By Vanessa Barg
As the sun rises on Grenada, I am swept with gratitude. I have fallen madly in love with this island. I am five hours south of New York and a hundred miles north of Venezuela. I look into my future and see a lifetime of passionate collaborative work unfold. I am sitting on the porch after a sleepless night of work while inside the volunteers, staff, and founder of REACH Grenada sleep for a few more hours before we mobilize for another day with the most at-risk children of Grenada at their emergency shelters.
Childhood has already been stolen from these boys and girls. Orphaned or abandoned, many of them have been sexually abused, prostituted, beaten, and raped of their innocence. Why were we there? To love them, hug them, do yoga with them, show them breathing exercises and teach them how to play the piano and paint with stencils on the wall. To show them good people exist who hug rather than beat, and smile rather than suffocate.
Even though I worked straight through the night, I’m brimming with excitement and gratitude as I envision a lifetime ahead of inspired collaboration helping children and empowering others to do the same.
How did I wind up in this sunrise on this porch?
It began in December 2009, when I launched Gnosis’s Raw Integrity Project and first traveled to Grenada to meet with my friend, Mott Green, owner of the Grenada Chocolate Company. Our conversations were stimulating and substantial (I learned so much from Mott), and I harvested cacao side by side with farmers for the first time.
It was on that trip that I first met an orphan who had been prostituted by his mother and abandoned. He was taken under the care of Mott’s friend, and I immediately donated what I had to show my support. This experience showed me the side of Grenada that resulted from the high unemployment and economic distress Mott told me about. I was excited to work with Mott to develop our Grenada OrigiNib bar because I believe that supporting a country’s organic agriculture is the strongest and most sustainable way to improve their economy. I knew this wasn’t the last time I’d be on Grenada.
Shortly after returning to the States, my friend Clay Gordon introduced me to Neo Moreton and Karen Lawson, co-founders of REACH Grenada, and I was thrilled to find that I was not the only person passionate about Grenada and doing all I could to help. REACH Grenada was founded in 2008; its mission is to improve the health and well-being of Grenada’s most vulnerable children. REACH Grenada primarily works with children residing in Grenada’s institutional care homes. Many were previously victims of physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse, neglect, and abandonment. Its multi-dimensional programs include therapeutic services, yoga and meditation, and a host of other activities that promote children’s long-term healthy development and seek to alleviate the effects of childhood adversity.
REACH’s mentoring and caregiver training and support programs are based on the core value of sustainable change: not teaching caregivers how but rather drawing out and reinforcing their innate abilities to care and teach that are borne of — and nurtured in — the Grenadian culture.
Last night, as we left the police station where we got driving licenses, REACH founder Karen Lawson pointed across the street and said, “That’s where my husband died, where his spirit ascended from his body — a place that I come back to again and again to feel the peaceful embrace of something far greater than us. It is this that drives my work, framed so simply by the First Panchen Lama when he said, ‘Giving and taking ride on the wind, freeing every living being from the sea of pain.’
“Life’s sorrow can indeed be transformed to open doors never before imagined,” she continued. “Losing Bart gave birth to REACH Grenada’s mission to help the island’s most vulnerable children through programs that offer healing and hope. We accomplish this by building a community of like-minded ‘givers and doers’ — those who are able to step out of their apparent selves and into their hearts to contribute whatever time or talent they may offer. Together, we will keep deepening our work until we effect significant change in the way that Grenada’s most vulnerable children are treated.”
Karen’s children, Bart Jr., Mackie, and Katia, are here working with us. We are a motley crue of 15 volunteers: an employment lawyer, an ex-cop, an interior decorator, a yoga instructor, a construction worker, a photographer, a filmmaker, a music teacher, and a chocolate girl. Yes, we could have brought the kind of items that REACH has so plentifully donated in the past: books, toys, clothes, and food. But the greatest gifts we gave the children were the kind that wouldn’t fall apart or break and couldn’t ever be taken away from them: our time, our love, and our dedication to their well-being. And, of course, I brought chocolate.
C is a beautiful girl. Taken from her abusive aunt in 2007 by Child Protective Services, she was brought to one of the few government-funded emergency shelters. Tucked away in a place known not even to the locals, she is safe — well, safer — here. C’s mother left in 2004 for the United States and never came back. Her baby is four years old, and lives at a shelter an hour away… babies having babies. Now 18, C is “aging” out of the program and must soon leave the emergency shelter.
“Where will you go?” I asked her.
“Don’t know. I don’t want to stay here anyway. I don’t know where I’m gonna go though.”
She likes a boy named Derek who comes to visit her at the fence, which she climbs — barbed wire and all — without shoes.
“What do you like to do, C?”
“Reading. But I done reading all the books here already. I like love stories, but I read all they got here.”
I tell this to Karen, and we agree to buy some books for the home. But books can’t build a place for her to live, and they won’t feed her child. Books can’t provide an alternative to returning to her aunt’s abuse. And books won’t bring C’s mother home. But books will give her a temporary escape, a journey of the imagination that can never be taken away from her.
Now, we’re in Victoria, a small town on Grenada’s northwest coast, watching children running, laughing, and drinking punch donated by the church. Every Tuesday, 40 children from nearby orphanages play soccer together and teach you, in an instant, the message Eckhart Tolle, Buddha, and so many others might take the work of a lifetime to impart: the joy of the Now. They are enjoying this tropical Tuesday afternoon moment in its fullness without worrying about what was or what’s to come. And for that instant I, too, am brought into the eternal moment through their bright-eyed, innocent playfulness and joy.
I wave at a little girl and she runs down to me from the bleachers. She fastens herself to me and looks up with hungry eyes and a smile wide as the sea. For a moment, she appears to be a normal, affectionate young person until I look down and see her threadbare clothes, stick-thin legs, bloated feet, and torn, floppy shoes that don’t match. I feel tears welling up as I try not to think what may happen to her when she returns “home.” I want never to let her go since physical punishment is widespread by caregivers who treat the children as they, themselves, were treated.
The boy’s orphanage in Victoria reeks of urine, and I learn that many of the children are bed-wetting, a common symptom of trauma — but considered a sin for which they are reprimanded. REACH has donated sheets, but beds are bare, and most lack even a pillow. One of the older boys explains that the children hide their soiled sheets for fear of punishment, so caregivers gave up on replacing them. Now, they lay on plastic cots in the sweltering heat.
Lindsay, REACH’s program director, is an intensely passionate young woman with ambition, direction, clarity, and true dedication. Talk to her for 10 minutes and you have an in-depth understanding of REACH’s mission and approach, as well as the status of all its projects. Lindsay and I hit it off from the first day. She lives and breathes her work and openly shared her triumphs, her frustrations, and her goals with such fervency that a good part of me wanted to move to Grenada then and there!
In this kind of humanitarian project, the Lindsays of the world are essential and have the formidable task of treading lightly, yet effectively; balancing getting the job done whilst establishing respect and credibility; empowering Grenadians to be proactive leaders in organizing programs — not followers; showing that REACH cares for the children in a non-possessive yet lovingly protective way; teaching caregivers that gentle and effective alternatives to corporal punishment do exist; and helping children develop inner strength and peace through yoga.
I am honored that Karen and Lindsay want me to become involved beyond chocolate. I had sent out a newsletter to our entire database people announcing my trip to Grenada, and highlighting the REACH Grenada chocolate bar that sold 100 bars in minutes — Gnosis customers’ votes in their support of the project (15 percent of each bar’s price is donated to REACH). They have asked me to structure and implement a nutrition program for all the homes. Lindsay showed me the budget for a garden that REACH sponsored at one of the homes and I began getting excited about all the ways I could tie nutrition in with healing through a national program for the kids.
Thinking of C, her baby, the young girl in Victoria, and so many more children… I accept. And while the details of how Gnosis’s work in Grenada will coordinate with REACH’s efforts are still to be worked out, but I feel I have been given the opportunity of a lifetime — via REACH and via Gnosis’s cacao projects — to make a difference in these children’s lives.
Lindsay’s invitation coincided with my realizing that, even as REACH worked with the children, caregivers, teachers, and others to repair damage already done, I wanted to learn if I could somehow help prevent the damage in the first place. I thought deeply about all this during my second week in Grenada, as I continued to work with Mott: making raw chocolate from the tree to the bar, (including harvesting the beans!), learning more about organic farming, investigating the operation of — and challenges to — farmers’ cooperatives, understanding the solar energy production that fueled the farm’s operations, and much, much more.
At the same time, I also did some online research about the causes of child abuse. According to the National Council on Child Abuse and Family Violence, child abuse affects all segments of society and knows no socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic, or religious boundaries. The Council’s list of factors that often contribute to child abuse include alcohol and substance abuse, lack of parenting skills, economic difficulties or poverty, domestic violence, and previous victimization. Since economic difficulties also cause domestic violence, it became clear to me that strengthening Grenadians’ economic well-being could, over time, reduce the kind of child abuse that created so much of the misery I had witnessed.
Then it hit me: Chocolate is a natural vehicle for increasing economic and family health through organic agriculture! Then and there, I resolved to work with Mott and REACH to help as many Grenadians as I could. In the last few days of my visit, I spoke with many people and organizations, including the former head of the electric company and members of the Grenada Cocoa Association, as well as gardeners and unemployed individuals — young and old. Their enthusiasm for what was brewing in my head has led to exciting plans, some of which we are already implementing!
I so much look forward to sharing those plans — and how you can help — in my next Grenada Report; look for it coming soon. In the meantime, do buy our REACH Grenada OrigiNib Bar; we will use 15 percent of your purchase price to implement these programs in Grenada to help C, her baby, the sweetie pie on the soccer field in Victoria I wanted to hold forever, and so many others.
*Please note that, to protect the children, names have been changed.
Photo by Dan Bolger/ Flickr
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