I first saw her smile a year ago. She darted out of her dorm at the Jamaican School for the Deaf, ready for an afternoon of play – but when she saw our Mission Discovery team gathered under the breadfruit tree, she stopped. Our eyes met, and within minutes we were laughing at my horrible attempts at sign language. My fingers fumbled as I struggled to spell “R-o-n-n-e.” She politely waited for me to finish. And then she pointed to my iPhone, where she typed in her name.
We hugged and took a quick photo before she rushed off to the soccer field, all smiles and plaits. She looked back and waved. And I wondered as our bus bumped its way along the rural mountain roads from Eden to Montego Bay if I would ever see her again. We had been told of the challenges deaf children face in Jamaica – stories of family members using them as slaves, of traditional schools being ill-equipped to care for their special students, and of the huge financial barriers that threaten even the most committed of parents with the inability to provide a quality education.
Yesterday, as I sat under that same breadfruit tree and talked to Miss Mary, a long-time caregiver, about the incredible blessings and significant challenges facing the Jamaican School for the Deaf as both it and the students it supports grow, I caught a glimpse of Navalee. She stepped out of her classroom and smiled shyly – then walked over to the picnic table that only moments before had been filled with conversation about how to serve the now 56 students well, and how to ensure each student is provided a safe place to call home once they graduate from the beautiful school in Eden.
Then Navalee and I took the iPhone and scrolled through pictures until we found ours. The one that had been taken what seemed like only a few days before. She snuggled in close and we took a new photo to remind us of our sweet reunion.
And then she spoke.
Slowly, but carefully, she said, “My mom had a baby.”
She then shared that she had three brothers and four sisters. None were with her at the school. As her sentences became longer, she took my pen to write.
“I want to be a teacher.”
“I want to marry.”
“I want to have 2 children.”
Mixed into each declaration were giggles and hugs. She would move my face close to her cheek so she could feel every word I spoke as I read each line. “Do you want boys or girls?” The giggles began again as she spoke again. “Two girls. Boys – hard.”
Then she wrote on the paper again.
“I want to have a big car and house.”
And this time, there were no giggles. She closed her eyes to concentrate as she said, “I graduate. June.”
And in that moment, her dreams and her reality collided. She looked at me with eyes that begged for an answer to the silent question, “and then – what then?” She knows there are no guarantees. Her home in Montego Bay is crowded with kids – and she doesn’t know if there is a place for her. Transitional homes are being built near the Jamaican School for the Deaf, but getting the first home completed by June is dependent upon good weather and committed laborers. There is great hope.
I wish I could have spoken all the answers into Navalee’s sweet ear. But this I do know. Because of the Jamaica School for the Deaf, she has found her voice – physically and spiritually. She has discovered her value. And with the support of Miss Mary, her Hold the Children sponsor, and Mission Discovery, her “what then?” will have a beautiful response. I pray to meet her again next year, under a breadfruit tree. It will be a most sweet reunion.
If you are interested in learning more about Mission Discovery and Hold the Children child sponsorship, or would like to join me next year to serve at the Jamaica School for the Deaf, visit missiondiscovery.org.