DALLAS TWP. — As January’s polar vortex descended upon the United States, 11 Misericordia University students worked in its polar opposite.
During a 90-degree week in Jamaica, the mission group encountered severe poverty — coupled with immense optimism. That inspired them to continue their service from home, students said Tuesday.
Next week, two students will return to Jamaica with a pair of wheelchairs to donate to their recipients. A man the group met in a Jamaican veteran’s hospital, who they know only as Mr. Clark, will receive one of the chairs.
According to physical therapy student Caitlin Vitale, the bedridden Mr. Clark was unable to leave his room to meet the students, so they went to see him instead.
“From the second we walked in, his face lit up,” Vitale said.
While many disabled Jamaicans use improvised wheelchairs — constructed from lawn chairs or folding chairs mounted on bicycle tires or tennis balls — Mr. Clark was without one.
His intelligence and sense of humor, Vitale said, sparked the project.
“He’s the one we kind of rallied around,” said Amanda Casem, an occupational therapy major who went on the mission trip.
On the last night of their trip, Casem said, the group decided they would try to bring much-needed supplies to the Jamaican people.
Back at Misericordia, she said the group had a town-hall meeting to raise awareness. Group members also brought their concerns to the university’s board of trustees, which donated $14,000 to the cause.
“You have to go one step at a time,” said occupational therapy professor Joe Cipriani.
New wheelchairs, he said, are that first step.
Pride Mobility donated eight chairs, he said, and shipping and fitting them will be the next hurdle.
They plan to deliver the remaining six wheelchairs early next year as, according to Cipriani, transporting the chairs often costs more than purchasing them.
Group members seemed to agree on one thing: the Jamaicans they visited lacked many basic supplies often taken for granted in this country.
Occupational therapy major Johnna Miller said one day on the trip the group came upon a very small house.
“They called it a house, but it honestly didn’t look like much,” she said. “Basically an empty shell filled with trash.”
As many as fifteen children lived in the house with a few adults, she said, but when the group arrived, most of the children hid, so they couldn’t know the number for sure.
The group spent the day cleaning and fixing the home, which Miller said lacked running water, food and clothing.
“I remember making eye contact with a half-naked little boy,” she said, “and I just remember him shivering in the rain.”
Still, Miller said, optimism prevails.
She recalled, a little boy on another day singing a song with the closing line, “‘I might be poor, but I’m not the worst.’”
“I think that summed up everything the Jamaican people live by and really believe in,” she said. “It was amazing.”
Casem said the students plan to continue raising money through the summer. Fundraising events are in the planning stages.
“We don’t have anything set in stone,” she said, but she hinted at the possibility of a soccer tournament (she said the students played soccer with the Jamaicans regularly) or a Jamaican dinner.
The group is also accepting donations.