Church embarks on a ‘mission’ to serve Jamaica’s special needs community

In the late 1970s, children with disabilities were being abandoned in the streets by their families. Troubled by this mistreatment, nonprofit Mustard Seed Communities began in 1978 as a home for abandoned disabled children. Since then, the organization has expanded into an international nonprofit dedicated to caring for vulnerable populations in the developing world.

Four years ago, members of Christ Our Light Catholic Church in Cherry Hill approached Sherine Green, the church’s director of youth faith formation, about embarking on a mission trip to Montego Bay, Jamaica, to serve with the Mustard Seed Communities. The experience was both eye-opening and transformative for the Cherry Hill residents who went. Since then, the church has returned to serve every summer, and on July 27, 11 members of Christ Our Light will return to Montego Bay for the church’s fourth service trip.

The group will spend July 27 to Aug 1 with the Mustard Seed residents and lending support to any projects the nonprofit may be tackling. The church is currently fundraising and hopes to raise $8,000 to cover some of the expenses of the trip.

Green said, from the beginning, her hope has been that anyone who embarks on the trip comes back seeing life from a different angle. She said when they arrive at Mustard Seed’s facilities, they’re introduced to a simpler way of life.

“There is a whole other world to experience,” Green said.

She said when they arrive, the children are overjoyed and come running to greet them. She said the bulk of their trip is spent visiting and spending time with the children and residents and being available and present for these youths – many of whom have been abandoned – is the some of the most important work they can do.

In years past, the group has also helped Mustard Seed with some of its infrastructure. From painting cottages to helping lay concrete for a sidewalk, the group has lent a hand in a number of ways.

Upon their return, the church members have found a way to incorporate the Jamaican experience into their daily lives, Green said. Whether it’s finding ways to do more service locally or just trying to live more simply, the trip has made ripples in each of their lives.

For Cherry Hill resident Rebecca Petner this will be her first time journeying to Mustard Seed with Christ Our Light. She said the thought of the trip was initially daunting, but it was Green’s passion that made her want to join. Green informed her that while their goal was to have an impact on the community, it was more often the community that was impacting them, and she told Petner about how the experience deepened her faith.

Petner said the group has been meeting regularly, and Green is preparing the group for some of the conditions they may encounter. She said some of the children have debilitating disabilities and are craving human contact. She said some just want to be held or fed, and they’re there to fill that role.

“It’s very humbling,” Petner said.

For Jennifer Ramirez, a Pennsauken resident and rising junior at Boston University, the trip has impacted the course of her life. Ramirez said she’d volunteered with special needs children in South Jersey prior to embarking on her first mission trip, but volunteering in Jamaica solidified the path she wanted to take moving forward. She said seeing the resources the community needed and how they could bring assistance inspired her to major in international relations at Boston University. She said the experience made her think about how she could make an impact on a global level.

Ramirez has gone on all three of the church’s previous mission trips and will return for the fourth trip this July. She said it’s the dedication of the Jamaican people working at Mustard Seed that has made her want to return year after year.

“I see how hard they have to work to keep everything running, how passionately they work and how much the children appreciate having us there,” Ramirez said.

To donate to the church’s trip, visit https://secure3.convio.net/mseed/site/TR/MissionTrip/General?team_id=8363&pg=team&fr_id=3626.