A Smile is Worth 1,000 Words

The first thing you notice at 8 a.m. in Savanna-La-mar, Jamaica, is the heat. The second and third are the bright smiles of the students and staff at Higher Heights Academy, a preschool that our brothers have been helping to construct for two years.

The day rolls on, and you continue to sweat more than you thought humanly possible. The heat sticks to you like a cloak, a tangible reminder of both your presence and purpose here, even under the cool shade of the mango trees. As the sun rises higher and higher in the sky, you begin taking more breaks for water. Your work slows, if even just slightly, and you find yourself wiping sweat from your eyes with an already soaked rag. But, as consistent as the ocean tide, you notice none of your new friends have ceased to smile.

This is an odd thought. You can’t stop thinking about the heat, the itchiness of sweaty skin, the thirst in the back of your throat. And yet, your newfound brothers and sisters who haven’t been blessed with half of what you take for granted, are as happy as the birds that greet you in the morning. Creases line the eyes of a child who has never seen a school bus stop down the road from their house or an indoor gymnasium at their local school.

Their smiles seem wise to you on this day because they teach you something. Their smiles tell you there is no need for help here. There is a need for service. Compassion should leave us no room for sympathy. As fellow humans, as children of the world, as an underprivileged and under-represented group of people, or any way you choose to think about it. They deserve it, and you are blessed with a chance to deliver it.

You look up from your work to see the bright eyes and colorful beaded hair of a proud smiling child and understand the message it’s sending more clearly than ever before. And so you thank them in the best manner you can think of, and smile back. The heat may not change your heart, but the smiles definitely will.

Jake Harwood, Oregon State ’21

The Gift of Service

Today was the third day of work, the last day before we took a one-day cultural break, so in a way, it was the peak of our work week. Whatever projects we started had either been completed or hit a 3/4 mark in their progress. I, myself, took this day to try and participate in every project. When we were finishing up the tile floors with the grout, I pushed myself to scrub all of the excess grout off the floor for as long as possible. I used my T-shirt as a mask and was on my knees for at least an hour and a half, really grinding out that grout. What was great was brothers from other projects realized what a task the removal of the grout ended up being and a handful of guys, including Aaron (the member of the Fraternity’s Board of Directors who helped facilitate the trip), all joined to help. Getting that room done was as much a pleasure as it was a relief, and I was happy to have done it.

Today was also my birthday. Today I turned 23, and I feel as if it marked a changing moment in my life. This week-long moment with my brothers in Jamaica is limited, and today I decided to get the most bang for my buck. I usually spend the day waiting for cards from my family and texts from my friends, but instead, today, I received no cards and no texts. Today for my birthday I was given the opportunity to give to others. It has been the first birthday in many years that I have felt such great happiness. And when I look back into the haze of the memories of all my birthdays as a youth, I will remember this one very clearly.

Garrett Greco, Syracuse ’18

The End of a Journey

The energy on the work site was different today as it was the last day of school for the kids and the last day in Jamaica for the brothers. The projects we started at Higher Heights on Monday were finished at about 3:30 today. Seeing the fruits of our labor really put this trip into perspective for me. We are serving the community of Savannah La-Mar through Higher Heights Academy and hopefully making a difference in others’ lives, even if we never know it. This trip, especially today, reinforced for me what brotherhood is. I had met a group of random guys on Saturday, and I didn’t know what to expect, but these last few days, it seemed like we had all been friends our entire lives.

At first glance, these projects seemed like they were small and wouldn’t be very helpful in the long run. But being exposed to the school environment and the heat shows that they all have a place at Higher Heights. The teachers were sitting and talking under the new roofing at the end of the day to get out of the sun. The kids have been talking about their new playhouse and were arguing over who would get to go in first, and the new classrooms are going to be used for summer classes. While it was hot today and everyone just wanted to be in the shade, everyone worked hard to finish everything they could before we had to leave. It was just amazing to see everything come together today, marking the end of a journey.

Will Kirkconnell, Michigan Tech ’21

Through the Eyes of Fire

Day 6 of GSI in Jamaica was truly remarkable. After having a great breakfast and heading out at the same time as usual, the brothers and I began our day not knowing the surprises that would come with playing drums, hiking Mount Canaan, and spending some time with Fire, a Jamaican man who lives a self-sustaining life in the jungle. 

Beginning our trip, we stopped at a local gift shop and had the chance to buy souvenirs and gifts for friends back home. As we got to the villa where we would begin our hike, we had a drum-session with staff there, where we got to learn a bit about drumming and make some funky beats with the brothers. However, the most interesting part of today was our hike with Fire, a Rastafarian who lives alone in a secluded forest-house on Mt. Canaan. During the hike, and as we spent time at his home on the mountain, 58-year-old Fire expressed to us his philosophies about the general human experience. He told us about his strong appeal for living as one with nature and how he values living off the land as well as being free from the stresses of city life. What struck me the most was his happiness with his lifestyle despite his seclusion from society and lack of facilities that we often deem as necessary in our lives. Though I could see the appeal in living a distanced and relaxed lifestyle, I could not deny my reservations about not socializing with friends or getting to have close relationships with family if I were in his place, which comes with living purely on your own and being a steep hike away from the nearest populated areas. Regardless, Fire consistently emanated content and positivity for the duration of our time together.

After returning from the hike, we were met with an amazing meal from the villa and finally headed home to enjoy the rest of the day at the beach, which was quite an experience in itself. The trip to Mt. Canaan was a rather unique experience that I feel may be the most memorable part of the trip for the opportunity it gave us to see into the life of another human being with very different experiences.

Aman Tewani, Texas ’22

Powering Off

This journey for me began when I landed in the Montego Bay airport and was immediately greeted by Rasta music, Kaye, a couple of my brothers, and the skin-melting heat. Being my first time in another country and not having my parents or anyone I knew with me casted a slight sense of loneliness upon me. As I settled into the room and met my roommates, I opened my phone and logged onto Instagram only to be confronted with no internet connection. However, the spotty WiFi has been a blessing in disguise, which caused me to leave my room and go explore the resort. A little bummed out, I found my way over to the beach where I was greeted by a worker at the Whistling Bird Resort and quickly sparked up a conversation. 

I soon noticed that sense of loneliness and displacement from earlier fade when we began to talk. As we conversed, the feelings of happiness, optimism and joy were portrayed by the worker in every topic we discussed, which in turn, lifted up my spirits. After our conversation, I took a step back and realized he changed my mood even though I was with people I don’t know and many miles away from home. Throughout this week, every local I’ve met has emitted that same aura as the worker on the beach, and each person seems happier than the last. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my outlook on life is a whole lot different than the people of Jamaica. They preach togetherness, happiness, hope and optimism. Meanwhile, most people like me care about our phones too much. Now, it’s clear for me to see really how privileged I’ve become and how some people will never have those privileges in their life. My short time on this beautiful island has taught me that being in the company of caring and loving people not only makes you feel better, but also urges you to follow in their actions.

Jacob Sylvester, Quinnipiac ’21 

The Mountain Man

After almost 6 days into my first time out of the United States, I couldn’t have asked for anything better. There have been so many incredible moments along this journey from the interactions with local citizens to the time spent in an authentic Jamaican church, or to the service work we are doing at the school. Today was a totally new and different experience. We got to go to the mountains, meet a Rastafarian and have him take us up the mountain to his home in the jungle.

Fire was the Rastafarian who was kind enough to show us such a unique side of Jamaica. I could focus on the terrain we walked through to get up the mountain or the amazing views from his residence, but what stood above all of that was Fire’s outlook on life. In the world most of us Americans grew up in, it was a constant “go go go” mentality running from place to place and trying to get as much done as possible in a small amount of time. However, for Fire, he lives in the moment. He has such genuine happiness, yet he has so little. I think this shows how little material possessions play in one’s happiness. He has what he needs to survive and is self-sustaining in the way he creates it. He plants all of his own food and had help from friends building his home, but he still was able to create a paradise with almost nothing. His outlook was incredible to listen to, from his views on the city and people and his attitude toward life. 

Fire was an incredible human being and a treasure to get to meet and talk to. I tried to soak in all I could from the short conversation we got to have with him as a group in his home. He described music as the heart and soul of humans and its ability to create such positive vibes. He also said music can make you whole and can bring anyone together. Things like this and so much more were the wisdom that Fire was able to share with all of us on this trip. 

There is so much to this trip and so much to be told. I cannot rank them in some sort of order of importance or impact, all I can say is how incredible this trip has been. It has truly been a life-changing experience and will always be a positive memory in my life. I, too, one day wish to be as happy as Fire. 

Josh Mccown, DePauw ’19

Under the Jamaican Sun

My day was pretty cool. We all went to the worksite and made a lot of progress! My group was able to finish 3/4 of the classroom by lunch, when at that same time, on Monday we had only finished two rows. It also felt really good to be getting the techniques down. Richard, the Jamaican contractor who is leading my group, is an absolute beast! Throughout the day, he would not even break out a sweat. Meanwhile, I’m drenched. The weather here is pretty hot, but since I go to the University of Oregon, I don’t get much sun, and I really enjoy being in the sun. The beaches are amazing too, and the water is so warm. But when I talked with Miss G and her friend, they said that the water is too cold for them to even want to get in! We also got to talk and I answered their questions about earthquakes and tornadoes since they have never experienced them in Jamaica. I felt that talking with them about what life was like as children in Jamaica and talking to them about my life, was the highlight of my day. At dinner, I had the most amazing red bean soup, which I then doused in this amazing hot pepper sauce and devoured.

Rico Peralta, Oregon ’21

Experiencing the Vibrance of Jamaica

Today, I was awakened by the sound of my alarm to a warm morning at 6:45 a.m. After freshening up, I walked through a quaint jungle-like pathway to be greeted by a sandy beachfront with the sound of waves crashing and a bright morning sun reflecting on the water. I ate a hearty breakfast consisting of eggs, bacon, sausage, a hash brown and a refreshing punch made from local fruit. After a talk with the brothers about sports, today’s plans for the school, and how interesting and different Jamaican culture is, we headed off to the school, Higher Heights Academy.

The bus ride there really gives a good idea what life in Jamaica really is like. Driving through along on the left side of the road, we passed many different animals like goats, chickens, dogs and cows, as well as many people going about their daily business. The houses are mainly concrete, and most are crumbling in some areas and always painted a vibrant color to match the way of living here. Finally, after a quick nap on the bus, we arrived at the school. The school is made of four different colored classrooms. There is a yellow building attached to a smaller building (that’s the bathroom) on the right. To the left, there’s a green building, then a purple building and a bright red building. Each is decorated with colorful quotes and cartoon characters and full of life with art, giving off a vibe of fun and learning. The classrooms are similarly decorated inside with loads of students’ work and colorful posters to help them learn. The kids are all over the playground wearing cute blue and pink uniforms. They’re full of energy and happiness, each one being absolutely adorable. They were happy to have us help tie their shoes and give them piggyback rides. My favorite part was their little accents, imagine a cute little 5-year-old going up to you and saying “Ayyeeee Mon.” Seriously! Absolutely heart-melting.

The entire school, except for the original yellow building, was made by GSI and DU, and it shows when you look at the playground that is matching in the Fraternity’s signature blue and gold. The projects we currently are embarking on were tiling the third classroom, making a playhouse for the girls in their playground, making a shady roof out in front of the classrooms, rendering the walls, and bringing to life another building behind the school that will be future classrooms. I was on the roofing team and helped our resident worker, Paul, by raising corrugated sheets of zinc up to him so he could place them onto a frame we had previously built. Then he and fellow DU, Lukas, nailed them in. We worked until lunch, with consistent breaks to stay hydrated. Lunch was a delicious, fall-off-the-bone pork and some rice made by the school’s principal. After that, we continued to work until the bus returned.

We are given some free time, so I went to the beach to have a swim in the clear, warm waters, relaxing after a hard but satisfying day of work. After my swim, there was dinner, a delightful mix of Jamaican cuisines like jerked chicken and fish. Then, everyone reflected on their days and had a deep, engaging conversation about how blessed we were to be surrounded by the many unrealized amenities of living in America. I am eager to see what tomorrow has in store for me.

Nick Farrar, Bradley ’22

Day One at Higher Heights

Higher Heights Academy

Today, we started our day at 7:15 a.m. with a very nice breakfast spread. We then gathered our supplies and headed on the bus to Higher Heights Academy. Arriving to the school, we were greeted with a warm welcome from the principal and the students. It was also so nice of them to be naming a part of the school after Mrs. Kaye. Going through the classrooms, I was surprised at how small and underdeveloped they were. However, the teachers did a great job making the room feel homey and an encouraging learning environment. 

Starting the work, I was put on the cement team where our job is to build a playhouse for the playground. We had to go and mix the cement by hand, which required us to go fill up buckets of sand, rocks, water and cement mix. Walking back and forth with the buckets and having to shovel them was definitely exhausting, especially in the heat. We then had to mix all of these different things together in order to form the concrete. But first, we had to set the structure by digging up the ground. We then had lunch provided by the school, which was curried chicken and mac ‘n cheese. During this time, we had the opportunity to hangout and play with the kids, which was a very fun experience because they have so much energy. 

After lunch, we had to place the bricks down and the apply a cement mix on top of them. I then went and helped clean out buckets and other supplies. I also stacked the wooden beams across the classroom because they barely fit inside. We then got on the bus and headed back the Whistling Bird Resort. As soon as we got back, I jumped right into the ocean. After today, I know the trip will get better and better, and I can’t wait for what’s to come. 

Blake Lewitt, Oregon ’20

The Development of Character

This GSI experience has been something that has really made me realize that when a group of individuals come together and work toward a common goal, anything can be accomplished. Today, my work consisted of laying down the cement on a doll house we were building for the children. Working with Shavon (a local man who helps us with projects) has been a learning experience for me. The ability to serve with an attitude of gratitude reminds me of the Principles on which I joined this Fraternity in the first place. 

As the workday progressed, the completion of the Schendel Quarters that we worked on in the beginning of the week is about finished. To see where we started in the beginning of the week to where we are now as a work crew and as brothers is fulfilling. This endeavor that we, as individuals, undertook is something that definitely builds character. This same character is found with the Jamaican workers that I have been working with today. Shavon is an extremely resilient worker, as well as a genuine soul. I am grateful for what we have accomplished as a team and for what we are leaving behind to the people of Higher Heights Academy.  

Day by day, in every way, we are getting better and better. 

Sincerely,

Christian Gasca, Central Florida 21’

Work Hard, Play Hard

Today, when I arrived at Higher Heights Academy, I was ready to work as soon as I stepped off the bus. I am working on building the new dollhouse for the playground. The goal for today was to fill in the ground foundation, which was completed with the help of Shavon (the local man who helps us) and my DU brothers. I was able to spend some more time with the kids today and learn more names. The kids here have such an innocent and joyful attitude, it is refreshing to be around. I was able to become close to Johnny who is a student graduating from the school on Thursday. During our lunch break, a bunch of the brothers carried the students on our shoulders chasing each other around. This took almost as much energy as the work itself. The amount of energy these kids have is unheard of, running all over the school grounds all day long. Having the opportunity to help the kids at Higher Heights Academy has brought me great joy and happiness. Even though the work is hard, it does not feel like a hassle but more of a pleasure. 

Tommy Rigdon, Oregon State ’22

Experiencing a New Culture

Sunday was a very laid back day that warmed us up to Jamaican culture. The church service we went to was like nothing I had ever seen before. The church looked like an abandoned building, but the inside was full of loving people who were so excited to praise the Lord. There was no air conditioning and was about 85 degrees, but nothing was going to stop these amazing people from coming together as a family and rejoicing.

After the service, we went to a local restaurant. The service was amazing and the food was phenomenal. I had never eaten food like that before, and it was definitely a culture shock. After, we went snorkeling in the caves and got to see what the locals do with their spare time. Going to church, eating with the locals, and snorkeling was extremely eye opening. I’ve never really traveled before, and seeing such a different way of life is truly amazing.

Christopher Tornello, Central Florida ’18

Lasting Joy

Joy isn’t something that a lot of people get to experience. For many, it is a fleeting feeling—one that lasts a day maybe a week if you’re lucky—but almost never does one experience constant joy. The thing about joy is that one’s joy can bring out the joy in others. When you see someone with that pure happiness in their eyes, their smile or their speech, it’s hard not to feel moved by it. 

Often, people feel joy from different things. “Different spaces, different faces” as they say, but never have I experienced constant and lasting joy like I did on this Monday in June. I turn 20 years old tomorrow in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I have so much to be thankful for, and I know that, but when I stepped off the big yellow bus and thanked our driver for getting us to the job site and first laid eyes on the school, I was taken aback. 

It wasn’t a feeling of pity. I didn’t feel the need to condescend or judge the people there, but when I saw all of the children of the school on their first day in the school week singing and dancing with nothing but pure happiness on their faces, I was left in awe. The next time I felt that awe struck wasn’t only a few minutes later, the principal of the school asked everyone who was graduating to raise their hands. Before she could even finish her thought, a mess of hands shot up. Eyes prideful and determined, I had never experienced anything like it. 

My next moment of joy was when I was finally allowed to meet the kids. I had noticed their stares throughout my time there. I wasn’t surprised by them; I had experienced them a lot on this island. Having blonde hair and blue eyes really makes you stick out like a sore thumb. The kids looked at me with wonder, and I could tell they were a little nervous about me, but as soon as I started playing with them, the laughter didn’t stop for the rest of the work day. I found myself more exhausted from giving the kids piggyback rides then from the manual labor I was performing. I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Trevor T. Walker, Oregon State ’21

Becoming a Local

Sunday was the first full day of the trip and an off day, as we begin working Monday morning. The day consisted of us meeting some of the local people. 

I myself am not a religious person and have not been to church in a very long time. My church experience has always been a more stoic and in a cramped environment where people shuffle together into a vast, dark cathedral listening to one person speak. The church we visited in Jamaica had a service that focused much more on the individual,as people danced, sang, and told their stories and how they have been helped by God. 

After this, we went to a local restaurant. We were encouraged to get out of our comfort zones and eat something we weren’t used to. The food was excellent, and it was interesting to see the minor differences of how Jamaicans eat, such as always starting a meal with soup. The last thing we had planned for the day was a snorkeling trip in some caves. It was a great way to end the day.

Lukas Duncan, Lafayette ’21

Day 1 in Jamaica

For our first full day in Jamaica, we started the day with a church service in Negril. The church had room for maybe 70-80 people but was filled with around 100. The service was incredible. It revolved around beautiful music and personal testimonies from different members of the congregation. We listened to these church-goers burst into tears of gratitude when they talked about their life. They were truly grateful for things such as life, health and family. Our group was welcomed with open arms by the church, and it truly felt like an honor. 

After the church service, we got lunch in Negril at Sweet Spice. I decided to get the brown stew fish, which was fantastic, and other brothers got dishes like curry chicken or curry goat. Every brother enjoyed their dishes, and I noticed how kind the service was at the restaurant. Following our lunch, we headed back to the Whistling Bird Resort and went on a glass bottom boat ride to some caves on the western point of the island. These caves were excellent for snorkeling and revealed some beautiful coral reefs and scenery inside. We finished the day with dinner and a reflection.

Daniel Levy, Central Florida ’19