JIS News

In 1978, a young lecturer at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, armed with nothing but a little faith, a whole lot of courage, a desire to positively impact the lives of the poor and oppressed, and a strong belief that “faith can move mountains,” decided to start a ministry in a low income community in St. Andrew.
Among the needs he identified was a care centre for children with disabilities, who were orphaned or abandoned. Through volunteer efforts and donations, he built a wooden building in Mona Commons, which marked the beginning of the Mustard Seed Communities.
Little did the Very Rev. Monsignor Gregory Ramkissoon know that 32 years later, the small community project would have touched the lives of thousands, blossoming into an international ministry, now represented across 14 communities throughout the Caribbean, Central and North America and Africa, with more than 20 outreach programmes.
There are also plans to establish centres in 17 other countries, to cater to the needs of the disabled and abandoned, and the most deprived members of the society that most people chose to ignore.
For his ministry and selfless humanitarian work, which enrich the lives of so many around the world, Father Gregory will, on National Heroes Day, Monday, October 18, be bestowed with the Order of Jamaica (OJ) by the Government of Jamaica He is among five Jamaicans, who will receive the nation’s fifth highest honour for distinguished service in their fields, at the National Honours and Awards Ceremony at King’s House.
Father Gregory tells JIS News during an interview recently that from the very beginning, the Mustard Seed project has been a team effort. He shares the same sentiments for the national award, which he believes is not just for him, but for his entire staff and volunteers.
“I know someone has to receive it, but this is as much for the team as it is for me. From the beginning at Mona Commons, we always tried to make it team work,” he says.
He believes this national honour will help to garner further acceptance and support for the work for the Mustard Seed Communities.
“This will establish an authenticity of Mustard Seed in Jamaica and because of that more people, benefactors, volunteers, donors will come on board, because we need help. This will give authenticity to ask for help,” he states.
He adds: “It also gives us leverage and authenticity in the Caribbean and in other countries.this speaks to our experience.”The Mustard Seed Communities is the largest non-government organisation in the Caribbean and Central America for disabled and abandoned children, with 13 chapters in Jamaica, two in the Dominican Republic and, three in Nicaragua. There are also 10 chapters in the United States, and five in Zimbabwe.
At the forefront of Mustard Seed’s work is the creation of village communities for orphaned babies, children with disabilities and special needs, families living with HIV/AIDS, pregnant teens and battered women. It is the largest entity in Jamaica for the care of disabled and HIV-infected children, and the only one to provide long-term residential care for pregnant teenagers.
“Our major thrust is children with disabilities. In the last 15 years it has been children with HIV/AIDS who have been abandoned and we also provide homes and assistance for teenage mothers,” he informs.
Father Gregory tells JIS News that the project continues to grow and expand as the needs arise. “You find that every five years there’s a whole new layer of something to do, so the work never ends,” he says.
Over the years, the organisation has extended its reach in Jamaica to provide day care, education and school feeding programmes for inner city residents.
The latest initiative is a ministry in Nicaragua called ‘Christ in the Garbage’ – a reference to the many children, who search the garbage dumps for food in the underdeveloped countries of the world. A village is also being built in Moneague, St. Ann to house 800 children.
Father Gregory tells JIS News that the Mustard Seed project does not only provide care for the most vulnerable in the society, but works to develop their skills and competencies to enable them to ‘fish for themselves’ and to look to their own financial self-sufficiency.
In other words, he has changed how social work programmes are developed, from a welfare model to a development model. He has established a number of income generating projects such as fish, vegetable and egg farming, a ceramic factory, a computer training project, and the creation of a community radio station in Jamaica, which broadcasts 24 hours a day.
These projects have had a double impact, that of providing income and improved health and nutrition for community members.
Father Gregory speaks passionately and fondly of those he has helped, noting the transformation he has witnessed in their lives. “We employ nearly 400 people, most of them young men – 15 years, 18 years from the inner cities and they are ordinary guys, who would be knocking down people’s doors and all this kind of stuff, but they have been working here and it’s amazing how their whole structure of thinking has changed,” he remarks.
“We also have children, who have been here since they were five-years-old, who are now 25-years-old and we see them working on the computers, helping out with the projects, becoming assistant secretaries and so forth for their own homes that they grow up in – it’s so exciting,” he gushes.
He says he has witnessed the change in the lives of the young mothers and the young people, who were abandoned as babies, but have grown to realise that they are persons of worth and purpose just like everyone else.
Father Gregory further notes that Mustard Seed has been able to foster and engender a sense of worth and pride in those who benefit from its efforts. He says the project has allowed people to change their life circumstances, and believe that they can take responsibility for their existence, and live in dignity.
Father Gregory’s work is highly regarded by his peers, who laud and actively support his projects; by private sector persons, who willingly and generously support many of his programmes; by the myriad of volunteers, who work tirelessly on fundraising and other activities; by his staff as well as the international community, where his pioneering work in developing and delivering holistic services for the poor is studied and emulated all over the world.
Born in 1952 in Trinidad and Tobago, the Very Rev. Monsignor Gregory Ramkissoon has lived in Jamaica since the mid-1970s, where he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1984.
Through his work with the Mustard Seed Communities, he has been the recipient of numerous awards throughout the Americas, including the Ivey Inter-American Humanitarian Award for the Americas (2003), Florida International University Humanitarian of the Year (2005), Commander of Distinction of Jamaica (2007), UWI Honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) (2007), an honorary degree from Providence College, Rhode Island in the US (2008) and the Chaconia Gold Medal in Trinidad and Tobago.

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