High schools from across the US team up in New Forest, Jamaica

June 2019

Marquette University High School (WI), Jesuit Portland High School (OR), School Without Walls (DC), and Richmond VA area schools in New Forest School, Manchester Jamaica.

I should begin this story by saying that this trip had ups and downs, highs and lows, forwardses and backwardses. If I started it any other way, the story would sound like a horror tale. The highs were heavenly and the lows were abyssal, but it all came together in the end to make one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had, that many or even all of the 28 of us that went to Jamaica have ever had. And my, it was incredible.

No lie, the first two days were rough for us. A whole day of traveling, long flights and longer layovers, waiting for transportation, [unprepared accommodations, lack of water], left a bad taste on our exhausted tongues. Not to mention that the other half of our group, the Jesuit High crew from Portland, was getting delayed further and further on their flight in to join us. This was a low point, needless to say.

The morning after we arrived, we spent the day on the UWI campus, acquainting ourselves with the heat and our surroundings. Eventually, the bus came to take us to New Forest. The ride there was long, and the scenery was gorgeous. Our bus driver was an energetic man named Briggy, who always played us music, new Jamaican and well-known American, on his incredible sound system.

The first high point came for us when we arrived at New Forest School. Mr. Arnaldo Allen – the school’s principal – and the rest of the staff gave us not just a warm welcome, but a blazing one. We could all feel how delighted they were to see us, to meet us, to share their culture with us and make us feel excited and at home. They threw us a banquet on our first night there, colorful tablecloths on a massive array of tables, a huge meal that I don’t think anyone was able to finish. As Mr. Alan said to us, “We are so glad that you’re here in Jamaica, and we will try to make it so you will never want to leave.”

The next day, we all woke up in our shared rooms, backs a bit sore from sleeping on the mattresses we’d been given. After breakfast, we joined the students in their devotion ceremony and stood with them as they sang songs. Tragically, we lost one of our own to a bee sting that same morning, leaving her unable to help for the majority of the trip. Portland had been delayed yet further, and when all was said and done, wouldn’t be arriving until nearly the end of the day. But we still had a job to do, so we got out there on that positively gargantuan court – this court was twice the size of the typical court that Courts for Kids works on – and saw what we could see. There was one small mixer and two contractors who had already done the best they could before we got there, filling in about a third of the court’s panels already. Our [Courts for Kids Representative], Kristin, was [delayed] with the rest of the Portland gang still…. Even still, we did our best and set to work in what I believe was an excellent display of teamwork.

We had gotten started.

The work was hard, hot, and slow, but we were doing the best we could with what we had, and we all knew it. That fact drove us onward, filled us with determination, and kept us going until lunchtime, when Portland finally arrived. Kristin arrived with them, our leader was finally here!

There was a great deal of general malcontent with the group, stemming from the difficulty in working, the discouraging slowness we were operating at, the disorganization of the operation, and having to adjust to a new group of the same size assimilating into ours. When I say we got off to a rocky start, I do mean rocky.

We did our best for the rest of the day, and eventually the hour drew late and it was time for dinner, then our team meeting, then rest. At our team meeting, we formed four groups. Little did we know, Kristin’s plan was already coming into effect. You see, Kristin had done this before – five times before, in fact. She knew what she was doing, much much more than any of the rest of us.

The next day, things were looking up. Kristin had set us up with a system of rotations that kept any one group from working for too long and gave us all even breaks. It was still rough going as the group leaders tried to get used to the system, but we were all slowly finding our rhythm with each other and with our work. The day after, we really hit our stride. People began finding where they fit in their teams, what jobs they could and couldn’t do, which ways were the most effective to do jobs. All this time, we were aided by the wonderful community and the students at the school in our work. I cannot stress enough how instrumental our Jamaican friends were in the completion of this project – and they were our friends! They loved to meet us, talk to us, and play with us. We all made our friends, integrating into the community just the way we were meant to. Without the help of the community, we surely never would’ve finished in time.

Even with the help of the community, there were some doubts about whether we would be able to finish in time. Eventually, we determined that we would finish, but that we might have to use our beach day to knock out the last few panels.

And then, on what would be the last day of our work, we decided that we were going to finish, and finish that day.

We worked hard, harder than I’m sure most of us have ever worked in our lives. We were exhausted, our strength was waning, but our resolve was stronger and more vibrant than ever.

After a staggering 11-hour work day of four panels completed, we knew we could rest easy with the knowledge that we were done. It was finished. We had done it!

We spent the next day with victorious hearts and freed minds, playing with the community and enjoying ourselves to our hearts’ content. That night, Mr. Alan held us an absolute feast at his beautiful home, a home which he had laid the tile by hand, a home which he had furnished with a palace of beautiful hard furniture, all built by his own two hands. He introduced us to his family, and if we thought we knew Jamaican hospitality before, we were blown away by the openness with which the Alan family showed us their home, taking us all through guided tours in a night of delicious food and entrancing song.

When it finally became time to leave the community, many of us felt both happy and devastated. I know for a fact that tears were shed among many of our members. We had made so many friends there, and it was uncertain if we would ever have the chance to see them again.

We stayed the night… in Kingston, a much more hospitable stay now that they were prepared for us with water, rooms, and bedclothes to sleep on. More tears came yet when it was time for the Virginia and Wisconsin groups to say goodbye to the Portland group, who were leaving much earlier than us that morning. The final goodbye came in Atlanta, when Wisconsin and Virginia had to separate, and the last of our tears of farewell were shed. We hadn’t realized how close we’d all become among the heated haze of our journey and our work, and then, in the stark cool of the Atlanta airport, we finally realized that we had made a new kind of bond with each other – one that would never quite erode with time.

I think I speak for everyone on that trip when I saw that it was a transformative trial of fortitude, strength, and cooperation, but also an unbelievable vacation that will be cemented in our memories with the bonds, the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the flavors of Jamaica for the rest of our lives.

We were all so different from each other and from the community, and yet we came together and conquered an indomitable project with tenacity and might.

From many, we were truly one people. -Jack , Henrico High School student

“This trip has truly changed me.  In the past, I haven’t had the best self-esteem.  I was awkward and uncomfortable meeting people because I felt insecure about myself.  This week has given me the opportunity to let the past go and try to be myself . . . The community and my fellow team members were there with open arms.  I learned that being yourself always is the way to go.” – Amanda

“My favorite memory from the trip was when we first stepped off the bus at the school.  I’ve never felt more welcomed by a group of people that had never met me before.” – Sydney

On the trip, learned that there are actually more similarities between the people of different countries, including daily routines and sports.” -Luke

“I learned that this community is kind and welcoming.  Also that they are super hard workers.  All of the teachers and cooks have been so kind to us and they have made our stay here so nice.  This community is super hardworking . . . a lot of them were helping with the court all day with no breaks.” – Lauren

“This trip has changed me into a more patient, understanding, and compassionate version of myself. . . I will leave this trip with a new found respect for both myself and humanity as a whole.” – Ethan

“One thing about the community that surprised me was how willing they were to help.  There was almost never a time where there was nobody helping us build.  The students were so willing to help and such hard workers, doing the hardest jobs all day without stopping.” – George

“I learned that the world offers many different experiences and opportunities.  Sometimes we need to disconnect from our lives at home and get out of our comfort zones to truly experience what the world has to offer . . . I understand more clearly how important it is to make connections around the world.  There are billions of people on this planet each with a unique story and talents. It would be a shame to forfeit the ability to make these connections by staying at home or only experiencing a country for tourism.” – Sarah