The Blue Mountain Project team (from left) Executive Director Kevin Gebhart, medical ambassador Vanessa Hardy, local staff Rohan Cuff and nurse Carma<br />Messam, Dr Shushita Soni, and Dr Moira Walker. (PHOTO: GARFIELD ROBINSON)
Blue Mountain Project helping poor St Thomas community

Each year, scores of volunteer doctors, nurses, educators and other professionals from around the world take time off from their jobs for weeks and months to live and work among the people in the deep rural community of Hagley Gap in St Thomas where the international charity Blue Mountain Project (BMP) has set up its base.

The deplorable main road leading from Hagley Gap to other areas in the parish and the rugged terrain make travelling a difficult feat, especially for those trying to get their sick loved ones to the nearest hospitals either in Morant Bay or St Andrew.

However, with the organisation providing year-round medical services, shut-in patients living in some of the most mountainous terrain with only dirt tracks have doctors attend to them in bed, while others receive daily medical attention at the organisation's clinic — all free of cost. In addition to its medical volunteers, the project also provides educational support for the two local primary schools, income generation for the many unemployed residents and access to clean water from the natural springs located high up in the mountain.

BMP Executive Director Kevin Gebhart, who has been in Jamaica for the past eight months, said the project is funded by United States donors and receives volunteers from all over, who live in residents' homes during their period of service. He explained that the non-profit organisation was established 11 years ago when a professor brought a group of students to the rural community. Since then, the project has benefited from volunteers who serve for periods ranging from a week to as much as a year-and-a-half. The project is further supported by long-serving volunteers, dubbed ambassadors, as well as some local staff.

Gebhart told the Jamaica Observer North East that some 150 volunteers serve the community each year, with the majority coming from the US. One of the most-welcomed service provided by the project is the doctors, who not only operate in the clinic from Monday to Thursday, but who also conduct home visits battling some of the most rugged terrain to get to the shut-in patients. “We have many persons who cannot get out of their homes, and given the mountainous terrain they find it difficult to get to a doctor, so we take the service to them,” said Gebhart. Patients also receive basic medication at the facility, which BMP takes into the island each year. The clinic is staffed all year round by a local nurse who also makes home visits to some patients. Explaining that they operate on a US$80,000-a-year budget, Gebhart said this would not have been possible were it not for the scores of volunteers. “How often do you get doctors to give up their time to come here to work?” he questioned.

Dr Shushita Soni and her colleague Dr Moira Walker from the United Kingdom said it is important for them to be able to give of their time while gaining experience working in a different environment. “The Jamaican hospitality makes it very easy to adjust and makes us feel at home,” said Dr Soni. The doctors, who worked in the UK for four years post-registration, said they were prepared for working in this sort of setting, having taken a diploma course in tropical medicine which teaches global health. “We have been enjoying being here and we feel very safe and feel like we have been here for a very long time,” said Dr Soni. The doctors, who have already served a week of their two-month stint, said a majority of the patients they have seen are suffering from lifestyle diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

“We have been seeing a lot of people who have medical needs, but they have been unable to access medical care because of where they live or they just cannot afford it,” explained Dr Walker. Meanwhile, Gebhart said the doctor who will be coming after Dr Soni and Dr Walker leave will be at the clinic for an entire year. This, he said, is a major accomplishment for the project to have a doctor volunteer for such a long period. “I am most proud of this fact because for the short-term volunteers it is hard to know your patients in a week. At that time you usually have long lines out the door, so it was very fast-paced, but with doctors here for a longer term they will be able to commit also to community education with a focus on lifestyle changes and so on,” he said. According to Gebhart, with the long-term stint, persons are now able to call and make appointments and the doctors now have a longer time to spend with each patient. Medical ambassador and Florida native Vanessa Hardy, who has been in Jamaica with the project for seven months now, said she is prepared to stay for as long as she can.

“My motivation was a drive to serve people in different countries and to also benefit from that experience, which makes for mutual exchange,” she said, explaining that her two previous stints were in Kenya and Tanzania. “I am just enjoying it because the people are very hospitable,” said Hardy, who is a trained pharmacist. Local nurse Carma Messam said the medical team was most welcomed in this rural community where people cannot afford the cost to travel outside the community to see a doctor. “When the doctors are not here my phone doesn't stop ringing, with people asking when they are coming and they wait for them to get here,” she told the Observer North East.

Messam said not only are many people unable to afford the transportation cost, but they also do not have the money to pay the doctor if they must attend a private practice. “Sometimes when they do find the money for the doctor they cannot afford to fill the prescription, and so they have to come back here to see if they can get the medication,” she explained. Outside of the thousands of dollars worth of medication, BMP also brings in educational and school supplies for students.

Another noteworthy feature of the project is the income-generating component, as the community benefits from the increased spend. This as the volunteers pay to stay in the homes of the residents and make majority of their purchases at the local shops. “We also employ local drivers and cooks, etc, and with 156 volunteers, plus the ambassadors buying all their products from the community (businesses), that is a lot of income generated for the residents,” Gebhart said. In addition, there are women groups who are assisted in making eco-weave handbags from scandal bags which are sold to the volunteers and in the United States. “That not only generates income ,but it helps to keep the plastic bags off the mountainside,” Gebhart explained.

To further boost this component of the programme, Gebhart said the plan is to bring in some specific volunteers next year to establish an industrial solar dehydrator to preserve the large supply of mangoes in the community, for sale when the usual mango season is over. As for the educational component, the project has established a computer lab at the BMP community centre as well as at Penlyne and Minto primary schools.

The lab at Minto Primary is equipped with 25 computers, while that at Penlyne Primary has 12. This, Gebhart explains, is not only beneficial to the students, but also to the staff who can now keep in contact with the Ministry of Education via the Internet. The project also has a fully functional library, an after-school homework programme for the community children, and a twoweek- long summer camp each year.

The executive director explained that the BMP also has an education ambassador who works closely with the teachers at Minto and Penlyne primary schools, and design Internetbased programmes to coincide with the schools' curriculum. “He works with the teachers and backs up what they are doing in the classrooms by making lesson programmes that help to reinforce what the teachers are doing,” Gebhart explained.

Meanwhile, Hagley Gap now has access to clean water piped from springs in the mountain to collection points in the community and in some homes. Explaining how it works, Gebhart said an engineer volunteer team designed the piped water system, which allows the supply to go to a collection point in the community or into the homes of those persons who can afford to pay for the additional piping.

“Previously people had to get water from the river, but now they can have access to clean water,” he said. While the programme to provide clean water to the community has had some glitches, Gebhart said work is ongoing to sort that out as they will now have to replace some of the smaller pipes with bigger ones to allow for an even greater flow of the water.

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — special assignment

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