Building a village
GJ couple funds homes, creates hope in Jamaica
The family of 10 divides between their two shanties based, in part, on who is best at avoiding crocodiles. When rain comes and the creek rises, crocodiles wander into the yard of the shanty perched on its bank.
Vanessa Brown told Marv and Ellie Walworth about the reasoning behind the housing assignments, and it was very matter-of-fact — no self-pity, no anger, no sense of victimhood, they recalled. In fact, what impressed the Walworths most about 22-year-old Vanessa was her verve and enthusiasm. She joked that crocodiles may be scary, but Colorado has mountain lions.
“She’s such a wonderful young woman,” Ellie recalled. “So optimistic.”
Vanessa dreams of going to college and works toward that goal when she’s not helping take care of her extended family, Marv added.
She lingered in their hearts, this vivid, vibrant woman living in McCooks Pen, Jamaica, a rural community about an hour inland from Kingston. Talk of crocodiles made Grand Junction seem very, very far away, but then… people are people, more alike than different, solidly connected in a complex web of life.
On that day in July, in that yard in Jamaica, the Walworths felt the connection strongly, their lives inexorably linked to Vanessa’s and to her family’s and to the lives of the people of tiny, impoverished McCooks Pen.
They looked around at the people’s homes — some barely more than shacks, upright only through the temporary grace of gravity — and an idea that had been percolating for years became a sudden necessity: It was time to build a village.
Through Food for the Poor (foodforthepoor.org), a nonprofit, interdenominational Christian organization that serves people in 17 Latin American and Caribbean countries, the Walworths previously sponsored the building of individual homes and duplexes in Jamaica.
But the Grand Junction couple knew needs were great and there was more they could do. This year, they committed to building a village — 39 homes and a community center on five acres in McCooks Pen, a $334,296 commitment. If all goes according to plan, ground will be broken on the Walworth Family Village after the first of the year.
“We’ve just talked and talked for so long about building a village,” Ellie explained. “It was just time.”
The Walworths — Marv is a retired mechanical engineer and Ellie a retired elementary schoolteacher — have been married for 51 years and raised four children together. A theme of their lives together has long been service, helping where they can.
In 2006, a visiting priest, Father Paul, came to Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, Walworths’ home congregation, and spoke about the work Food for the Poor does in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Walworths offered Father Paul their guest room while he was in town, giving Marv time to dig deep into the organization — the type of work it does, its overhead and costs, its effectiveness.
“The thing that really impressed me (about Food for the Poor) is 96 percent of donations go directly to helping people,” Marv explained.
The Walworths began donating to orphanages and food centers, nursing homes and schools. They learned about the need for solid, hurricane-proof housing in Jamaica and began donating to Food for the Poor for home construction. Then they learned that, because Food for the Poor has infrastructure in place and relationships with local governments, it would be possible to sponsor the building of a village.
This resonated with them, “because community is so important,” Ellie said.
“A family that has a decent home has hope for the future,” Marv added. “Hope and ambition.”
A sugar company had donated a plot of land in McCooks Pen to Food for the Poor, and it was determined that on that land, a former sugar plantation, the Walworth Family Village would be built.
Since they began donating to Food for the Poor projects in Jamaica, they’d been encouraged to go on a mission trip to Jamaica, Marv said. However, they’d long felt that the money it would take to go on the mission trip would be better spent on housing and other projects.
In July, after committing to build a village, they finally decided to visit the country they’d felt such a connection to and a desire to help. It was an eye-opening and life-changing 10 days. They met a woman who scraped together enough money to buy one pair of shoes, so that her children could wear them every other day at school.
They met Vanessa, who dreams of college.
They met Georgia, a sassy little 3-year-old who insisted on demonstrating how well she writes in Marv’s little spiral notebook.
They met people working in the bakery built from Food for the Poor micro loans. They met people at the food center. They met people with ambition, who’d established little convenience stores or cafes in their homes.
The sense of connection was profound — a shared devotion to family, a similar sense of commitment to community, a linked desire to get along in the world with grace and compassion and helping hands.
Once ground is broken on the Walworth Family Village after the first of the year, construction will take several months. Food for the Poor field officers in Jamaica will work with community leaders and individual families to determine who will live in the homes, basing the decisions on a series of criteria that includes looking at the integrity of the current home, whether it has access to clean water and sanitary facilities, how many people live in the home and whether the family is in immediate danger.
The Walworths plan to visit Jamaica again for the village’s dedication next year, when 39 families will begin life in a new, secure home, with a small garden plot and fruit trees, with electricity and a flush toilet, with doors that lock and walls that won’t collapse during hurricanes.
With a dependable roof overhead, with a solid foundation, with hope for the future and gathering joy.