“Jamaica is home to the most exciting, exotic, exhilarating and aromatic coffee in the world,” reads the advertisement for Blue Mountain Coffee. Grown at an elevation of 7402 feet, in the highest point of Jamaica, Blue Mountain coffee sells for between $35 to $90 a pound, yet because Jamaica has no Fair Trade association, the farmers and pickers who produce the coffee earn only about $10/day.
In 1994, Denise Cagley-Jefferson went to Hagley Gap, where Blue Mountain coffee is grown, as part of a service learning program in college. She promptly fell in love with the 3,000 people living in 5 rural towns that make up the district, and she was profoundly moved by their struggle to live in a place with no running water, severely limited access to employment and health care, and a school with one stapler – but no staples.
When she left, she did not forget but instead, working with another AmeriCorps volunteer Sarah Weaver, started Blue Mountain Project in 2004 to empower and educate the people of Hagley Gap.
This small, young nonprofit is a dynamo. In five years, its list of accomplishments are impressive: 2 health clinics staffed by medical students from the U.S. and offering health, dental and eye care to area residents; a registered farmers’ cooperative to increase jobs and wages; a summer Fun Camp for kids, and after-school programs for all-age learners; and a scholarship program to send the best students to college.
Blue Mountain Project attracts volunteers in service learning from Northwestern University, med students from U. of Michigan, Engineers Without Borders from Seattle, BlueLab designers at U. of Michigan and Students in Free Enterprise from Ripon College- as well as long-term Ambassadors who work for a year at BMP.
But most importantly, Blue Mountain Project works in full partnership with the people of Hagley Gap, to be sure it is doing the projects that the community wants. “This requires us to put aside what we think should be done, from our western perspective, and respect that the people of the community know what they need,” says Executive Director Cathy Skoula. The Community Development Committee of Hagley Gap determines the needs of different groups– women, farmers, education — then works with BMP to create a list of top priorities (water is #1).
Because the web of poverty is so tightly interwoven – with water affecting health.. affecting productivity.. affecting the economy.. affecting education — and because Hagley Gap is so small, Blue Mountain Project is able to work holistically on all fronts, with the sull support of the community. It’s like a little incubator for affecting sustainable, lasting change. I can’t wait to watch that happen!
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