Embracing Jamaica

Two girls who live at Granville Place of Safety in Jamaica comfort each other on the center’s campus.

Emily Field conceded she was, at first, unsure about practicing social work in Jamaica last summer.

Although the Walla Walla University student previously spent seven months as a student missionary in the African country of Uganda, Field knew this time she was slated to work with teen girls, a demographic she knew she struggled to connect with.

As well, Field would be working with girls who had seen and done things far outside the average American experience, especially one rooted in the Walla Walla Valley.

Nonetheless, the 22 year-old headed to Trelawny Parish in Northwest Jamaica in July to do her social worker practicum at Granville Place of Safety, a living center for girls ages 8 to 18 who can’t live at home.

Field’s mission was to help teach 10 of Granville’s traumatized teens how to build a future.

Field didn’t realize she would return home knowing more about herself and a better-defined plan for her own future.

The opportunity in Jamaica came about through a new partnership between the university’s School of Social Work and Sociology and Walla Walla Valley’s Embracing Orphans nonprofit organization.

Established nearly a decade ago as a grass-roots effort, Embracing Orphans has focused on working with the Jamaican government, plus service organizations and businesses in both countries to improve the quality of life of orphaned and other children in the Caribbean country.

The faith-based nonprofit has invested in playground and baby equipment for orphanages, funding youth camps and special outings, founding a Young Life Christian youth group and creating a new center for troubled teen girls.

Girls are especially endangered in Jamaica, said Embracing Orphans founder and president Carl Robanske.

There, females are seen as commodities by some, an attitude that leads to girls being sexually abused, neglected, exposed to violence in and out of their homes, as well as abandoned.

When the victims act out against the trauma, Jamaicans consider that “unruly” behavior, Robanske said, and the girls can end up in places like Granville.

Which is why Field headed there last summer.

‘Bunch of kids hurting’

Robanske said he’s been asked for some time by Jamaican officials if Embracing Orphans could help fill the urgent mental health needs of the country’s at-risk children. Granville Place of Safety, in particularly, has a high need for more therapists to help its girls survive and perhaps thrive despite past trauma.

“There are a whole bunch of kids hurting, who have put up their walls to preserve their health and safety,” Robanske noted, adding that Granville has just one permanent social worker for its 60-plus residents.

“Most of the girls have been through so much stuff, they really need someone to walk with them for several years.

The cultural belief is when someone is ‘bad,’ it is all by choice … and a choice well thought out. And that is incorrect.”

The Granville girls come from extreme poverty, Robanske pointed out, “and have seen someone killed, cut with a machete.

They have been sexually and physically abused, and have run the streets. It’s not a bunch of kids who just need a hug and everything’s fine.”

Robanske began working with Susan Smith, dean of Walla Walla University’s School of Social Work and Sociology in August 2016 to forge a way to pair emerging social workers with Granville girls.

While the need for help in Jamaica is clear cut, jumping in to Robanske’s vision wasn’t as simple as agreeing the mission is worthy, Smith said.

“Our accrediting body has very clear learning objectives,” she said, and those had to be checked off, including housing and supervision.

With Embracing Orphans’ 10-year history in Jamaica, everything fell into place and Field was sent forth as a “pioneer” for the new partnership.

“Emily was very excited about going,” Smith said.

“And she was brave; it’s another country and it was her first time applying her book knowledge.”

Field said her emotions about the trip were definitely a mixed bag. Although she was thoroughly coached in what to expect by Robanske, some of his stories made her want to step back.

Yet this was the moment Field had been working toward, a chance to take lessons and lectures out of academia and into reality.

Training kicks in

Things got real and real fast. Field’s clientele was not required to attend sessions with her and they were not afraid to show their disdain of the young American’s earnest plans.

After several weeks of little success, Field’s social work training kicked in. She made a schedule and handed out copies to her girls. When that didn’t significantly improve things, she added a rewards program. Points were made when girls came to, then stayed, for individual and group sessions. Appropriate behavior sweetened the pot with more points.

That, Field recalled, was her ticket in. Once she had a willing audience Field could share pieces of her own life in exchange for her clients’ stories.

“I used pictures of difficult parts of my own life, but also pictures of me doing healthy activities and of people who mean the most to me in my life,” Field said.

“The point was to say, ‘I realize how it might be weird and uncomfortable to share things.’”

Once the girls could see Field’s own pain, they were willing to reveal their own.

“It was a complete night-and-day difference,” she said. “Not everything was perfect but they looked at me a different way.”

Then Field, too, could get a sense of what growing up in Jamaica can mean, from a lack of education to being bullied to learning to lead others.

She brought home lessons for herself, such as working in a fluid schedule as “island time” demands, and mirroring the patience her Granville girls showed her, Field said.

While her anticipated social work degree will open doors into many kinds of jobs, Field said she now knows she wants to work with couples and families, with an emphasis on teens.

“At the end of the day,” Smith said, “Emily came back as a different person. She was changed in this process.”

Robanske has seen it before in other Walla Wallans who travel to Jamaica with Embracing Orphans.

Interacting with people there forces perceptions and what Robanske calls “border lines” to change.

“I think it steals away some of the naiveté of staying in the same area and thinking this Valley is the world view,” he said.

“It gives them a chance to take their faith and sow it into action.”

Plans call for more Walla Walla University social work students to follow in Field’s footsteps.

‘Travel can be one of the best classrooms you can get in education,” Smith said. “I think the ability to contrast America to another county is very valuable to students. The customs, races, economic status; all of that gives students a different point of view.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.

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