Since 1988, a national nonprofit with local ties has been facilitating humanitarian projects in Jamaica.
Former KXLY television news anchor Lucinda Kay said, “I was born into Great Shape; my mother and two aunties are the founders.” She said the organization got its distinctive moniker because one of the founders had planned to open a gym bearing that name. However, when Hurricane Gilbert devastated the island, gym plans were scrapped and the budding nonprofit became Great Shape! Inc.
While traveling, Kay’s mother, Georgene Crowe, had fallen in love with Jamaica and its warm and gracious people. When she saw news reports about the horrific impact of Hurricane Gilbert she felt compelled to help.
Initially, Crowe filled duffel bags with needed supplies and shipped them to struggling Jamaicans. Now, the organization has grown to encompass three distinct programs: 1,000 Smiles; a dental project, a literacy empowerment program called Super Kids; and iCare, a vision project.
Kay, who left television news and launched Let it Shine, a communication and media company in 2006, now serves as Great Shape! Inc.’s volunteer communications director and as a consultant to the board. In addition, interns from her company work with the project.
Each fall volunteers from Great Shape! Inc. travel to Jamaica to serve in one of the three programs sponsored by the nonprofit. “I traveled in November and all my interns past and present went with me,” said Kay. “It was so exciting!”
One of those interns, Chelsea Dannen, said she was unprepared for the emotions that come with being in a developing country. She worked as a reading assistant in an elementary school. “I fell in love with those kids,” she said. “The children are so excited to learn and to have someone give them one-on-one attention. They soak it up like a sponge.”
Dannen said the school structure in Jamaica is far more rigid than in the U.S. Other differences, like overcrowded classrooms, made an impression as well. “There are too many children in tiny rooms,” she said.
In addition to helping in the classroom, volunteers distribute donated books, uniforms and school supplies. Those supplies include computers. Kay said her husband, Brad Adams, a teacher at Riverside High School, “spends the year going to computer recycling centers. He gathers parts and refurbishes them. We buy new monitors.” This year they provided 80 computers to schools in Jamaica.
Like the literacy program, Great Shape! Inc.’s dental program was created in response to urgent need. Dental care in rural Jamaica is scarce. Since its inception eight years ago, 1,000 Smiles has become the world’s largest humanitarian dental project. Last year, more than 200 volunteers served 4,500 people in temporary clinics. Additionally, the teams served about 15,000 children in the local schools.
The newest program, iCare, evolved when organizers learned that there isn’t a public health eye care provider available in rural Jamaica. In 2009, iCare volunteers provided 1,850 eye exams, 125 surgery referrals and more than 2,300 pairs of eyeglasses and sunglasses.
Kay said Great Shape! Inc. works with the ministries of Health and Education in Jamaica. And much of their work is made possible through the support of Sandals Resort. The hotel provides food and lodging for the teams. Volunteers raise their own travel funds.
From duffle bags to dental and vision care, Great Shape! Inc. has grown far beyond what its founders had imagined. “Each year the project gets bigger and we’re able to serve more people,” said Kay. “There’s no reason we should be able to pull this off, but we have great people from all over the world.”
Volunteering with the organization matches Kay’s personal philosophy. “I truly believe we are on this planet for one reason, and that is to love each other,” she said. She stressed that their volunteers come from all walks of life. “The only thing you need is an open heart.”