS), led by Yulit Gordon, continue their efforts to support men, women and children in their fight against cancer."

No one knows for sure how many Jamaicans are being impacted one way or the other by the myriad individual and corporate charitable givers and unsung heroes like those cited by Brown and elsewhere in this story, or even the eight firms that have been nominated for the Business Leader Award. There is also a big question mark as to how much money in aggregate the philanthropic community spends each year uplifting Jamaicans.

But Patricia Duncan-Sutherland, the head of JMMB’s Joan Duncan Foundation, as well as the JN Group CEO Earl Jarrett assert that finding the answer to this question ought to be the next mission of donors — information, they are convinced , that is potentially so powerful that it could provide the platform for the next big push for the expansion of charity in Jamaica.

"It would be good to figure out how much is on the ground," Jarrett declared at the Business Leader luncheon on November 15. "Once you begin to see that number, then it’s going to get the attention of Government… If we count the numbers and we find that it is in the billions that we are spending in charities, then it might well be worth your while for those persons who are spending this money to be able to come together and leverage that strength of investment to shape the direction (of Government policy)."

— Moses Jackson is the founder of the Jamaica Observer Business Leader Award programme and the chairman of the Award Selection Committee. He may be reached at