Shakira, the Normal Person


I would watch her slowly plodding through The Village, eyes fixed on the ground, arms hanging at her sides.

She didn’t strike me as being either happy or unhappy.  Capable or clumsy.  Quick witted or slow.  She was just . . . there.  Not a positive, but not a negative either.

In my little world of colorful Village People – David with his love for his grandma and his treasure box, Claude with his ancient wisdom born of patient endurance and his childlike enjoyment of coloring books, Keisha with her wholehearted enthusiasm for nail polish and lipstick, Nikki with her flirtatious smiles for any man within a 50-yard radius – Shakira was a neutral.

I believed this even after the first time we made Cucumber Ginger Juice and she approached me to ask if there was any left for her.  There wasn’t, but I told her we’d be making smoothies in a couple of weeks and if she’d remind me, I’d make sure to pour her a cup.

We did and she did and I did.  And that was the first time I saw a spark.

“Aunty Sarah, it is very nice!  I like it a lot.  It’s cool and refreshing!”

But what I thought was just an instinctual reaction to food was so much more.

She joined us for our second Cooking Class: Omelettes (being the speedy folk we are, it only took us 3 hours to make 15 of them).  It was the first time she’d come to one of my activities.

She chose to cut the sweet pepper and immediately grasped the knife like a pro.  No hand-over-hand needed here!  I watched her out of the corner of my eye as I held the pepper for her.  Her face was filled with pleasure as each perfect slice of pepper fell to the side.

“Shakira!” I said in amazement.  “You can cut!  The pepper – it’s beautiful!”

“Aunty Karen,” she said, turning to my partner in crime, “I learned to cook in the kitchen in Crossroads where I grew up!”

I let go, stepped all the way back, and watched her slice and dice with ease.  First the pepper.  Then the onion.  Then a tomato.  Each perfectly proportioned.  She was clearly in her element, and I was playing catch up – trying to adjust my perception of her to the reality that was unfolding before my eyes.

“Shakira,” I said the following week, “you said the kitchen in Crossroads was where you learned to cook.  Was that a school?  Or a home?”

“Yes.  The seizures did not come to trouble me until I was older.  It was only when I was eight that they came.  Then I had to go to the home in Crossroads.  I learned to cook.  I learned tie and dye.  I rode the bus.  It is only when the seizures come that I have trouble.”

Then came the sentence that wrenched my heart: “Aunty Sarah, I am a normal person like you.”

“Yes, Shakira, you are,” I managed.  “You can do so much.  I can’t even cut peppers and onions as good as you can.”  (Truly, I can’t.)

She smiled.  “I am a good cook.  But, the older I get, the more I want to see my family.  My mother and my father.  I have brothers and sisters that I have never met – can you believe that?  I want to go out and see them.”

What do you even say in response to that?  Especially when you know, as I do, that many of Mustard Seed’s kids don’t even have birth certificates.  They often come to us from hospitals or the street or a pig pen or a neglectful home.  They may arrive with nothing more than the clothes on their back.  They may arrive without even a name.

It all too often points back to the same story – a family that can’t care for a child with a disability.  A family that, in many cases, isn’t going to seek contact with their son or daughter.

At our next two Cooking Classes, she was my right hand woman; watching the stew when I had to dash out for a rag, demonstrating to the other residents how to slice bread.

“Aunty Sarah,” she would say, “today is Wednesday.  I will come to help you cook.  What do you need me to do?”

On my final Tuesday in the Village, I did the ladies’ makeup one last time.  Shakira was there.

“Last time you did this I had to go to the hospital.  But today I am here!” she said joyfully.  “Aunty Sarah, you can do mine, too?”

“Shakira,” I said when I had finished applying her eyeshadow and lipstick and blush, “look in the mirror.”

That beautifully expressive smile that I had come to know and love immediately appeared.

“Shakira,” I said, “look in the mirror and say, ‘I am beautiful.'”

“I.  Am.  Beautiful.” she repeated, grinning at her reflection.

“You are beautiful, Shakira.  You have beautiful eyes and lips and hands.  And you do beautiful things, too. helping me with cooking class and helping the aunties with the other residents.”

“Aunty Sarah, I miss you already.  We are just now starting to do things and you are going.”

“I miss you already, too.”


My last day at The Village, she dictated a letter for another Aunty:

. . . And I’m sending you a photograph of me training to cook in Jamaica because of Aunty Sarah.  I appreciate the training that I got from Aunty Sarah teaching us how to do things and do it well.  Thank you because I am number one chef in Jamaica right here.  I learn from growing up how to cook and do things in the kitchen. 

And also teaching how to do it make me feel good in myself.  The teaching – no matter how small it is – I can do it on my own also if I get the chance.  But one thing spoil [i.e. the seizure disorder] but it is under control.  But I feel good to know that Aunty Sarah teach us how to do things on our own. 

If I wasn’t here I would be getting teaching how to prepare my own meal and share it out that everyone can have a taste of this cooking because I am the first one that know everything about how to do these things.  Thank you.  Bless up.

Shakira, you are a normal person.

Blessed (to be a blessing)

You’ve heard the saying “It’s a small world”?  Doubly true when it comes to the island of Jamaica!

You befriend a college student who, as it turns out, works out in same gym as Usain Bolt and lives in the same neighborhood at Asafa Powell.

One of your security guards mentions his friend – Popcaan.

Your favorite reggae artist films a music video in the community where you live (unfortunately, before you got there).

You share a taxi with a woman whose cousin was Michael Manley’s daughter-in-law.

And Mr. Vegas hosts a charity concert to ensure the Mustard Seed residents have enough food to eat next year.

My favorite Mr. Vegas song is “I Am Blessed”:

I love the rhythm.  I love the storyline.  I love the fact that it was largely filmed in Papine, which I pass through twice a day.  But I especially love the chorus.

I am blessed,
I am blessed
Every day of my life
I am blessed
When I wake up in the morning,
And I lay my head to rest
Every day of my life I am blessed.

Like my dad always says, “We’re blessed to be a blessing to others.”

Financial resourcesBusiness connectionsMusical talentsPresence.  Just a few of the things that can be committed to “the least of these.”


At Chapel on Sunday, Father Chambers told the story of a carpenter who wants to retire and spend time with his wife and grandchildren.  His boss insists that he build one more house and after much if-ing and but-ing, the carpenter acquiesces.

His heart is far from in it though, so he rushes the job, using shoddy materials and inferior craftsmanship.  When his boss comes to inspect the finished house, he looks around and then pulls the keys to the front door out of his pocket and hands them to the carpenter.

“This is your house.  It’s my gift to you for all your years of fine work for me.”

How differently that carpenter would have worked if he had only known he was building his own house!

In our own lives, we make rash choices and sloppy decisions only to realize that we are building the very house we will have to live in.

IMG_1007Sister Cathy, Natalia, and I spent the afternoon at EITS Cafe (Europe in the Summer) up the mountain (past Irish Town but before Newcastle).  It’s a Farm to Table restaurant with guesthouses perched on the side of the mountain.

They have quirky features like a wooden monkey, a “No Ganja smoking after dark” sign, a live keyboardist who will take requests from the boisterous group at the bar, and footprints embedded in the concrete at the front entrance:

IMG_1006As for the food . . .

IMG_1000Grilled Herb Salmon in Garlic Ginger Butter Sauce with Steamed Vegetables and Potato Croquettes.

And I really think that’s all I need to say about that.

Here’s the view over one of the balconies to part of the farm:

IMG_0994At certain places, there’s nothing between you and the mountain side far below but the balcony you stand on.  If you weren’t sure of the workmanship, you wouldn’t want to venture out for fear of a sudden fall into empty space and a hard landing on the rugged terrain.

I’m so thankful for the people in my life who build their houses well.  I’m grateful for the hard work and effort they made.  I admire the sacrifice.  I enjoy my time in the beautiful structure they’ve erected.

I think of Mustard Seed, and all the hard work that has gone into 30 plus years of building 13 apostolates in Jamaica (to say nothing of Nicaraugua, Zimbabwe, and the Dominican Republic) to care for children and adults who’ve been abandoned because of disabilities, sexual abuse, or HIV/AIDS.

During these past 6 months, I’ve had a glimpse of some of the sacrifices and challenges that come with building something that lasts and that truly does make a difference.

It’s a wonderful and necessary thing to build your own house well.

But I when I think of the times I have seen Jesus in Jamaica, it is in the people of Mustard Seed.  Because they are building homes for people who can not build for themselves.

Sophies PlaceOh, God, please let me be that kind of person, who does the hard thing and builds the house well!

Damien Downtown

Yours truly may soon be in demand with Rasta men everywhere. And not because of some unfortunate pieces of information that I happen to possess – such as where to buy ganja in Papine. No, this – thank God – promises to be of a more innocent nature.

I went Downtown on Sunday to meet up with some friends and was waylaid by a Rasta frying fish.

“Hey! I need pictures. I want to put them up on the Internet. You can take my picture.”

“What!?  You want me to take your picture?”  I am well acquainted with the aversion to picture taking by Jamaicans in general and Rastas in particular.

Just because someone has dreads doesn’t mean they want to be splashed all over Facebook as an example of a “typical Jamaican.”  They wouldn’t show up in your country and snap pictures of you working at your desk job so why should you come up out of nowhere and take pictures of them selling sugar cane at the side of the road?

I paraphrase, but you get the gist (one I happen to agree with after being stranded for 3 days in the Chicago airport and being subjected to photogs who had zero interest in me as a person and only cared about getting an image of a bunch of tired travelers for a story.  But I digress).

“Yes, mon!  Do you have a camera?”

“Um, yes.”  I ask again to be sure.  “You really want me to take your picture?”

“Wait!  Let me get ready!”

I took that as a yes.


IMG_0680“I need a few more.”


IMG_0684“Now of the food alone.”

IMG_0686I think I do a pretty good job as photographer to the stars Rastas.

We were both out of pen and paper, so he borrowed a pen from a passerby and ripped a piece of cardboard off a box and gave me his e-mail.

“Would you like to taste my hand?”

Unfortunately, because it looked and smelled delicious, I’d just had a big breakfast of pancakes.

“I want you be to happy here in Jamaica and love our country!”  So he gave me two plantains instead.

Damien, you’re an Irie dude.  I hope you enjoy the pictures.  Thank you for the kind words.  The plantains will be perfect for Cooking Class in the Village :-)

Power Pancakes

“Aunty Sarah, where is it?  Where is mine!?”  Aunty Karen comes storming up to me, hand outstretched, ready to receive.  I, unfortunately, am drawing a blank.

“Your what?”

“My pancake that you made for me yesterday!”

Oops.  Taking a page from Adam and Eve’s playbook, I quickly decide that the best method of dealing with my memory lapse is to cast blame somewhere else.  Conveniently, there is a whole line of residents sitting outside enjoying the early morning air.

“They ate all the pancake!” I say, turning and pointing an accusing finger in the direction of the Village people.  (They are already giggling and chuckling.)  “They didn’t even save one for me!  They ate all!”

Aunty Karen turns and glares.  By now, the whole crew is cracking up.  Sasha is laughing so hard her wheelchair is bouncing.  Claude has a huge grin on his face.  Nikki is twisting in her chair.  Keisha’s and Kemar’s dimples are so deep you could easily hide a couple pancakes in them.  Vinroy, whose hands turn back on their own wrists, somehow manages to pull his t-shirt up over his head in mock fear.

“I see you, Vinroy!  You can’t hide from me!” shouts Aunty Karen.

Our first Wednesday morning Cooking Class in The Village had been inaugurated the day before by that classic breakfast food – you guessed it, the pancake!

Iryna and I had donned our tiaras (we were the Pancake Queen and the Pancake Princess).

The residents had gathered in the boys’ dorm.

It was time to unveil . . . the hotplate! (Another fabulous gift from Aunty Sharon and the Georgia Regent University OT team.)

Unplugged, cool to the touch, a simple black cuboid (yes, I have Google and I know how to use it) of plastic and metal.  The residents looked as if they’d died and gone to heaven.


Each one had the chance to hold the hotplate and to heft its weight, sometimes with fingers that struggled to grip and arms that strained not to drop.  They felt the ridges in the surface with the tips of their fingers.  David even got to turn the knob from off to low to medium to high and back down to medium.

Next, a preview of coming attractions.  Had anyone ever tasted pancake syrup before?  No?  Well, get ready!

There was a bit of a misfire when Iryna reached Claude and I had to make a quick run for a damp rag.  But all was well until we got to Sasha, who, with the memory of Claude’s catastrophe fresh in her mind (and perhaps, sensing her own impending doom), could not control her giggles.  Which made David start laughing.  Then Vivienne.  Then Nyron.  Then me.  Then Vinroy.  Then Iryna.  And so on down the line, which made Sasha laugh even harder.

“All right!  All right!” said Claude.  Unfortunately, even his gently waving hands were unable to check our hilarity.  We gave up and skipped Sasha in order to get through the syrup portion of the morning.

Everyone took turns measuring pancake mix and stirring to blend it with the water.


Nyron volunteered to be the first to make a pancake and Iryna pushed him up so I could show him what to do.

“First, you have to put on butter so it won’t stick to the pan.  You want it to get hot – can you hear it sizzling?  Then you’ll pour in some of the mix.  Great!  Now we’re going to watch for bubbles.  When a lot of bubbles have popped, then you know it’s time to turn it over.”



Next up, Vinroy.

Butter in the pan.

“Sizzling time!  Sizzling time!” called out Claude, who had already claimed last place in the pancake line and was having the time of his life watching all his friends.

“Look, Vinroy!  The bubbles are coming!”

“Bubbling time!  Bubbling time!” said Claude.

David.  Theresa.  Vivienne.  They all came, poured, and conquered – with HUGE smiles on their faces.

Ziggy: Came, poured, and conquered with her usual “all-in-a-day’s-work-no-biggy” attitude.

Bruce – one of those people who always serves in the background without ever expecting anything for himself.  He put the butter in the pan and turned to go back to his seat.

“No, Bruce!  Stay!  You get to do more.”

He poured the batter in the pan and turned to go back to his seat.

“Not yet, Bruce!  You get to flip the pancake, too.”


He waited for “bubbling time” to be done and flipped the pancake before once again turning.

“Stay, Bruce, you get to take it out of the pan and put it on the plate!”

It soon became apparent why Claude had elected to go last.  We rolled him up to the table, handed him the pitcher of batter, and watched as he poured a monster of a pancake.

In response to our good-natured ragging he just grinned and waved his hands at us.

A beautiful stack of golden brown pancakes awaited us.  Each resident squeezed out his or her own syrup onto the very pancake he or she had cooked.  Iryna and Jordan sliced bananas over the top and everyone dug in.

“Mmmmm!  Good!” grunted Jason.


“Aaaauunnttyyy,” said a triumphant Nyron, “weeee caaaaan coooook!”

* * *

“I put in the butter.  I pour on the batter.  And I take my time!  I take my time.  I don’t get in a rush.  I don’t get in a rush.  I take my time.  And that is how you have a perfect pancake.  You can’t get in a rush.” Several hours later and Claude is reliving every perfect moment of pancake morning.

Nyron looks up.  “Eeeevveeeeen  thooouuugghhh  weee’rrre iiiiin wheeeeelllllchaaaiiirsss weeee caaaan coooook!”  He pauses and looks off into the distance, contemplating.  When he turns back to face us, his whole face is alight.  “Weeee caaaan dooooo eeevvveerrryythiiiing!”

I’m too happy to cry.

5 Things . . .

I loved about my Tuesday:

1. The likkle girl who sat behind me on the bus and stroked my head.  “She loves your hair,” her mom explained apologetically.

2. Talking about snow with my banana sellers.  (When I got home, I discovered that they had given me 7 bananas for the price of 6.)

3. Washing my hands under running water again! #wateroutage

4. Tie and Dye with the residents (their first time!).




5. Romelo ask-telling me to climb to the top of the mango tree to pick the only ripe mango in sight.  ‘Melo, I love you, but it’s so not happening!

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice . . .

Hey!  Hey!

I look up from Roxanne’s eyeshadow to figure out who is making all the commotion and I am shocked by what I see.

It’s Ivy.

Ivy, who sits slumped at tables, mouth hanging open.  Ivy, who looks at you with vacant eyes even when you call her by name.  Ivy, who has to be led at a stumble-walk by the aunties to meal time.

Ivy, who I have never heard speak.

Aunty!  Look!

She is sitting upright.  Her eyes are sparkling.  Her smile is practically stretching off her face.  Her voice is clear.  Her arms and hands are perfectly positioned to show off the burgundy nail polish one of the aunties just painted on her fingernails.  She looks . . . alive.

For the remainder of the day, she will walk around with her arms just like this,

IMG_0372reminding herself and everyone within a 40-foot radius of her beautiful new look.

Shamika often tells me that when it comes to therapy and helping people, there are some things you just can’t plan.

She is right.

I could have never predicted Ivy’s (of all people) reaction to our Beauty Day in the Jerusalem! children’s pavilion.

The whole concept of Beauty Day is itself a bit of an “accident.”

I was dropped off at Jerusalem! an hour and a half earlier than normal one Thursday morning (it’s hard to pass up free rides, even when it means getting out of bed at 5 am).  I was hanging out with the Village people when Shameeka said, “Aunty, you have lipstick!”

Actually, I was just wearing lip balm, but her mischievous giggle gave me an idea.  “Would you like to try some?”

Her eyes lit up.

The laser focus of the other girls as I applied lip balm to Shameeka’s lips could not be ignored.  “Would you like some, too?”

“Yes, Aunty!” the verbal ones chorused.  The non-verbal ones responded with vigorously nodding heads, or widening eyes, or smiles.

If they were this excited about a simple lip balm, what would they do if I painted their nails?  Or let them wear lipstick?  Or eyeshadow?

I suddenly remembered Aunty Sharon and Uncle Jeff’s (Occupational therapist/professor and wheelchair repair specialist, respectively) offer to get me anything I needed when Sharon returned to Mustard Seed with a team of OT students from Georgia Regent University.

With only a few days’ notice, they came through in a big way, collecting/buying enough makeup for 5 Mustard Seed homes.

Over the course of several days, little pots and tubes and jars of shimmery, powdery, glittery, liquid-y colors were transformed into the stuff a therapist’s dreams are made of.

Keisha, whose hands typically lie as fists, trembled with the effort to hold her fingers straight for bright pink polish – and kept stretching and re-stretching them straight for the next several days, showing them off to everyone in what became know as her “beauty queen wave.”

Nikki giggled and bounced in her chair as we took her and the rest of the Village girls around the compound to show them off to the other residents, volunteers, and staff.  (The giggles got especially loud when we neared the security guards and maintenance men :-) )

Cherise couldn’t stop looking at herself in the mirror.

IMG_0361“Pretty!  Pretty!  Pretty!” said Shontelle, each time a new picture of herself appeared on the camera screen.

With every nail that was painted,

IMG_0360mouth that was tinted,

IMG_0367cheek that was blushed,

IMG_0352and eye that was shadowed,

IMG_0383another girl shimmered into happiness.

And the icing on the cake?  We even got to wear perfume!

And by “wear,” I mean that I’m not sure the planet is ever going to forgive us.

We were drenched in Cherry Blossom scent.  I was thanking my lucky stars that a) GRU had purchased body mist (not real perfume) and b) we were in the open air of your typical Jamaican building plan when I saw Roxanne helping Shontelle out like this:

IMG_0363I thought about explaining that perfume is really for your inner wrists and decolletage and behind the ear lobes (or, as Coco Channel put it, “Wherever one wants to be kissed”) but decided against it.

For one thing, it really was kind of logical (Why not spray it where it will do the most good?).

For the other, I was laughing too hard to make much sense, anyway!