JIS News

Donna Allen Williamson is not a name that engenders instant recognition among Jamaicans. But, as is the norm, those most committed to serving tend to labour without fanfare, largely unsung and without acknowledgement. Indeed, William Shakespeare once wrote: “Men’s evil manners live in brass, their virtues we write in water.”
But it is Donna Williamson’s firm commitment to anonymity, in her pursuit of charity, that makes this Jamaican such a compelling personality and an outstanding representative of all that is positive about the country.
Born and raised in Rollington Town, Kingston Ms. Williamson betrays the affectations and characteristics of a “city girl,” and instead projects a deep serenity and equanimity that immediately sets one at ease. Her disposition is that of an affable, humble, down-to-earth soul who, seemingly, could get along with anyone. She exudes a warmth and gentleness, which belies the passion which drives her devotion to the multiple social causes which, over the years, she has embraced.
It is however, her work with Jamaica’s indigent population that seems to inspire her most fervent regard and compels her devotion. Today, Donna Williamson’s primary focus is on providing needed material assistance to Jamaica’s infirmaries and the inhabitants of these institutions, through a non-profit entity, the Jamaican and American Friends of the Infirmaries (JAFI).
The JAFI was founded by Dr. Paul S. Rhodes an American physician specializing in gerontology (the study of the process of aging) and who was invited by the Ministry of Health in 1995 to assist in establishing low cost health maintenance programmes for elderly citizens in sections of Hanover.
The organization was then called the United States (US) Friends of the Hanover Infirmary and, as its names suggests, was focused on providing assistance to the Hanover infirmary. The name was changed in 1998 when a decision was taken to expand its support to infirmaries across Jamaica.
Donna Williamson’s involvement with JAFI and the infirmaries of Jamaica began in 1996. She had paid a visit to the Hanover infirmary with Dr. Rhodes and was struck by the significant needs that existed at the facility. Her interaction with the residents had such a profound effect on her that she resolved to be more than just a casual observer.
“I was very inspired to devote my time and resources to improving the conditions that had in many ways robbed the people there of their dignity,” she tells JIS News. “The infirmaries should be dignified places,” she adds, noting that, “it is a very real possibility that we (Jamaicans in the US) could return to Jamaica and indeed have to depend on one of these facilities, should the circumstances of life dictate that.”
The JAFI has, over the years, assisted infirmaries in Jamaica with the training of caregivers and implemented several programmes and activities designed to enhance senior care in these institutions. In addition, the organization has helped with physical improvements of the individual facilities and organized professional development fora for nurses and other healthcare professionals through the staging of a Community Care of the Elderly conference.
JAFI has also brought healthcare workers to the United States for geriatric education and made donations to enable people suffering from cataracts to have corrective surgery by a core of Jamaican ophthalmologists, who have volunteered their time to this deserving effort.
Recently inducted as the JAFI’s new president, Ms. Williamson is contemplating a range of new initiatives to broaden current support for Jamaican infirmaries and to increase her collaboration with the Ministry of Local Government and Community Development in attending to the needs of the disadvantaged elderly.
In addition, she says she will be devoting her time and efforts to raising funds to assist the infirmaries and so will be committing herself to the work of the JAFI on a full-time basis. “I resigned last September from my vocation as a nurse in order to give priority to this important work,” she informs.
But Ms. Williamsons’ work with JAFI is just one indication of her generosity of spirit and commitment to serving others, as throughout her adult life, she has been a devoted caregiver. A nurse for over 20 years, she has been a champion of the disadvantaged and a protector of the needy. And, she displays no preferences in who she chooses to help. From the very young to the aged, all have been the recipients of her care and attention.
How many among us have sought to adopt four children, all from disadvantaged circumstances, and overseen their development into college-educated adults, now fully embracing life and its opportunities? In fact, she has devoted significant time and resources in providing scholarships to needy students and attending to their general welfare.
“I’ve never really seen my service to those in need as anything special,” she comments in her characteristically self-effacing way.
“It is something that has to be done and it is something I accept and embrace (as my responsibility) to those who are in need,” she tells JIS News, describing her work as a labour of love rather than charity. She also sees it as her civic duty as a Jamaican, to help Jamaica wherever she can. “My sense of being a true Jamaican citizen,” she points out “is to give back to Jamaica”.
Her statement has even greater poignancy when one considers that Donna has lived outside of the island for over 36 years. A graduate of Excelsior High School, Donna moved to the United States in pursuit of a career in nursing. Settling in the Washington DC area, she received her undergraduate education from George Mason University in northern Virginia and then received a Master’s degree from Howard University.She takes pride in her Jamaican citizenship and heritage, noting that after all these years, she has never been motivated to become a naturalized American.
Donna attributes her desire to help others in major part to the influence of her grandmother, who she lived with as a child after her mother migrated to the United States. “My grandmother was always helping,” she says, “my grandmother could afford to give, and so she gave. So in keeping with her example my interest has also been to have the way I live be an example (for others) and to teach others by my example.”
Asked about JAFI’s current agenda, Ms. Williamson declares that, “there is much work left to be done.” She adds that the Jamaican community – both at home and abroad – must rally to the assistance of the elderly and indigent in the country. She further notes that “the true character of a nation is demonstrated in society’s concern, not only for its children, but also for its elderly and its dispossessed.”
“It is important that younger Jamaicans also get involved in elder care. My hope is that community service programmes which target vulnerable groups, such as the aged, will become a part of school curricula in Jamaica,” she states.
But, she also contends that the replacement of nomenclature, which has been traditionally used to describe domiciles dedicated to the care of the elderly and indigent, would constitute an important step in de-stigmatizing such facilities.
“There is a certain stigma attached to the name ‘infirmary,’ and the use of terms such as ‘poorhouse or almshouse’ has a distinctly negative connotation,” she argues. “These names convey the idea that these places are for the poorest of the poor in society. It is time that there be a new approach and philosophy to structuring and managing eldercare, an approach that is premised on the preservation of the dignity of care recipients rather than regarding them as mere charity cases,” Ms. Williamson says.
She stresses that an emphasis on care within a group home setting, somewhat akin to the hospice approach, would lift the tenor and perhaps the quality of service provided in these facilities.
Reiterating the need for further joint action in dealing with local infirmaries, Ms. Williamson submitted that a key objective of the JAFI would be to meet with officials from the Ministry of Local Government, Community Development and Sport to inform them of planned initiatives and to foster a more constructive relationship.
A perennial optimist, Donna Williamson visualizes a new awakening of the Jamaican consciousness, as it relates to public concern for and the care of the Jamaican elderly.
“Jamaicans,” she declares, “are an inherently compassionate and caring people with a culture that places great importance on attending to our elderly and infirm. I believe that with effective collaboration between government, the philanthropic community and civil society in general, we can and will succeed in ensuring that one of our more vulnerable and often overlooked groups will indeed receive the attention and care that it clearly deserves.”

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