“Birthdays are a luxury.”

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Riverton

Why are they so excited?

Students chanting, giving high fives, running around with glee – this was the scene down in Jamaica this week.

My role as a chaperone for the trip in Kingston allowed me to both serve and observe.

We spent time at the Missionaries of Charity, Riverton City Basic School and Missionaries of The Poor. Each site opened my eyes, moved my heart and touched my soul.

The sisters at Missionaries of Charity proved to be role models for preserving dignity for each person. Many of the residents there were non-communicative, but the sisters still understood what was needed. Each resident was seen. Their individuality was celebrated. The sisters altered their meals due to preference, knew the best location for their wheelchairs, and even had inside jokes that occasionally caused a brief smile, only noticed by those looking for it.

As we shaved faces, cleaned rooms and served meals, the sisters never stopped moving, unless it was to share a moment with one of the residents. They served with a humble confidence as if they knew their work was exactly how they should be spending their time.

That evening we returned to the house, each of us with our own feelings about what we witnessed. We sat with these emotions, but also prepared for the following day as we were scheduled to visit Riverton City Basic School. Located in a landfill, most of the 7,000 members of this community slept on dirt floors and had housing comprised of scavenged materials.

To prepare us for this visit, Mr. Fabian Brown, an aspiring local politician, and a pragmatic optimist spoke with our group. He provided context and hopeful insight but also shared some difficult truths.

Despite primary and secondary school being free, because of the additional costs – transportation, books, food and uniforms – many families still cannot afford to send their children to school. If a family has multiple children, they often alternate days, sharing shoes and supplies.

This fact alone is heartbreaking.

It hurts even more because the school system in Jamaica boasts high levels of success. If the students can get to school, they will receive a quality education.

Riverton City Basic School has removed many of those barriers by providing supplies, uniforms, and food. They even have a health center to address the basic needs of the community. It is remarkable.

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stitching uniforms = removing barriers

To end this story here would be both heartbreaking and inspirational, however, it was the conclusion of Mr. Brown’s comments that shook me the most. He said that part of the reason why the students are so energetic, always asking for hugs, pleading to be picked up or have one more piggyback ride – is because they are yearning for attention, yearning for affection.

This does not mean they are not loved. Their parents work endlessly to provide and ensure they have opportunities. Unfortunately, this also means they are not around all the time to give that extra hug or spend the additional quality time that sends a clear, tactile message.

Now I know why they were so excited.

Mr. Brown went on to explain the emotional toll of poverty in a practical way and for me, hearing him sparked paradigm shift.

“Birthdays are a luxury.”

I will never forget these words.

Coming from a family where birthday is synonymous with favorite dinners, gifts, Carvel cakes, candles and cards, his words gave me pause. My family and friends have always made time for my life and shown me attention.

Time is a luxury.

Attention is a luxury.

When parents are focused on securing the next meal, and the next paycheck, there is little time for celebration.

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found in the playground

The following day, after an hour of tag and foot races with students, I looked down and saw remnants of a crown – leftovers from a celebration. I can’t help but believe that the time and attention the teachers show their students has led to an intimate knowledge of their home lives. They see their students. They know what they need.

Celebrating birthdays at school might not seem like a big deal to an outsider, but to the students at Riverton, for a moment, for the young king or queen wearing this crown – I’m sure it was luxurious.

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