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     The Passionist Volunteers hosted their Third Annual Valentines Luncheon and Fundraiser at St. John Bosco Home for Boys in Mandeville, Jamaica on February 15. The event was a huge success, raising over $4,000 for the program.  Approximately 250 guests traveled from all across the island to show their support and enjoy a meal. Members of the PVI support team, friends from communities where volunteers serve and locals from the Mandeville area were all in attendance. For the first time special guest Fr. Lucian Clark CP, Director of Passionist Volunteers, was able to make an appearance and thank the many individuals who continually support the work of the volunteers. Program alums Elly Lemons (’13-’14) and Lindsay Papsin (’12-’14) were also in attendance to lend a hand and help host the event.

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Mandeville volunteer Ingrid and PVI Alum Elly (13′-14′) work the ticket table to assist the volunteers

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The hall was decorated in red and white representing the Valentines theme and our volunteers served the seated guests

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     The Mandeville community demonstrated their outstanding support of the Passionist Volunteers through generous donations of food, drinks and dessert items. The menu included a range of Jamaican fare including curry goat, jerk chicken, steamed fish and sweet potatoes. Despite the large quantity of food, every dish was eaten and each guest left with a full stomach. The St. John Bosco School for Boys Band, comprised of many students taught by PVIs, provided the entertainment for the event.

 

     The Valentines Luncheon illustrated the overwhelming support and appreciation the Jamaican people have of the work of the Passionist Volunteers. Guests shared stories of their PVI experiences through the years, going back to when the program was based in Stony Hill, Kingston from 2003-2010. Several parishioners from the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Stony Hill made the trip simply to meet the new volunteers and relay how much they loved the program. The atmosphere of the event was jovial, excited, and welcoming. In the words of Sister Maureen Kervick, SSJ, “there was a wonderful spirit among the people.”

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 By: Kaitlin Denney PVI (14′-15′)

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“So, what’s your favorite place in Jamaica?”

This is a question I regularly hear from friends both here on the island and at home. It’s a hard one to answer, thinking of all the amazing things I’ve done and seen in the past six months. The more obvious places are the first that come to my mind: the cliffs in Negril that offer an incomparable view of the sun setting into the Caribbean Sea, the crystal clear river running behind a friend’s house in Ocho Rios, the restaurant on the beach that offers the best seafood my mouth has ever tasted. While each of these places are unique, unforgettable, and amazing, they are not my answer.

So, what really is my favorite place in Jamaica?

At the end of a long beat-up driveway, on the top of a hill, deep within the mountains, sits a modest baby blue building with a statue of Mary out front. On the second floor there is a small porch no wider than a hallway that wraps around the building, referred to by the residents as “the veranda.” Each afternoon, right after lunch, the women of the Mary Help of Christians Home line up a mismatched collection of wheelchairs, patio furniture, and couches to spend their afternoon on the veranda looking out onto the hills and chatting. My seat, usually a dark green lawn chair, has gradually become my favorite place in Jamaica. It was here that I learned my first Jamaican chorus, got my first Jamaican chastising, and was referred to as “my daughter” by a Jamaican for the first time. I’ve heard stories marked by dramatic poverty, violence, and oppression. More than any other single place, my seat on the veranda has helped me to build genuine friendships with the women I serve. 

Miss Edna is one of these inspiring and complex women. When I first arrived at Balaclava, she was so quiet I wasn’t sure if she would be able to talk much. Each day when I visited and asked how she was doing, she would give me the same response:

“I have life. I’m blessed.” 

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Kaitlin and Miss Edna at Mary Help of Christians Home in Balaclava.

Since getting to know her better, I’ve learned she has lived through multiple strokes and can no longer move the left side of her body. She never receives visitors and rarely speaks about her family. Her hesitation to get to know me, I discovered, was partly due to shyness and partly resultant of her experience working in segregated Florida during the 1960s. She went “a-foreign” seeking a new life and instead faced harsh, exploitative racism. Edna’s life has been anything but easy, yet she continues to see each new day as a gift. In her own words, she is blessed because she has life. 

Each of the eleven female residents at Balaclava have given me more than I could ever help them in the hours we spend together. I occasionally try to imagine how I would react to living through the same circumstances, but there is no comparison. My weaknesses become even more apparent when I think of the strength and selflessness of my residents. So even though I’ve ridden a horse through ocean waves, swam with dolphins, and danced on a beach lit only by thousands of stars, nothing has compared to the hours I’ve spent sharing life on the veranda at Balaclava. I’ve always been drawn to adventure… doing and seeing amazing things. The past six months have shown me a whole new genre of adventure I’ve never thought to consider before. Seeing others, hearing their unique stories, and navigating to a foreign middle ground. This type of adventure may be less glamorous, but it is so much more enriching. Slowly, I am beginning to understand the words of Pope Francis:

“This is what helps you to mature in giving to others – to learn how to open your hand from your very own poverty.”

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Being one of those strange individuals that really enjoys school, homework, projects, etc., I often find myself missing the hustle and bustle of being in an academic setting. I miss the challenge of finding a solution to an organic chemistry problem and the unknown of what an essay might turn out like despite having a clear idea for it in the beginning. Coming to Jamaica I thought these challenges and unknowns would, in a way, be no longer existent. But during my time here, I have come to realize that I have just as many, if not more challenges and unknowns in my everyday life that are often more difficult to find a solution to.

 One of the biggest challenges that I encounter weekly is the question of: How can we increase health education, especially in communities in which it is difficult or too expensive for some to obtain medical care? As someone who is interested in health care, to me health education seems like one of the most sustainable practices that can be done in a community. Many of the people who come to the clinic that I work at have never been taught what diabetes is, only told that they have “sugar.” Many other patients do not understand the consequences of high blood pressure and lifestyle changes that can be effective to lower this concern, but only understand that they have a “pressure pill.” Not only do the patients need to have a better understanding of the diseases that they have, but also lifestyle and sanitation changes that may lead to a healthier family and community in the future – one that potentially requires less medical attention and can recognize the implications of hereditary diseases.

 Another question that I experience firsthand in the course of my weekly schedule is: How can educational effectiveness be increased, especially in “bush” communities and for children with special needs? I recently found out that the primary school that I work at is ranked one of the lowest schools in the parish of Manchester for the GSAT (Grade Six Achievement Test). This test serves as a strong marker of what high schools the students will be accepted into. It is not for lack of trying on the part of the teachers, so the question still remains: Why? And how can it be changed? At this same school, I also work with a child who has autism and another who has autism and ADD (through my understanding that is). Due to a lack of resources, it is difficult for these two young boys to receive the educational care that is needed, despite efforts from the staff at the school. Both of these boys have a great potential, but not one that is recognized in the educational setting that they are currently in.

 It is always easier to post questions and not give answers to them, which is, unfortunately all I can do for these big topics most of the time. Only having lived on the island for five short months, there is still much more that I can discover and many more things to learn about health care and education and ways in which these systems can improve. On the wide spectrum, though, these are not “Jamaica problems” but rather issues that occur around the world. I don’t have the answers, but a small solution is still a step in the right direction, and it is my goal by the end of the year to make this leap, regardless of how small it may be.

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During orientation, we were asked to create a mission statement to guide our service in Jamaica. We were given almost no direction and, as a result, produced seven unique and different plans of action for the next year. Some were sentimental, a few were poetic, and one was an amazing extended metaphor of a hike through a jungle. Here is what I wrote:

The first time I told people I planned on spending a year in Jamaica, the response I received was always “What will you be doing?” My parents, my friends, my teammates, my taxi drivers, people I met in elevators, my professors… everyone I interacted with asked me this same question. The constant refrain of the inquiry made it impossible not to dwell on it. What would I actually be doing? The more I thought about it, the more I realized this question was not an accurate way to look at the next year of my life. I have been raised in a culture of constant going, acting, moving, and doing. Production and efficiency is often seen as the only worthwhile result of action. Throughout my year as a PVI, however, I want to focus on something more than constant doing. I have a strong desire to instead use this experience to focus on being.

            I want to be a source of strength, love, and compassion for the crucified of today. I want to be with them in their difficulties, their moments of weakness, their successes, and their joys. I hope to spend each day laughing, playing, crying, loving, and listening to the communities I serve. Instead of having the constant desire to “do something” about the issues I come across, I wish to be content with serving through my presence, through being with the people I meet. I want to end each day tired, feeling as if I have given a little bit more of myself to the people of Jamaica.

I also want to focus on being more fully present with Christ. I want to spend time with Him in prayer, meet Him in mass, and see Him in those around me. I want to be a reflection of His presence on Earth to each individual I meet. By shifting my life philosophy fromdoing to being, I wish to challenge myself to grow and deepen my relationship with God. Each day, I want to be more conscious to how He is working in my life. In my relationships with my fellow PVI community, I hope to become an integral part of a bizarre, hilarious, supportive, and loving family. I want to be with them through each mistake, hard day, and argument as well as each moment of happiness, spontaneity, and joy. By focusing on being rather thandoing, I plan to spend this year loving more fully and completely than I ever have before.

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Above Kaitlin is pictured at a home for the elderly and                                       Above Kailtin is pictured at a Basic School
infirm in Balaclava with the Missionaries of Charity                                          where she will serve as a teacher’s aide. 
Sisters, where she will serve a few days out of her week.

 

 

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More often than not my bouts of access to the Internet are consumed with long overdue correspondences with friends and family. Recently, however, as I procrastinate writing articles for the Diocese of Mandeville at my desk job, I took time to scroll through my facebook newsfeed. Quite frankly I was left curious but most of all concerned.

I came across three or so articles referencing in some way or another a latest upswing in the “trend” of our millennial generation and its propensity towards “volunteering” (yes I am using air quotes as I write this).

Entering the closing month of my own year of volunteer service, I was initially intrigued with an undercurrent of defensiveness. I was disgusted and saddened at the commentary the articles highlighted, yet I could not help but nod in agreement throughout.

Needless to say, after much deliberation I felt compelled to respond.

All three articles in some way or another referenced the concept annoyingly yet aptly dubbed as “voluntourism:” defined for the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves not what they actually bring to the communities they serve. I was educated about the latest “#instagrammingAfrica” trend, the Western Savior narrative as well as the White Savior Industrial Complex. Objectively I discovered that the authors made a convincing case, some seemingly more biased than others, yet nonetheless thought provoking.

In all honesty I was disappointed to admit that in many ways my first two experiences of volunteering, first twelve days in Ecuador followed by a similarly brief stint in Guatemala, mirrored these authors points fairly closely. These experiences were life changing for me, I have numerous pictures and profile pictures highlighting my experiences and the relationships I wanted to remember from them, I shared poignant moments from the days work at our nightly reflections of whatever experiences of poverty and simplicity struck me that day.

However in hindsight and with full transparency I am forced to admit that much of the work and the service provided in those weeks would have to be thoroughly rationalized in order for me to justify the “help” that was really provided to those we “served.”

DISCLAIMER: this is not to say that my short-term volunteer experiences were all for naught.

Did they shift my world perspective? Alert my perceptions of justice and injustice in our world? Impassion and enliven me to commit my life to finding solutions to social inequality and disparity of resources? And most fundamentally lead me to committing one year of my life towards a long-term experience in Mandeville, Jamaica?

Heck yes they did.

Now I realize that those are all I-statements, Me-focused concepts. What is the point of a “Volunteer” experience if the only person I am truly aiding is myself? Well there in lies the trap of voluntourism, which I will (somewhat begrudgingly) agree is becoming a disturbing trend promoted through the propagation of social media which despairingly for some results in a narcisstic, self-centered form of service in which people with time and money take it upon themselves to “give” simply for the potential of a new profile picture and a pat on the back.

I committed to one year of volunteering in a third world country subsequent to my graduation from college not simply because I was putting off entering the real world and a 9-5 job, I wanted to defer the inevitable onset of student loan payments, or because I wanted to see the smiles of the children amidst the poverty and feel good about myself for helping them in some way. Truthfully, it’s because I felt a call from God; I had these questions deep in my soul upon the conclusion of my time first in Ecuador and then in Guatemala. I asked myself what this experience would be like if I lived it everyday? What are the problems and issues that I don’t notice during this whirlwind tour of poverty and disparity? What does this picture paint without the romanticism of this “voluntourism” concept? Wouldn’t it be nice to know the name of each child in my photos? Truthfully I felt compelled in my heart to search for these answers, I felt called to put myself in the midst of it all in order to discover them. I wanted to sit comfortably in the grittiness of it all and discover why God was calling me to this.

I was fortunate enough to find the perfect program, which allowed me to live and walk amongst the people I would be volunteering with, day-by-day getting to know them as persons and not just a population in need, listening first with open ears and restraining my hands from action. As PVI’s we are actually forbidden by contract of falling into this “white savior complex,” of imposing our western ideas and offering handouts that would not be sustainable to the communities we minister to.

In my missions here I have lived in their homes, been in the middle of their arguments, seen their tears and cried with them, witnessed the stress of financial problems and felt the terror in the lack of basic resources and amenities. Can I perfectly empathize with their struggles? No, because I don’t know what it’s like firsthand. After 11 months though I do know it pretty damn well secondhand.

Do I fly in with my Western knowledge, college degree and bank account to save them from these? No. Quite frankly none of those would help these deep running issues, the real plight they face and when I leave here in one months time where would that leave them?

No, I come here to listen, to understand, to encourage, empowering them just as I would strive to empower any of my friends, family members or people that I love. What makes me so qualified to do this? Well, not much besides the fact that God has asked me to. I think it is important that there is someone here to listen with a sympathetic and objective ear to their problems, that they feel the time and attention given to them and discover their worth. To have that consistent presence with them to help them brainstorm and discover their own talents and gifts that will lead them out of a rut. To use my own talents and gifts to increase their faith, their knowledge, their worldview.

Living as the minority in this culture it is difficult not to fall into the white privilege complex, to become the white savior that people on the street beg me to be when they ask me for food, money and the clothes off my back simply because they associate the color of my skin with power and wealth. But where would that leave them? I have been blessed my whole life, I have lived a life of privilege and comfort, so should I just sit and bask in that the rest of my life? Or do I abandon my bank account and rather rely on the abundance of spirit, strength and resources that have yet to be tainted by suffering in my own life, to try and bolster another’s spirit, somehow enter into another’s suffering with a renewed strength to walk them through it.

In selfish defense of my own volunteer efforts I strive with renewed commitment to not provide the immediate fix, to not impose my western ideals of efficiency and wisdom; but rather to embolden and empower those people who I have walked with and who have touched my heart, who I have entered into a mutual exchange with. I strive to let God lead me, and to take pictures of relationships, not people.

So basically what I’m saying is this blog post has unintentionally turned into an advertisement for a long-term service commitment (Passionist Volunteers International anyone??). I would encourage you and your friends and family to participate in any type of service or missionary experience whether overseas or domestic, I myself am a testament to the life changing powers they can have. But before you embark on said trip I simply ask that you examine your motives and the motives of the program you are traveling with and look for God’s guiding hand in it.

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Above Katie is pictured with some of the older girls she
works with in her mission, the community of Albion Gully

 

[For reference here are links to the aforementioned articles:]

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This past Sunday I brought the “big boys” team to Mount St. Joseph, which is the school I live at, to play football.  I coach two football teams at St. John Bosco Boys Home. One we call the “little boys” team and the other is the “big boys” team. The younger boys are U-15 and below and the older boys are U-16 and above. I had initially only planned on coaching one team, but after I held the first practice for the big boys, the next day a couple of the younger boys came up to me and literally handed me a list of the boys that were going to be on the little boys team.  I just laughed.  I guess I was going to be coaching two teams.  How on earth was I supposed to coach two teams when I had never coached before and haven’t seriously played football in eight years?  It’s a huge work in progress and a lot of work, but I’m trying and I am really enthusiastic about it.  Sometimes I have trouble getting to sleep because I get so excited… No joke.  I know it is something that these boys look forward to, and I love giving them the opportunity to do something that really gets them fired up.  This past Sunday I was so happy because I could see how happy all of the boys were.

In Jamaica, when it’s raining, everyone stays inside and doesn’t do a thing.  We didn’t follow that trend by any means on Sunday.  As soon as I pulled up to Bosco to collect the boys and bring them to Mount St. Joseph, it started raining.  By the time we reached the field it was POURING.  I had set up a scrimmage with some of Katie’s boys from Albion Gully (a community that she works in) and I was determined for them to scrimmage because they are always and I mean ALWAYS asking me to set up a match.  I left the boys standing under a roof and then I went and collected more of the boys because they all couldn’t fit in one trip.  I was worried that I was going to find them all still standing under the roof when I returned.  COMPLETE OPPOSITE.  I was so happy to see that when I returned with the rest of the boys they were already all on the field playing.

I was right out there beside them.  In seconds I was soaking wet, but it didn’t matter.  Katie was out there with me watching her boys too.  Ross and Brian were also playing American football and sliding everywhere.  It was such a fun atmosphere.  I couldn’t stop laughing because the boys were slipping and sliding every second.  They would fall and get up and start laughing hysterically.  Some tackled others on purpose just so they would fall and get a good laugh.  I think another reason why they had so much fun was because they aren’t allowed to play football when its raining.  

After the scrimmage ended, I brought out sandwiches I had made for them beforehand and also some cupcakes and donuts that I had decided to buy for them.  I never really get a thank you, but a couple of the boys came up to me after and said that “I was being so nice today” and were thankful that I had brought food for them.  They couldn’t believe that I brought out food for them.  It was funny watching their faces light up.  I didn’t even need a thank you, though.  Seeing all of them laughing during the whole scrimmage was enough.  The laughing continued when they thought it would be a good idea to take the lemonade in the cooler and come up behind and poor it all over me.  I wasn’t too upset though… After all I was already completely soaking wet by the rain.

I usually cannot stand the rain.  But this past Sunday I was grateful for it.  It was one of my most memorable days in Jamaica thus far.  So thank you… Thank you God for the rain that brought about so much laughter and created such a fond memory.

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“Sometimes in my tears I drown, But I never let it get me down.
So when negativity surrounds, I know some day it’ll all turn around because
 All my life I’ve been waiting for, I’ve been praying for
For the people to say
That we don’t want to fight no more
There will be no more wars
And our children will play.”

One day. What a lofty aspiration, these lyrics by Matisyahu [no matter how cliché] echo a regular sentiment in my soul.

As I do my best to keep up correspondences with friends and family back home, the first question I’m often asked is: “How are you?” “How is life?”

In the beginning I absolutely abhorred this query. How do I begin to summarize this experience for you in the context of a brief Facebook chat conversation? There simply isn’t a word to classify it, a phrase to adequately encapsulate my experiences each day much less my emotions attached to them. Needless to say it’s overwhelming.

Eight months in and I’ve had a little more practice with this, my response by now is standard: “Life is crazy beautiful here, emphasis on both the crazy and the beautiful. Each week is a roller coaster, there are challenges and highs and lows, but overall there is an unparalleled sense of purpose here that is irreplaceable.”

Jamaica like any country, nation, city, or state has its shadow side. On this concentrated island however, it just seems to be more pronounced. It is not hidden, in fact you see it everywhere; it’s in the market, the taxis, the schools, the homes, the bush, the government…

Glaring injustices that stare you in the face everyday with a challenge in their eyes, somehow saying “go on, do something about it, just try” and all you can do is to look sheepishly down at your toes and scuff your shoe in the red mud as you murmur back, “I am but one person.”

The reality is, a year of heart-molding experiences and witnessing some of the world’s harshest poverty can be a real kick in the pants.

There is a culture of oppression here in Jamaica, stemming from a history of being oppressed by foreign rule, taken advantage of by the world economy and years of an unstable government lead by unbalanced leaders and warring political parties. The trickle down effect is palpable. The culture of male dominance can be sickening at times. When I am not able to walk my daily commute without being “hissed” at or called to by 12+ men on the street, I am a witness of this myself. Women are oppressed by men, wives by their husbands and children by their mothers. Domestic abuse runs rampant, particularly in the bush and amongst the poverty. Religion and Christian beliefs are preached openly left and right but moral values are at an all time low and next to non-existent: proof when the dancehall music of today tells a story of guns, shootings, cheating, men impregnating multiple women and social status measured by the amount of sexual partners one has.

Crime and violence run unbridled in the cities as well as the rural areas; Kingston is not the only area affected. Daily headlines tell stories of gruesome massacres, senseless deaths and fighting which erupts over minor disputes. Petty theft is the gateway crime and next thing you know you’ve landed yourself in jail for murder.

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Hunger is often at the root of it. When people have that deep hunger that simply can’t be satisfied they become desperate. Hunger and desperation can morph a human being into someone they are not. I am an eyewitness to this everyday.

This past Friday at our weekly youth group in Albion Gully I witnessed Monique, one of my older and more responsible girls, fling off her shoe and take a massive beating to her youngest brother Jaheem in the middle of our small church. When he saw the red blood leak from a fresh cut on his arm, rage washed over his face and next thing I knew chairs were overturned, rocks flung, every ugly Jamaican swear was uttered and everyone in the room was taking cover. In my attempts to get a handle on the outburst before it turned really ugly [only after taking a blow from a misdirected swing of a cricket bat] I removed him from the situation and took him aside in an attempt to communicate calmly to him and get to the root of the problem. The root of the problem, it turned out, was that he had taken the last piece of bread that was to be Monique’s dinner that night. The root of the problem was hunger.

The homeless man, the drug addict and the alcoholic are a part of my daily walk into town. In fact their names are Tony, Palmer and Treasure.

There is zero tolerance for promoting a culture of waste that as an American I was so accustomed to. “What’s one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” rings true here across the board. Who knew that everyday household items could be so multi-purpose? For example, trash bags do not simply line the interior of your wastebasket, they also line the interior of my friend Mas James’ house in an attempt to create insulation from the rains.

In large part, my call to dedicate a year of my life to serve in a third world country was to see the other side, to witness the plight of our neighbors, to engage in the realities of the world by reflecting on the values of human dignity. In previous service experiences I was romanticized by the smile on the small child in tattered clothes, by the welcome of each person I would encounter as I came to witness their “situation,” by the friendly waves from the “locals” on the streets.

“Sure they have nothing, but look at them, they’re happy!”

WRONGO

The reality that I’m living on a daily basis paints a much different picture. The people I work with on a regular basis are not always happy, they’re aware of their condition and the plight of their circumstances. Sometimes they are angry, sometimes they are sad, oftentimes they are stressed and depending on the day I may have to take the brunt of all of that. I am ‘begged’ for things (money, food, clothes etc) left and right until I go home at night feeling so exhausted and depleted it’s hard to imagine starting it all over again the next morning.

Yet I go on. Why you may ask? Simply because I can’t imagine desiring to be living life any other way. When I can go to bed exhausted and depleted and saying to God I gave it my all, then it is a good day. When I can wake up in the morning eager to see what joys and grace-filled moments I am sure to encounter, then it is a good day.

As PVI’s we are called to walk in a spirit of accompaniment with the crucified of today. When I can feel that purpose within me and the Spirit guiding me, even in the moments when I am scared, nervous, or feel like screaming “I am but one person!”

That’s when I hear an echo back, “Yes, you are. And you are enough.”

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I met Dave Simpson on a Thursday morning.  Dave was walking next to one of the ubiquitous sugar cane fields on one of the ubiquitous serpentine island roads from Mandeville to Knockpatrick. After struggling through a patois-laden and broken phone conversation for at least ten minutes, Sister Helen and I stumbled across tall and unassuming Dave and he guided us to his home in the hills.

Before I go on, a little about Sister Helen.  Born and raised in Kenya, a stout little Assumption Sister, she has been in Jamaica running an HIV support program and clinic for three years and approaches every aspect of her existence with a ferocious tenacity, but maintains the gentlest of demeanors. I don’t know if that is simply how she operates or the Kenyan way of life, but I have never seen the woman take a break. Whether it be dragging 55 kilogram bags of rice around her office or tirelessly listening to and encouraging those afflicted by and dying of HIV or AIDS, she is indomitable.

Back to Dave and his story. A home it was in every sense of the word, but a house it was in the loosest sense of the word. I find this juxtaposition an interesting contrast to the American culture, where the qualities of house and home are commonly reversed. We were directed from the already shoddy main road to the red dirt and gravel skeleton of what used to be a mining road; I am sad to say I have seen trails in the Rockies better kept than this particular path. We arrived in Daley’s Grove, a land forgotten save as a thoroughfare for power lines and the people that dwell there, a place amiss from Wikipedia and casual Google searches. Upon arriving at Dave’s house, I could feel my gut dancing a visceral dance of innate discomfort and vulnerability. Now, in Jamaica I have frequently been in the throes of discomfort, but this was an entirely different beast.

I was afforded a relatively lavish upbringing and spent the last four years shrouded in the grandeur and opulence of the campus of the University of Notre Dame.  In the safety of the car, through the windshield, I laid eyes upon the one room abode, the ribs of the dogs surrounding it, the goat in the adjacent room, it was an unnerving experience. My eyes fell upon Sister Helen’s Dale Earnhardt candle that she keeps in her car. Somehow she enjoys the smell. The very thought of the amalgamation of a Catholic sister from Kenya, living in Jamaica, possessing a candle embossed with the faux signature of man heralded for such an American pastime still makes me laugh. The candle, as well as sister’s “Don’t be afraid of anyone but God, who can take your life” pep talk she was giving to Dave in the background, helped to calm me for some unbeknownst reason as we stepped out of the car.

The living situation was deplorable. One room made from a combination of concrete and plywood and a corrugated zinc roof with little more than a bed and a pile of clothes, another roofless room laden with hay for the goat, and two other disjointed walls, the purpose of which I could not muster, upon the concrete platform. That’s it. We began to discuss with Dave possibilities for an income and developing the land in the future. Sister was going on about all of the crops that could be planted on the hillside and in the yard and how she and her indomitable Kenyan work ethic would be up at three every morning tilling the land and planting and how many chickens could be kept in the coop where only five currently resided and how a cow could be bought in a year and on and on.

Dave, in addition to the aforementioned lamentable conditions, is afflicted with HIV. The very substance that allowed him life was slowly sapping it from him, no longer able to ward off disease as it was meant to. As I’ve been told by the Rasta men, “your blood isn’t white, mine isn’t black, it’s all red”. We’re all human. An obvious lesson in rhetoric, but one sometimes difficult in practice. Dave echoes that inherent human drive the same as me and most any person I have come across. The drive to make the most of himself, the most of his conditions, the most of his family given his hand at the present time, a hand which is drastically different from mine and most Americans.

Dave speaks slowly, deliberately – qualities of conversation I have come to find refreshing after weeks of clambering over language barriers between my English and English blended with Swahili, Polish, Jamaican Patois, and Hindi accents.  As his nerves and fear of what people might begin to suspect if he is seen with a nun and gangly white man (an admittedly ragtag duo, but we have made quite the team so far) eased, the conversation began to flow. He told us of the difficulties of his life, namely of the stigma of HIV that haunted him. This stigma has been omnipresent throughout the world since the advent of the dread virus, but discretion is especially rampant in Jamaica. The stigma not only invites the external pressures of harassment and discrimination, but the perhaps more damaging internal accompanying struggle. Dave spends his days begging for food and money for his family rather than looking for employment – a luxury not abound Jamaica- or other forms of support. He does this not because of apathy – a mindset that is abound Jamaica – but because, as he told us, feels a certain loss of dignity and humanity packaged with the virus. Dave is poor because he is sick and sick because he is poor.

My brief time here has shown me that as the lines marking the gradients of human conditions become more punctuated, real, and disheartening, the lines marking the gradients of human dignity become increasingly nonexistent, melting into oblivion.  The pride in knowing and respect I have for all of the downtrodden on this island has been shed light upon the fact that they are deserving and thirst for every opportunity that can be afforded to them, not just the ones that happen to drip to them through the cracks of an already broken global society.  Why should these persons not have access to a life free of morbidity, education, and fruitful through the ingrained human desire to contribute?  A lone reason still evades my knowledge.

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The second half of our conversation painted a brighter picture. Dave spoke of how he was in the process of obtaining a small plot of land through a grant program, then Sister and I will be able to appeal to several different organizations, including Food for the Poor, to have a suitable house built for him and his family. He spoke of his young daughter Mary, who was too shy to come out and talk but instead play a perpetual game of peek-a-boo with us from behind the door, flashing a brilliant and innocent smile every time. Dave lit up when talking about her excitement of going back to school on Monday. How he managed to pay for her books, tuition, or uniform I do not know and did not have the gall to ask.

Dave will never win a Nobel Prize, make ten million dollars, or break any word records.  He’ll survive. Even thrive to some meager extent. Somehow, some way, he and his family go day to day, surviving on what seems like nothing, still managing to help a child gain an education, one of the most alluring fruits of society. It truly is extraordinary, unbelievable, the more I think about it.

As we began to wrap up, Mr. Simpson asked for a picture of him and his goat.  A numbingly and refreshingly simple request – usually we are asked for money, more medicine, things of that nature – but one I was more than happy to fulfill. Dave stood, scratching the animal and a smile rippled across his face, the first since I had met him.  I snapped the picture and, through the eyepiece, the grin was the most poignant of reminders of our humanity, our desire for connection and acceptance and fulfillment.  I couldn’t help but beam in return as we turned to leave.

 

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Humbly let go.  Let go of trying to do, let go of trying to control… let go of my own way, let go of my own fears.  Let God blow His wind, His trials, oxygen for joy’s fire.  Leave the hand open and be.  Be at peace.  Bend the knee and be small and let God give what God chooses to give because He only gives love and whisper surprised thanks.  This is the fuel for joy’s flame.  Fullness of joy is discovered only in the emptying of will.  And I can empty.  I can empty because counting His graces has awakened me to how He cherishes me, holds me, passionately values me.  I can empty because I am full of His love.  I can trust.

– “One Thousand Gifts”

Living in Jamaica for almost eight months has given me such an incredible sense of joy and for that I have to give God thanks.  One of the places I have found the most joy as well as the most frustration is at St. John Bosco Boys Home.

Last week I came to Bosco on a Tuesday afternoon.  I didn’t have an agenda, which is sometimes nerve-racking because they always want me to train them in football; I simply just came to hang out.  When I first arrived I heard drums, and I got EXCITED.  There is a group of boys at Bosco who are the drumming boys.  Most of these boys are the ones with a lot of anger, so drumming is a perfect way to let the frustrations out.  I have sat in on drum class a few times, but I have always been too hesitant to try and drum.  However, when the boys were arranging their chairs and getting their drums out, one of them asked me if I was going to drum with them.  Why not?  So I sat in the circle with them with my own drum.  I had no idea what I was doing.  The boys figured that out real fast.  I was definitely “marching to the beat of my own drum” … literally.  Most of them told me I was horrible or were laughing at me.  Good news, though, is I was laughing right there with them.  Drumming is HARD.  The teacher taught me a few things and I was able to keep up at times, but it was difficult. It’s hard to describe in words, but even though most of them were poking fun of me I could tell that they were doing it playfully and were happy I was there with them.  The love I receive here is such a tough form of love, but I still feel it and it gives me joy.

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A picture one of the boys took before class started… The laughs began even before I got my drum.

While there are good days, such as last Tuesday, they are usually followed by equally difficult days. You want to know what is so strange though?  I continually hunger for more.  I may leave there feeling defeated, but as I lay in bed before I fall asleep I am filled with this energy and desire to return. Maybe it is the love I so quickly developed for all of the boys. I am there as a P.E. teacher and as a football coach, but what I really want is for them to see me as their friend who they can trust.

All I can do is continue to show up and just be. Just be myself and just be present.  Let go of my fears of some of the boys not liking me because I have to be strict at times. Let go of trying to control when most of the time what happens at Bosco is out of my control.  Just humbly let go so God can direct me and use me as His instrument at this home that feels like my own home.