Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Need a last minute Christmas Gift?

If you have waited too long to get a gift or to for your loved ones, how about considering buying a small digital camera for one of the older girls at St Ann's Girls' Home.  They love talking pictures...

The girls wanted me to teach them how to take pictures, so I will be leading the older girls in a photography class when I return in September.   I would love to have cheap digital cameras for the ten of them.

So if you want to donate $125.00 Canadian, I'll make sure they know from whom was the gift.

Just send a cheque to:
Guyana Christian Charities Canada Inc.
O'Connor - St Ann's Cameras
Mr. Dexter Gonsalves, Treasurer
805 Middlefield Road, Unit 5,
Scarborough, ON    M1V 4Z6

Or you can do so online [if you are really late] at:
and include in your message "O'Connor - St Ann's Cameras"


Friday, November 6, 2015

“The Many Faces of Humility”

“And what does the Lord require of you,
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
- Micah 6:8 -

I have come to believe that the journey through the second half of life is essentially about learning the “Art of Humility”. It’s not that we seek it or welcome it, but come it does, often as an unwelcomed guest. Humility comes in many forms and has many faces: I can’t run as fast, jump as high, or throw as far.
This summer I was at the beach with my grandson, Max, playing football. I told him to go out for a pass, “No farther”, I yelled. Out about 20 yards, I took dead aim at my receiver, and unleashed a ferocious bomb right on target . . . but 15 yards short! In my enthusiasm I had forgotten my two shoulder surgeries as well as the fact that I hadn’t thrown a pass in many years. I was devastated, crushed, embarrassed, humiliated. I used to be a very good athlete, and in my mind, that reality hasn’t dimmed -- until another loss, another reality check. “That was then, this is now.”
Learning to walk humbly seems to be the way of things now that I am in my 70th year. This time of life gives new meaning to the Serenity Prayer line, “Accept the things I cannot change”, and the list keeps getting longer: I don’t think as clear, sleep as well, move as quickly. Asking for, and accepting, help and assistance does not come easily to a man steeped in pride. The realization that “I can’t do all I used to do” and that I often need to reach out to others, is humbling.

Donations --
All this came into play in an important way as I was preparing for my third year in Guyana this summer. I decided to reach out to family and friends, and give them the chance to “join me on my  journey” through their financial support. Now I absolutely hate asking for money (especially from those close to me), but I humbly knew that there was a greater good at play.
The first donation was a $4 one--I call it the “Widow’s Mite” -- small in amount in dollars, but proportionate to the giver’s resources it was gigantic. Then came a $100 gift from an old friend, then another from a relative. The checks kept coming and coming, totally over 40! I was humbled. Big gifts, smaller gifts, donations soon went over the $2,000 mark. I’m still not sure what’s beyond humbled, but I am there. So many thanks to all who gifted the children of Guyana through their generosity!


St. Ann’s Orphanage --
This generosity was quickly put to work by John and me in the purchasing of a brand spanking new fiberglass backboard, hoop and stand for the girls’ outdoor play area. With the enormous help from the folks at Gizmos and Gadgets store in Georgetown, the basketball equipment was delivered, re-assembled and readied for the girls to see.

The looks in their eyes and expressions on their faces when we brought them down to the previously empty play area is so hard to describe with words. (I hope a few pictures will help give you a sense of their reactions). Jo’c and I even shot around, doing pretty well for a couple old geezers. In one of my “hot streaks” shooting, one of the girls came over to me with amazement and innocence in her eyes and said, “Are you Michael Jordan?” Without hesitation I responded, “Why yes I am . . . except for the white thing!” We laughed.

Another day we brought a volleyball net and balls, then Twister games, then jump ropes donated by the YMCA in my hometown. For each new gift, words and looks of appreciation flowed from the girls. All John and I could do was “walk (and play) humbly with them”.

St. John Bosco School  --
For the boys of Bosco, I focused on the school that they run at the orphanage for Kindergarten through 6th Grade. There are about 18 - 20 boys split up by classes in a cramped and hot space in the basement area of the old orphanage. The desks are old, the books are old, the blackboards are old -- to save space, let me just say most everything there is old, worn and tattered.
But the atmosphere was surprisingly upbeat and appealing, not in small measure due to the team of dedicated teachers who have given their lives to the education and moral development of these children. When I asked the Headmistress, Miss Shelda Emanuel, what I might get to help with the school, she listed things like chalk, glue sticks, games, books, etc. When pressed for more, she sheepishly said, “An easel and paper would be very useful . . . but that would cost too much.”
No, not with the generosity of my North American donors! So I went shopping. When I presented Miss Emanuel with all of the things I was able to purchase, the look of surprise and appreciation humbled me. Amazing that so little could mean so much.

  Miss Emanuel & Miss Daniels

At the end of their school day, all the teachers and boys pray in unison a prayer that they have memorized, to give thanks for the day and each other. I looked around at these little rascals (who I had usually seen running all over the compound, pushing, hitting, throwing and finding mischief wherever they turned), now standing with their hands folded, eyes shut and rotely reciting their daily prayer. I was pre-occupied with this incongruency of behavior until I heard their voices say the following part of the prayer: “And, oh God, Bless all those less fortunate than ourselves!”
“What? What are you saying?”, the voice in my mind shouted. “Don’t you realize that you ARE the least fortunate! You have no parents, no homes, no creature comforts, limited food and clothes. You have no one to tuck you in at night, no one to read you stories. Your health is continually compromised and your future is bleak -- and you dare stand there and pray for those less fortunate?!?!”
Tears came to my eyes as I watched these little souls “doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with their God”. Writing this some 2,500 miles away now, I still tear up and have a palpable feeling of humility beat within me. “And a little child will lead them.”

  Bosco’s new “Transition Home” --
Moses and Ravi are both 18 years old, and have been at the orphanage for many years. They are beyond the age that boys normally stay (16 yrs.), but have been kept there because of mental and physical limitations. They are not capable of living independently, but need to move out of the orphanage, They are too old to be there, yet they are too vulnerable to be out on their own.
So the Sisters of Mercy (who run St. John Bosco) purchased a house for them (and others in the future) that could give the boys the safety and supervision that they need. Again donations I brought were able to help here, by purchasing kitchenware, towels, paper products, cleaning supplies, etc., to help them get jump-started in their new dwelling with some of the basics. I was also able to buy a few games for them after I noticed how barren their rooms were.
One day, Ravi and the supervisor of the home, Gabby, walked me from the orphanage through the neighborhood for a couple blocks to the new home. They were eagerly wanting me to see it. As we approached the house, Ravi got increasingly excited. He fumbled with the locked gate to quickly try and get it open. He then pointed to the front door and beckoned me ahead.
As it opened, he suddenly and automatically removed his well-worn pair of flip-flops before he entered . . . as if we were walking on holy ground. And in that moment I felt we were. Humbled by his deep appreciation for his new home, I entered and followed him from room to room as he showed me that sacred space. I must admit it was hard to be a witness to what Pope Francis was talking about when he said, “Those who live on the outskirts of hope.”



“And the last shall be first . . .”  (Mtt.20: 16) --
And finally a few words about those with whom I spent the most time and feel an endearing connection. First, the 23 first year student nurses who were a joy to be with. They were challenging, studious, playful, compassionate, and exuded a wonderful sense of hospitality to me. My “Relationship 101” classes were engaging and fun, and they taught me so much about the similarities and differences of our respective worlds.
But it was their individual stories that moved me the most. “Stories” are always the turning point for me. To hear where they’ve come from in life, where they live, who’s “there” for them (or not), why did they chose nursing, what do they hope to do with their lives in the future . . . was so revealing and powerful. They “loved to tell their story” as the old hymn goes, and I learned so much about their struggles, sacrifices, hopes and dreams. As I listened, I felt (and continue to feel) humbled by their motivation, perseverance, determination, and courage against formidable odds.


And finally, finally, my “old” (in many ways!) friend of 50 years now, John O’Connor, aka, Jo’c, Rev., Father John . . .  Little could we have fathomed in our college days with the Maryknoll Missionary Fathers in the 1960’s, that our lives would take such divergent, and yet similar paths, leading us to be reunited in mission for the last three years in Guyana.
His knowledge of, commitment to, and passion for, the people of Guyana and their country are deep and strong. His memory for names, history, geography, culture, religions, politics make him a walking (well, limping now) encyclopedia! People from there ask him about their own country! The respect he engenders, despite his sometimes caustic ways, is illustrative of the man of integrity, warmth and concern that he is. I am proud to call him my friend, and happy to still walk humbly at his side reaching out to those in need.

The lessons of Guyana are once again many this year. I continue to be in awe about peoples’ kindness, generosity, compassion, care, and hospitality. I feel a profound sense of humility when I experience them giving from what they barely have.
In that, I learned more deeply about “Blessings” in my own life . . .  that so much of what I have and who I am, is a gift, luck, good fortune, a cosmic break (by whatever name, they are not of my doing!)  --  where I was born, who my parents were, family, health, opportunities for education, employment, travel, and on. True, SOME accomplishments have been by my efforts, but the vast majority have NOT.
And so I returned to my life here in Greenfield, Massachusetts, USA, with its struggles, uncertainties and challenges, feeling a renewed sense of how blessed I am. I will try to live this gratitude better, and more frequently remind myself how I need to continue “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with my God.”

Blessings to you,
Dennis   (aka. Rev. 2, Father Dennis, “M J”)

Thank you my "older" friend.   I have appreciated re-uniting with you and like you am amazed that we have thrived separately and now together...  

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Down the Back Stretch

One Last Week Ahead

I use the horse racing analogy not because of any fierce speed on my part; it is the time that is racing...  "Do not go gentle onto that good plane..."   or so said the non-guitar playing Dylan.   I am running as fast as I can to complete all I set out to do, but I fear I'll have a "DNF" posted.   This is probably how I feel every year. (And if I listened to what I tell my students, I'd go back and read my old blogs to see.)   Almost none of the uncompleted stuffs are related to needing more money. I realized a long time ago that I would never ever be able to give enough even with my small focus of the nursing school and St. Ann's -- things like the outdoor playground for the girls at St. Ann's.  The new basketball backboard is up and the girls really enjoy it and we have balls... However, it is really hard to change routine.  When I was at St. Ann's Thursday afternoon, it took over 30 minutes to find the key for the locked playground.   The girls had not used it since we left on Sunday. It is not that the sisters and matrons don't want them to play; it is not thought about, as it hasn't been done before .....  changing behaviours is slow work .....   I really would hate to see it sit locked for months .....  Dennis and I will be back to St. Ann's a few more times and keep kicking the can, but even if I stayed till Christmas some stuff would still not be changed .....  The good news is that if I get back next year, I will know where to start as the same problems may still be there!

Mental Health and Psychiatry

Last week the Graduate Academic Committee of the Graduate School of University Guyana approved the offering of the degree Master in Medicine, Psychiatry.    This was the last big hurdle before there will be an official Psychiatry Residency Programme in Guyana.   There is a more formal committee for the university but they almost always accept the working committee's recommendations.   A few of my colleagues deserve the credit for pushing this through - Drs. Bhiro Harry and Jorge Balseiro who did  all the research and document preparation for several long months.   It also had the support of the Dean of Health Science, Dr. Emanuel Cummings, and the Dean of the Medical School, Dr. Madan Rambaran, all of whose experience with University Committees were essential.   I had the privilege of attending the meeting as a "Visiting Expert"... I really think I was there to just add some colour.

Guyana is still number one in the world by population for suicides ..... and as you know if you read the papers online or even my blog, the events that scream the need for better mental health in the Guyanese community are the daily occurrences of spousal abuse, violence, etc.  There is now a concrete though long term approach to treating the most difficult mental illnesses.    Four general practice doctors will begin the three-year programme in the new year.    It is uncanny how one positive development can have the power to dispel the darkness.
This is probably from Confucius.   However, is also
the saying of a group from Maryknoll that I joined in 1964.  (Dennis as well.)
As much as I love psychiatrists and think they do wonderful things, I know that the new programme is only a tiny part of improving the mental health needs of the country and the delivery of services to the sufferers from mental illness.    There are other initiatives both by government and private groups, including faith groups.

Last Sunday, I was invited by the Youth Group of Holy Rosary to talk about suicide prevention and mental health.   Mental health needs are being brought to the forefront of public discussion over the last two years.    I am optimistic there are much better times coming in these areas.

More Mental Health

The new Minister of Public Health, Dr. George Norton, liked the idea of a National Mental Health Institute -- a separate place that would be the focal point for all Mental Health Services in Guyana, much like the Caribbean Heart Institute.  Recently, they have purchased two buildings near the hospital that will house the psychiatry outpatients, provide teaching classrooms for the residents' and medical students' rotations in psychiatry, a community reference library and meeting rooms, and the main office for the Mental Health Unit of the Ministry of Public Health.

Setting for the National Mental Health Institute (in progress)
on Quamina Street.

Leslyn Holder,
the new National Mental Health Coordinator.
We have a new National Mental Health Coordinator, Leslyn Holder, who is getting organized and presenting the first ever budget for Mental Health.  A costing accountant has detailed the costs of implementing the National Mental Health Action Plan 2015-2020.

Lots more good stuff is happening, including the third trip to Guyana of the Canadian Mental Health Team whom you an find on FB at:  Transforming Guyana's Mental Health System. Old timers Peter Kuhnert and Ram Kalap will be joined by first timers Lance Morgan and Shrenik Parekh.  They are here to finalize goals for the next 3 to 5 years.

Peter last year
Ram and John last year

Your Tablets and their Stories

The generosity of those who have little amazes me again and again.   When I was getting organized to come down, I had asked Elsie Asabere, the Director of the Nursing School if she could identify all the new first year students who had a device that could access the internet.   She wrote me back that there were only ten who did not have a tablet, laptop or phone; so I bought 20 tablets with donated funds.

However, when I got here there were 15 who did not have anything and a few more whose units were not really very good.   So I said that as I had planned to give five as photography contest winners to girls at St Ann's, could they decide among themselves which 15 students would get a tablet?  I was willing to just have two photo prizes if they needed more than the 15.   When I returned there were only 15 in total who needed a tablet ..... because, they told me,  the girls at St Ann's needed them more.  More?  I was amazed at their cooperation and generosity towards others.  

Well, I have run out of time to do the photo contest ..... so I decided to see which first year students really needed a tablet right now.  I knew two second year students had had their tablets from last year give up the ghost and they had no money to get another tablet ..... but the first year were my priority, so I asked who really needed a tablet.  (Some had little phones that could access the net, but I couldn't read them even with my glasses.  So I said that I had four extra ones now (I knew someone who really needed one in second year) and we would draw lots for who got them.      The next day I brought in some blank sheets to do the draw... And the class had decided that there were only really three students who needed the tablets and I could use the other for someone who needed it more.  More?

Another first year student came to tell me that a quiet student needed the last one... So I said, Fine send her in.   She arrived at my room and told me she had a phone but the charger was broken and was waiting for some family to come at Christmas to bring her a new charger ..... and in the meantime, she would use a batchmate's on class days.    She did not need it.   And she did know of one second year student who needed it more.  More?

I do not want them to sound like Mother Theresa - or else I couldn't yell at them when they gave a stupid answer (yes, I know there are no stupid questions, but there are some incredible answers) -- imagine yelling at Mother Theresa!   However, they are gracious, kind and generous... amazingly generous.   Next year, I will get everyone a good tablet - with your help of course...  I might even roll the donations to my beer fund into it as well.   I do know what more is...

The National Flower is Becoming Endangered

The government has banned the sale and use of styrofoam at the start of 2016.  The white food boxes have littered the landscape from ocean and canals to trees.   An amazing move!  And as usual, I have been ahead of my time:  I have been having my meals here in plastic reusable containers since Maria Kidner and Jane Greiling made me, back in 2003 (and as Kristin did many years ago in Dundas). Actually, they shamed me into it and -- and then they never came back to check .....   And today I have the same ones ..... though they have gotten stained over the years so the kitchen staff always ask me, "Have you cleaned these recently?"

Dennis is getting ready to leave the day before me, but not before packing his parachute and one more pink umbrella drink at Frenzy's Bar on a Saturday Morning...   He tells me that those umbrellas are nothing to laugh at as they are big chick magnets ..... Anyhow, the "chicks" get their laugh for the day....  All kidding aside, I will miss him.

Dennis will write next week's blog and I will probably finish up the following week.. Thanks for sharing our adventure - John, Dennis and Emilee.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Back up to Speed... for Guys in their 70th Year

Veteran Dennis Arrived and Started Running [figuratively]

After some naptime (Dennis came by the redeye from Toronto), we headed down to St Ann's to look at the site for the basketball court Dennis and his friends planned to put up for the girls.   Many of the girls remember him; they were telling the "new" girls about the parachute though the new ones were wanting to jump out of a plane!   The yard has a good concrete base and with a little cleaning up will make great courts for basketball and volleyball.

Dennis is welcomed by all the girls - little and big- who remembered him.  Paulina at the Brazilian Churrascaria remembered his love of pink umbrellas.

Sticking with Basketball

We looked at several possibilities for putting up a backboard; these included stealing an old one from from the high school next door and getting a contractor-fabricator to install it on a pole embedded in the concrete so that it would be more permanent.  Sister Leonie had showed me the new one at St. Rosa's and it is a fortress..  and yes those are 12"Steel iBeams!  Not even in New York City!

Well, after  several weeks of me doing some ground work we had a contractor who knew all about building a basketball court - until I showed him a picture -- ugh.   However, he would get someone to call me back that afternoon ..... as you guessed, no call that afternoon, nor the next day, etc. .....  It is impossible to get anything done quickly in Guyana - or so I thought. 
On Tuesday afternoon, we went out looking for who had these basketball backboards and stuff... one sports store had a nice backboard and rim, but no attachment kit... not helpful, but they told us that any contractor could make one ..... probably the same one who never called us back.   We wanted something that was going to outlast the balls we had!  Permanence is more of a temporary concept in Guyana ..... We got our trusty taxi driver to take us to Gizmos and Gadgets where I had seen a portable one.  It was twice as expensive as just a backboard with no attachment kit and no fabricator to make one and not a chance that Dennis or I could weld one ..... The portable one looked great and was getting more sturdy-looking the more we considered our options.

A lovely sales person, Debra, came over and had heard our concerns about permanence and answered all our other questions.  We decided we would buy it.   Debra informed us that it would come in a box and unassembled ..... frightening nightmares of holiday-gift-assembling being done into the wee hours before the kids woke up... and now we would have 40 girls waiting for us to put it together.   
Dennis blinked first and asked if there was anyway they could assemble it ..... and yes, but there would be a charge.  He didn't even wait to find out how much... better option he said.     

Would they take Visa? Yes. Great. Debra returned with the bad news ..... They did not have any more, just the floor model.  Would they sell us the floor model?  (You know:  the already-assembled one. )  Debra checked with the manager and he said yes.   Now, could they deliver it?  Yes, but they would need to take it apart.  Debra saw the tears in Dennis' eyes ..... They wouldn't have to take it all apart! Joy again ..... And now the angel Debra says, "Maybe we can give you a reduction on the (already assembled and in perfect condition) floor model.. it was getting better ..... Yup, 10% off! 

"Delivery?"  "Yes, they would deliver it the next day ..... (Are you sure this is Guyana?) .....  and it is included in the price."   Now it was my turn to shed a tear, a helpless male before the beautiful youndg woman ..... "Do you think the delivery guys might be able to put it up?  Both of us went to school for too long and never learned anything practical."   (I offered to send testimonials from my children on my capacity to make two dozen trips to Canadian Tire for one leaky toilet repair ..... it might include a whole new toilet after it cracked for some unknown reason.)  Debra wasn't sure but she would ask the delivery man.  They held it for us and we returned the next day and paid and the unit got delivered the following day .....  

The two delivery guys met Dennis at St. Ann's (one of us had to teach, eh?), and they not only carried into the back of St Ann's where the playground is, but even filled the base with water to counterbalance the weight ..... especially in case Dennis was tempted to pull one of his from-the-foul-line Michael Jordan dunks.     He did help them by finding a funnel for the water and took some great pics .....  And they did all the extra, not because we were so persuasive but, as the  delivery man said, "This is for the girls at St. Ann's."

I sometimes pick on the "Just Now" time it takes to accomplish anything in Guyana; okay:  I do it all the time. So when I come on such an experience of great customer service and super-fast purchasing and delivery, I need to share these people with you...  So if you need something when you are in GT, go see Debra and tell her you are friends with Rev 1 and Rev 2.

Was it Worth it? You Tell Us...

Thank you, Dennis and his friends who funded this ..... You made the smiles happen.

And Even Better.. They Let the Boys Play

And please don't ask: modesty prevents me from disclosing who had the most baskets....

Way More Stories, But Enough

Lots of other stuff happened this week, so just look at the slide show...  and I'll mention a few really important ones next week ..... so stay tuned.   Amazingly, it will be my last one from Guyana this year ..... Dennis will do one after we get home.

So we went out to celebrate at the Everest Cricket Club,
where they remembered the Pink Umbrellas for Dennis.