AHS program connects with Jamaica

Colonialism inevitably leaves a legacy.

In Jamaica, part of that legacy was plantations, sugar and poverty. To this day, Jamaicans who live in poverty resort to sucking on sugar cane when there is no real food to be had.

The students in the specialized classes of Mary McInerney and Caroline Spear got that connection.

McInerney and Spear teach in the Catalyst Program, which are alternative education classes held at Ashland High School for students who learn best in a nontraditional format.

One of the things the class does is throw a fundraiser each year for a project of their choosing. This year they chose a Jamaican dental program after witnessing a presentation by Georgene Crowe, co-founder of Great Shape Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the people of Jamaica.

"The kids asked good questions," said Crowe, noting that they asked about sugar, health and education.

The connection between Jamaica and the classes came about through McInerney, who gets her hair styled by Crowe. After hearing about the Jamaican project, she invited Crowe to speak to her class.

Crowe first got involved with Jamaica in 1986 when Hurricane Gilbert hit. She and a friend decided they needed to do something to help and they gathered clothes, food and money to send to the island. Crowe has been traveling to Jamaica for 21 years.

"I love Jamaica &

I got involved because of a love for the people," she said. "Once Jamaica gets you, it gets you."

In particular, Crowe saw the need for dental help because, one, few people can afford to visit a dentist, and two, there's one dentist for every 80,000 people, he said.

Great Shape partners with Smile Power International, Sandals Resorts International and the Jamaican Ministry of Health. Last year, they were able to provide dental care for 9,000 Jamaicans, the group's biggest ever. The work is done by volunteers, which includes nonprofessionals as well as dentists and hygienists, and much of it happens because they go out into the bush.

Crowe talked about one 75-year-old man who had just one tooth left and it needed to be pulled. He hadn't made the connection between sugar and the loss of his teeth, but he was so grateful that the dentist didn't hurt him when he had to pull it out.

Teeth take on another dimension in Jamaica as well. As a country where tourism drives the economy, the best smile gets the best job.

Spear said the Catalyst classes raised $309 for the dental project this year with two bake sales. Last year, the classes raised $257 for its project. Last year, the classes raised $197.

"So, we're definitely getting better at it," she said.

Spear mentioned she has just been reading recent research that indicated doing good for others alters the brain chemistry in a positive way and that was very evident with her students.

"They got very excited about the entire process," said Spear, adding that having success with a project that benefited other people really gave them a charge.

Megan Neufeld, who graduated this spring, said it was the presentation by Crowe and her daughter that really moved the class. Guest speakers are asked to share things about their own lives with the class.

"We just really connected with them. They talked about their own hard times they went through as a family, and how (it motivated) them to really want to help other people," Neufeld said. "You don't find people like them very often."

Neufeld also said the Catalyst classes are full of kids who have a hard time with a lot of things in general, and they could relate to what Crowe shared with them.

Students from the two classes baked a lot of pastries and confections, brought them to the high school, where they cleaned up more than $300 in two days of lunchtime sales.

Neufeld, who plans to go into nursing, said she hopes to go to Jamaica herself as a volunteer with the dental program. She went to Nicaragua two years ago to help build a school and church.

"It really opened my eyes. They are so poor. They don't have anything. If you give them a pencil, they love you forever," she said. "I really want to help people who are less fortunate, especially those who don't have medical care."

Great Shape has scheduled its 2007 humanitarian trips from Oct. 5-22 and from Oct. 26 to Nov. 12. This fall, about 100 volunteers will travel to Jamaica to set up dental clinics.

In addition to its dental program, Great Shape has also helped school children get books, which are expensive on an island where all books are imported; get school uniforms, which they must wear to attend school but can't always afford; and the organization has helped rebuild schools, roads and community centers. It also helps students with scholarship assistance.

The nonprofit group is holding a fundraiser from 6 to 11 p.m. June 30 at The Windmill Inn in Ashland. Tickets for the 1,000 Smiles Dinner Party are $100. There will be authentic Caribbean food, live reggae, an open bar, auction and a chance to win an all-inclusive vacation in Jamaica. For more information about tickets, contact Lucinda Kay at (509) 325-3623 or via e-mail at Lucinda@lucindakay.com.

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