Monday, December 29, 2014

And The Winners Are...

2nd Annual St Ann's Father John's Photo Contest

 Last year's photo contest was such a great success, so I thought it would be wonderful to do again.  It should be easier; the 2nd one was great though it certainly was not easier.

I had gotten tired of the girls always asking me if they could have my camera now and right after they had just given it up.   So... I brought TWO cameras this year.   I would cut my headaches in half; wrong again.  I doubled them as they all wanted to use both cameras.   And what I didn't think about was with two cameras there would be twice as many pictures to judge.   In fact, my girls had taken over 2,000 pictures for the photo contest.

I changed the categories this year as I wanted to try and give the smaller girls a better chance of winning one of the prizes.   So the categories this year were: Happy Faces, Work/Study, Play, Abstract/Unusual and Action.   Can you guess which category had the least submissions?

I spent a whole weekend trying to sort out all the photographs and then get each category down to 10 finalists.   I couldn't do it; I had to have 15 finalists and even then it was tough.    Then, I had to go to get them finalists printed as 5x7's so they could be seen from a distance.   Usually, i am out in an hour; however, this time it was over three hours - ugh.  Off to St Ann's to put them up on a wall.

Oh the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" as I put up the finalists, the chorus began:
[They all know who took what pictures and absolutely no fights.]
"Where are my pictures, Father John?".
"I know you missed mine."
"Why didn't you pick mine?"
I have no idea of who took what pictures as the girls go off by themselves and take the pictures.   I couldn't pick my favourites even if I wanted.   This is the reason that I don't want to judge the winners... The non-winners would be unrelenting...  So I bring in some "Ringers".   They don't know the girls and the girls don't know them.     This year I brought in the highly qualified Mercy Corp Volunteers:
The Judges: Annie, Matthew, Monica and Jess
I did have to ensure them there would suffer no injuries from the non-winners and I'd buy them something to eat after at the Everest Cricket Club.     But first, they had to do their job of picking the 6 winners for the prizes.... and face the sadness and moaning of the 38 other girls who were sure that they should have won an iPod Shuffle or one of the "surprise top prizes".

I played security as the judges had some "quiet" time to pick their favourites in each category.   It is amazing that these young girls instinctively know that they should try and influence the judges and were constantly sneaking around to assist the judges with their tasks.

First a stop in Ohio
I have to tell a back story in order for you to appreciate the generosity of my supporters.    I have a chaplaincy colleague, Rev. Deborah Damore, who is now the bishop of Summa Health Systems in Akron, Ohio.  She invited me to come and talk to the Chaplaincy Staff at the hospitals.   And, one of her residents, Rev Shannon Blower, who is the pastor at Church at Stony Hill, Medina, wanted to support my efforts with the St Ann's girls so the children in their Sunday School had raised enough money for five iPod Shuffles for the 2nd Annual.
John with Rev. Deborah Damore and Rev. Shannon Blower
And my friend, Deborah, had paid for an extra iPod Shuffle.   I was going to have six categories for the contest; however, I fell victim to Sister Guilt!   Sister Barbara McLean who was the previous Director of St Ann's and now in Barbados had heard that I had these iPods "wondered" if I had an extra one.  [I can't tell you how many people think that I have an extra anything... tablet, iPod, $1,000...]   One of the older girls at St Ann's had been promoted to the  work as an assistant at Mother Theresa's Sisters of Charity Nursing Home.  Petal has an eye disease and has been legally blind ever since I have known her;  she can read a few letters at a time if she hold the book to her nose.   Sister Barbara was worried about her being in a new place as the only home she had really known was St. Ann's and would be lonely; her only enjoyment would come from music and books on tape; and Barbara reminded me how much she had enjoyed my visits over the years....  STOP... please... I figured that Deborah wouldn't mind.

Then, Sister Mary Peter another Ursuline Sister at St Ann's and one of my heroes.   She is in her late 80's and still teaching mathematics.  Just two years ago she "volunteered" to teach mathematics in the deep interior of Guyana.   [Mary Peter loved it there as they have no real electricity, so she got up with the sun and went to bed when it went down.  No getting up in the middle of the night with the girls.]   She was required to come back to Georgetown and at St. Ann's.   She wanted to come with me when I visited Petal and that was fine with me.  So we set a date for Saturday Morning...

I was working on scoring some exam from the student nurses when the phone rang about noon.  "John, where are you?",,, a familiar Mary Peter's voice inquired.   Holy S---- [Sugar of course.]  I got in a cab and we were off to see Petal.
Petal grateful for her iPod
Cheryl "Teddy Bear" an older St Ann's graduates,
ister Mary Peter and Petal

Petal was so surprised... and it would have been perfect - if I had thought to charge the battery or even put any music on the iPod.   She was not dismayed and Mary Peter brought it back to charge the battery and put her favourite music on it.   

Back to the Judging
The judges had decided on the winners, so we were ready.    The best laid plans of "Mice and John".  I have a rule that on one can win two prizes, so they had to have a second winner in each category.. and they did, but.   Anna won the first category.  In the second category she was selected as the best, so on to the second place pic -and it was Anna's too.   Now the judges had to be a little more spontaneous than they had prepared for...  The contest had now moved from the usual chaos to a new level.    The judges did an excellent job.  I think Anna ended up winning four of the five categories.   However, we did end up with five different winners.   Now who was going to be the Best in Show?   Would you like to guess?   Anna!
Anna with her prize while John consoles
Onisha who can't believe she didn't win

Anna the 2nd Annual 
Best in Show Winner

Anna was simply amazing as a photographer in this year's competition, especially as she was not even selected as a finalist in any category last year.

Her surprise was a android tablet that was an extra one from the ones I needed for my Mercy Student Nurses.   The tablets were donated by an anonymous friend and now Anna has one too.

An Added Surprise
Jerry Bacchus, the owner of Jerries All-Nite Long and a long time supporter of St Ann's had offered a dinner for the second place winner and she could bring five of her friends and a chaperone.   This time it was not Anna, but Delly!
Scarboro Fathers Bev chaperones
Delly and her friends at Jerries.
All the Winners
The Winners and Judges
Front: Solomie, Anna, Gabriella, Delly, Malika, Aishona
The reason that Solomie is looking so sad is that - a confession - I only used her
for the picture as the real winner, Makeba, was at a school event.
Solomie still has not forgiven me.
My Partners from The Church at Stony Hill
And then there are the wonderful children from the Church at Stony Hill who made all the prizes possible. Below are the children who represented the Sunday School in presenting me with the iPods.

Winning Pictures
I did want to put the winning pictures next to the girl who took it; however, it was pretty much chaos and I was taking pictures to boot... So rather than pick the category winners, I'll put all the finalists in a slide show... Actually, all the girls were winners and everyone had a great time. And I really have no idea of which  pictures were the actual winners. Thanks.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

"Light Dawns in a Weary World"

This post is written by Peter Kuhnert, a Lutheran pastor and medical doctor and Guyanese colleague.    He was a leader with both the 2013 exploratory mission and the 2014 Mental Health Team which worked in Guyana for ten days in October-November.  [They have a wonderful FaceBook page, "Transforming Guyana's Mental Health System".  Peter's message serves as an excellent reflection on giving flesh to the incarnating Christian Christmas message.   

Peter bends low to listen to a girl at St. Ann's 

Three years ago, shortly after my first ever visit to Guyana, I was contacted by John.  He asked me if I thought we might do any kind of work together in Guyana.  I told John, emphatically, that I did not think there was any opportunity to do any work in Guyana.  There was no will, no energy, no finances, and no manpower.  There was no Spirit.  I suggested perhaps we talk again in one year.

Two years ago, a dimly burning wick began to splutter to life.  Perhaps a opportunity did exist for some partnership work to strengthen and support existing mental health services in Guyana.  John was now living locally in Ayr.  I had started working at Freeport Hospital.  We had met a couple of local psychiatrists who wanted to explore international mental health care in a culturally and religiously diverse context.  Perhaps this opportunity might bridge the partnership and development work of the ELCiC with that of mental health services, for the betterment of life for the whole people of Guyana.  Perhaps.  Certainly, there was enough enthusiasm to plan a needs assessment visit and begin some relationship development.

One year ago, October 2013, Ram and Brenna and Sujay and I joined John in Guyana for a week of site visits and meetings and discernment. We were graciously received by Dr. Bhiro Harry (Georgetown) and Dr. Mayda ( New Amsterdam), and by the minister of health, Dr. Ramsarran. We saw much and heard much and clearly saw the need for a sustained mental health initiative to support good people and hard work already being done with absolutely minimal resources.  Few in-patient beds.  Few trained staff.  No budgets.  Limited medications with only variable availability.   The needs seemed overwhelming. Yet the Spirit began to blow.  The candle burned brighter.  We knew we would come back.

The past year has been a year of planning and preparation.  An excellent slide show about our 2013 trip, courtesy of Sujay and Brenna, began to peak interest in this initiative amongst the local mental health staff at Grand River hospital, Homewood health centre, and the Kitchener Downtown CHC. Who would have expected that when we called a planning meeting, in March,  for those interested in a self-funded mental health trip to Guyana in October 2014, over 40 people would attend!  And over 20 would commit to this 10 day project!
The Canadian Mental Health Team at the Farewell reception
hosted by the Minister of Health
The project itself was a huge success.  19 individuals divided into two teams, working in both Georgetown and New Amsterdam.  The number of initiatives for  this 10 day trip was astounding. The re-introduction of life-saving ECT technology to the New Amsterdam hospital.  Clinical visits to community hospitals in Linden and Suddie ( including an awesome speedboat ride across the Essequibo river).   Opportunities to teach physicians and nursing staff at both Georgetown and New Amsterdam.  Community education initiatives about mental health during each of our community tours.  Relationship building opportunities with the ministry of health, the University of Guyana medical school, and the schools of nursing in both Georgetown and New Amsterdam.
Dr Bhiro Harry continued with his
on the ground leadership for our team.
Dr. Bheri Ramsaran, the Minister of Health provided
excellent direction and support for our team.

Perhaps most impressive, has been the high level work that John has participated in, to help create a national mental health strategy for Guyana.  This is coupled with an ambitious strategy for the creation of a bilateral university partnership to bring bring post-graduate psychiatric training to Guyana.  This would be a first step to creating a national human resources strategy for mental health that might eventually include nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, and chaplains.  The wheels of future possibility have already begun to turn.

Chaplain Ram Kalap was a leader
on both the 2013 and 2014 teams.
Sujay Patel and Peter celebrate the fulfilment
of all their hard work over the last two years.

What a difference a couple of years has made!  Initially, there was no hope.  There was no kairotic time- no time for illumination and transformation.  But slowly, ever so slowly,  light has dawned.  A dimly burning wick has begun to burn brightly.  Hope is being reborn and a spirit of possibility  is beginning to take hold. What began with the question of one, " What can we do in  Guyana?" has been echoed by the voices of 19 others and the possibility of systemic change is becoming real.  Systemic change for the betterment of care for the whole
people of Guyana.

What is more Christmas?
...than bringing Joy to children.

Thanks, John, for risking asking the initial  question.  Thanks, John, for nurturing hope in your own unique manner.  You have helped open our eyes to the possible.  You have inspired us.  We are grateful.

John amazing the Cuban Psychiatrists
 with his command of Spanish.

Thanks for being a blessing. Looking forward to being your partner into the future.

Peter Kuhnert MD MDiv 


Thanks, Peter.  I am humbled by your kind words.

PS: I have a few more themes for this blog, but I have returned from Guyana to develop my usual cough and cold. I am feeling better today.  I especially want to post the pictures and stories from the "2nd  Annual Father John's Photo Contest.'

Have a Blessed Christmas and let you light shine...

Saturday, November 15, 2014

My "Old" Friend, Dennis LeBlanc, Reflects on his 2nd Trip

Preface to a Prelude ?!??!

Since Jo’c wouldn’t unlock “the ball and chain” he had me in during my stay in Georgetown until I promised on a case of Banks Beer to write something for the Blog (and I knew that I’d have a tough time getting through security at the airport in chains), I “happily” agreed to put something together about my three week experience (October 18 to November 8) in Georgetown this year.

So I am dutifully writing now from my home in Greenfield, MA, a few days after my “21 hour ‘door to door’ “ excursion from Mercy Hospital to Franklin Street (via a taxi, four airports in 4 different countries, two bus rides, a subway, a two hour car ride and a whole lot of walking!).

Added to that, I left Guyana in shorts and sandals, only to arrive with everyone in Boston wearing winter coats, gloves and hats. . . with about a 60 degree difference between my early morning departure and my midnight arrival. So forgive me if I’m still not acclimated to the multitude of changes (weather, culture, values, etc.) in these few days that have passed since leaving a Third World country and returning to my plush and entitled surroundings (comparatively at least).

This is my second year going to Guyana, and I realized early on that I was having a “Good News / Bad News” set of feelings about my return. The “Good News” was that this year I knew what I was getting into and what to expect. The “Bad News” was that this year I knew what I was getting into and what to expect! That two-edged sword worked for me and against me, in this year’s experience, but I ended up trying to put aside all expectations, remembrances, and fears, and just accept this year’s challenge and opportunity on its own terms.

While in Guyana, I would write some reflections on my experiences and feelings in a journaling fashion. What now follows are some portions of those writings.

 MUSINGS OF A TIRED MIND:  Prelude  - October   2014          

Well the cool, colorful days of Autumn in New England once again this year find me in the tropical heat and humidity of Guyana, South America, just a few degrees north of the equator. Usually "up there" in Massachusetts, my system is being invigorated by crisp air; preparations are well underway for a swift change into the snow and frigid cold of winter; the wood is cut and stacked, and the evening fire in the fireplace sets the house aglow (figuratively speaking!).
Trying to beat the heat with my new friend, Sylvia, and old, Jo'c.
And see: I am the only one with a beer.
But here in Guyana, Autumn is just like Winter, which is just like Spring, which is just like . . . get the point. It is always the same -- and that "same" is HOT, 90+ degrees hot, with comparable humidity!! And anyone who knows me, knows at least two things early on ... I'm from Oregon, and I don't DO heat! I get cranky, miserable, and TIRED! 

So since heat is the perpetual state of affairs down here, you can imagine I'm a real joy to be around! Writing helps me keep me hovering at least on the fringes of sanity, so I will be doing that while here. It is both for therapeutic for me, but it also gives me a chance to share with others for whom I care, a part of this profound experience in this wonderful and challenging country of Guyana.
Nursing students at work.
More Bubble Therapy -PRN only

  Vignette for the day   "THE SECOND TIME "

 Coming for the first time last year, the novelty and newness was somewhat overwhelming--and so was the heat! From the climate and culture, to the values and customs; from the "monopoly money" system to the petrifying transportation options, I felt bombarded with a paradigm shift in living that was both exhilarating and exhausting. 

And I found my approach to getting through the three weeks here, kind of like the way I approach jogging or running---I focus on every painful step; the harder I work, the more resentful I feel about what I'm doing; the longer I go, the more I become obsessed with the "finish line " and count the time till it's over. "Enjoyment" is a sadistic concept that someone must have made up. Hey, I'm a "ball & stick" guy in sports...running is means to an end so I do it. Running by itself? Used to have a tee shirt that said it all: "I hate to run!" 
St Ann's Girls - All tired out -or maybe not.
This second time around, I can feel a visceral shift inside. It feels like I'm riding my bike on one of those 25 mile rides through the countryside of Western Mass. It is no less tiring and challenging than running, but my attention and attitude are totally different. When I ride, I ride with a focus and determination that both challenges my body, but also calms my mind. I enjoy the terrain and landscape, as well as my capacity to still be doing what I'm doing. At the end, when I come to the long, steep hill of Bank Row within a half mile of home, and the thought inevitably comes into my mind "you're legs won't take you up" ... my mantra supercedes that message with "yes, someday I will not be able to make it up --- but TODAY is NOT the day!"

My "ride" this second time around, has enabled me to focus differently. Even with the heat -- which the locals say is the hottest ever -- my approach has been not to fight a reality so much bigger than myself, and to surrender to its power with as little complaining as possible. Does it help me feel any cooler? Believe it or not, sometimes. 


Vignette for the day     "FOOTPRINTS IN THE SAND"

I have walked the shores of many a beach over my almost seven decades now: from the Oregon sands to the East coast waters; along the Mediterranean in Israel and Egypt; and on the banks of a multitude of rivers, steams and lakes. And amidst all those sojourns and the many footprints I've made in the sands, not one remains.   In fact, not one lasted more than a brief moment in time. Impermanence is the nature of all things.

At times I have been presented with the argument that I should not be going so far away ---spending a lot of money, to a foreign land and culture...when there are so many problems, so many people in need right close to home. “You can (should) 'do good' in your own backyard", people have said.

But sometimes journeys are not that logical and pragmatic. And so has been the case for me coming to Guyana. It is more about a quest, a journey that is not about miles and geography.  It is about leaving the "land" of the familiar, the comfortable, and known, to risk exploring the unknown, the uncharted ways, the internal land of darkness.
At my age I just ...
Stretch String; the rest creaks.
Coming here is about "stretching" this Self of mine, to explore the inner terrain of my soul ... which can become soft and lazy when not pushed and prodded. The physical challenges of heat, filth, poverty, chaos that come with this stretching here, provide the context for the process of growing. I know that I have sat in the "comfortable pew" of life too long sometimes, and have needed a periodic jolt from the "normal " (which I've been seduced to believe is the only way to think, feel, believe, value, behave, live). 
I can forget that I live in a big, diverse, complex world, where not everyone looks, thinks, believes and behaves like me. Here, one walk down to the massive outdoor market is a vivid reminder of that. Amidst thousands of other shoppers, I am the only "white guy" to be seen ... and prancing around in shorts and a tee shirt, wearing sunglasses and a baseball hat! I now know differently how a person from India, China or Africa must feel as they stroll the streets of Greenfield in their native garb, needing to deal with the stares and comments of being "different".

Journeys serve many purposes. I know a part for me being here again is to acknowledge the little place that I occupy in this world and to keenly feel the impermanence of my good intentions, deeds -- and my life. To feel this even as I am being propelled by the words in Micah, "to seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God" (6:8).

That said, I have had no "agenda" here really. I just know that being in Guyana again this year is as much about helping myself as it is about helping others. It is about making a few "footprints in the sand", then glancing back to see they already have disappeared.  And I am at peace with that.

In the quiet moments and in the dark places of my journey in another land, I have come to feel that the words of T.S. Eliot ring ever so true for me: "We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know that place for the first time".

Vignette for the day     "THE UNIVERSALITY OF PLAY"

 “Play is the highest form of research.” – Albert Einstein

    "It is a happy talent to know how to play.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Certain realities are not bound to a particular culture, geography, race, or age.       The one that was most evident in this year’s trip for me, was the persistent power and potential of play. Many a time I have been accused of “Not acting my age” and that phrase was usually intended as a “judgment” to prod me to follow Paul’s admonition in First Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” Never having listened much to Paul anyway, I now wear my “childlike ways”, and my ability and desire to play, as a badge of honor! 

So this year I came “armed” and ready for play . . . with toys! A 20 ft. in diameter colorful parachute, bubble blowing solution and wands, bean bags and plastic rings for a tossing challenge, beach balls,  playful reading books, jump ropes, Frisbees, multi-colored pipe cleaners, glow sticks, etc., -- a full suitcase!


I used these tools at St. John Bosco Orphanage for Boys, at St. Ann’s Orphanage for Girls and with the nurses and staff at Mercy Hospital. The energy, fun and laughter that ensued were palpable and satisfying. I hope some of the pictures here will give you a sense of the playful spirit that emerged in these different settings, and that the happy faces of the many different ages will be a reminder of the restorative power of play.

Play unlocks the imagination, de-stresses our system, and opens us up to the wonder and awe of life. It helps satisfy our hunger for humor and laughter, and restores a sense of balance for us. But play is not just fun (though if it were that would be surely be enough). Play is the great equalizer. It breaks down the barriers of age, gender, social status, economic difference, and religious preference (or bias). Play inspires, it opens us up to the magical in life. It uses the wide range of our senses (touch, sight, sound, smell, taste), and gets us in touch with the holistic being that we are.

There is a particular tendency of dismiss the impulse to play for adults, by labeling it as unproductive and to even try to evoke a sense of guilt for those who dare challenge that taboo. But especially in the world of work, we need to restore a sense of BALANCE in our lives  . . . which was especially evident with the 2nd year nursing students who are particularly stressed by the major exam facing them on November 25th. It is not accidental that they “got into” the bubble blowing and parachute play with a hardy gusto that I believe reminded them that there is more to life than the serious, solemn and somber. The cognitive world is not the only world.
Showing the students
"You just put your lips together and blow..." 
So I confess to all of you that I had a great time playing and having fun with all the different people who were willing to join me in “letting our hair down” (or at least as much of it that remains for some of us!).

In that spirit, I end this Vignette with the words of George Bernard Shaw:
                   “We don’t stop playing because we grow old;
                             we grow old because we stop playing.”

I am grateful to so many people who have supported me on this journey and adventure to Guyana, and taken interest in the work (and play!) that’s being done there. I dare not start naming names for they are many . . . but I also feel compelled to mention two, without whom I would not be sharing all this with you. 

First, I want to thank my wife, Maggie, for her sacrifice, encouragement, interest, and support, not only during the three weeks that I was away but also the preparation time preceding the trip and the “decompression” time that has followed. Even when it has been hard to understand why I choose to do some things in life, she has trusted that “I need to do what I need to do” in my growing and exploration as a person. I continue to value that greatly.

As Jo'c taught me - You can't be cool
without an umbrella in your beer.

And finally, words of appreciation to Jo’c. Almost 50 years of friendship have now encompassed our lives. The changes have been many in our personal and professional lives, as well in our looks and abilities to get around in these aging bodies of ours. But the “red thread” that runs through that half century for me, is one of gratitude and admiration for this friend that has seen me through many seasons of my life and has constantly challenge me to “think outside the box” and take risks to do the right thing.

Without both of these people, I would have had a great void in my life. Thanks for filling it with your friendship and love.

Blessings to all,
Dennis     (aka, Rev. 2)

Thanks for coming down and being you. Jo'c [Rev. 1]
and saying all those nice words about me, but it didn't seem quite long enough!