Sister Teresa. The power of education.

April 13, 2019

The stillness of the warm tropical night is suddenly interrupted by several loud noises, waking the residents of Mount Salem in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Paul, Tanice and their three young children are gripped by fear and the children start to cry. Paul jumps out of bed and runs towards the door, despite Tanice begging him to hide underneath the bed with the family, like they always do when they hear gun shots.

But something seems different to Paul this time. He can smell smoke, and sees a bright light outside. Desperate to protect his young family, Paul opens the door only to discover a raging fire metres away from their home. He returns back inside, grabbing his son and daughter while yelling at Tanice to take his youngest child and run. Safely outside and gasping for breath, they turn to see their home being engulfed by flames.

Vicious gang crimes, shootings, kidnappings and violent murders happen frequently in their ‘ghetto’ neighbourhood. This devastating firebombing, which was an act of retaliation towards one of their neighbours, only compounds the fear Paul and Tanice have for the lives of their young children.

Tanice said: “ I’m scared. It is dangerous because you know you have kids and a gunshot can catch them . . . Sometimes you have guys who want to target your girls . . . I do not want my little boy to grow up to be a gun man either. I wish I could leave for the sake of my children. Day by day, this place is getting more and more dangerous.”

Despite desperately wanting to leave the dangerous ghetto areas, many families in these communities are simply ‘trapped’ here because they have not had access to education and are limited in relation to employment opportunities.

The Catholic Church is playing a role in changing this reality and providing real opportunities for the youth of Jamaica to seek an alternative future away from these ghettos, through the power of education and the spirit of Christ.

Now, Tanice has found stable paid employment through the vocational training and job search assistance she received from the Holy Family Self Help Centre, run by Fijian Sr Teresia and her fellow Marist Missionary Sisters.

The Holy Family Self Help Centre runs vocational skills training programs in cooking, hospitality, sewing, literacy, computers and housekeeping for people seeking a better future for themselves and their families. Once they graduate, the majority of Sr Teresia’s students find employment in the rapidly growing Jamaican tourism industry, helping them earn an honest income and have choices about their future for the first time in their lives.

As Sr Teresia explains: “We’re equipping them and empowering them to go out and earn a better income, but also to feel their self-worth, that they can do something. For so many of them, they have never really had a full education.”

Living and working in Mount Salem, Sr Teresia knows the community and their challenges well. She has actually known Paul since he was a small child as his family were living in the ghetto next to the Holy Family Self Help Centre.

Paul states that unlike many of his childhood friends, he is, without a doubt, still alive today and living an honest life because of the support he received from the Sisters growing up.

“Without the help of the Sisters I’d be dead,” he says. “God has been good, Sister Teresa has been good to us too . . . If you are ever in trouble you can go to the Sisters and Sisters won’t turn you away. They are a strong influence around here.”

Unfortunately, the Sisters are not immune from the dangers in Mount Salem. Not long ago, a teenage boy tried to stab Sr Teresia to prove his worthiness to a gang. But she gains strength from her faith in Jesus and lives out her calling to help these young people turn away from violence and crime, and to seek a new future.

Sr Teresia is desperate to break the vicious cycle of violence in Jamaica by offering non-violence education classes to the children, teaching them how to handle their emotions and turn away from violence, crime and destructive behaviour.