Community mobilization and the big empty building called our community center

My Peace Corps issued cellphone, a cheap model nicknamed a “banga” phone by Jamaicans (credited to its capacity to survive, probably, any amount of mash up) is singing it’s obnoxious tune. I pick up. “ME-liss-ah, good mawnin’,” it’s Shelly, a community member that has recently become my partner in our attempt to restore our community center. We plan to meet up later in the day when the sun goes down and it cools off so we can hand out flyers announcing our first community meeting at the center to gauge interest and complete a needs assessment.

When I first came to my community, I tried to find out more about the center. Stuff used to happen there, but now it just sits locked up. It’s a pretty building, people would tell me. Many people wished it were a basic school, because their children had to travel the next town over for any form of education. No matter whom I talked to, everyone agreed they would like to see the space used for something.

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Two days prior to hanging out flyers, we linked up with Mr. Wint, a politician in the area interested in helping, and Mr. Arrol, who holds the key to the community center building and many years ago used to run a youth club there. Mr. Arrol jiggled the key into the door lock and as the door opened I caught my first glimpse of the inside---it was larger than I thought! A calendar from 2012 hung on the wall next to art projects. “My daughter did this one,” Shelly said pointing to one of the pictures. The floor was covered with sawdust, “Termites,” Mr. Wint said looking up at the wooden ceiling. We walked through and surveyed the building, it had a full bathroom, storage room, kitchen---this place was a dormant seed with so much potential if we could just wake it up with water and light.

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The community’s center first started construction in the 1960s, but was damaged by Hurricane Gilbert in the 1980s. Amazingly, it wasn’t until August 2012 that the center was completed, and pictured below was the ribbon cutting from a huge opening ceremony.

Ribbon Cutting in August 2012 with Mr. Wint and MP Audley Shaw

Somewhere between now and then, it has become an empty shell of a building, reflective of the lack of unity to accomplish things in my community. It’s nobody’s fault really, because it is rooted in a classic example of unsustainable development; an organization in Jamaican plopped down a community center and ballpark with little to no community involvement or plan for how these centers were going to be cared for…how was the light bill to be paid? Who was to run the programming? When the main caretaker of the building went overseas to work, the building went into a deep sleep.

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So, when the day cooled off, we handed out flyers and verbally spread the word throughout the week. When the day finally came, I was pretty nervous. It rained an hour before the meeting was to start, and I knew that many people don’t go out when it is raining. The chairs I rented were late, and my plate of cookies I baked spilled in the bag. Nobody who helped me plan was picking up the phone. I carried a sense of dread, which followed me when I arrived to center and it seemed like it may rain again. It was a ghost town besides some kids kicking a ball around in the muddy, unmaintained ballpark. I finally got a hold of Shelly, who shortly arrived and we swept up the termite damage and set-up. Surprisingly, people began to trickle in, mostly lingering by the door. By the time Mr. Wint finally showed up, we had a good amount of people. As the meeting went on, more and more people dropped in, mostly curious of the crowd, but many of them made contributions to the discussion.

Meeting agendas and pre-prepped needs assessment matrix. Oh, and a big mug of black coffee.

Attendance was small at first, as pictured, but grew as time passed and people passing by wanted to see what was happening.

In the end, I would say our first community center meeting was a success, through it was a little nerve-wracking to organize. I have plenty of experience facilitating meetings, but now I am planted in a different culture with a different structure of gatherings and I wasn’t sure how smoothly it was going to go. Now that we held this meeting, there is a good population of the community not only informed of the community center’s future, but also INVOLVED. I made it clear that my position is to help the community help itself, and we have to move this thing together. Community members spoke about how they wish there was more trust, unity, and determination within the community.

We chose the top three things that we would like to see done at the center, and adult training seemed to be the most important need. Adult training, including literacy and computer skills, is something I would absolutely love to help my community with, so the possibilities are swimming in my brain. I’ll let the thoughts slow cook for now as I relax with a cup of coffee after a busy, eventful week.

Will bake cookies for community mobilization.