To most Jamaicans, Riverton is a small landfill in the capital city of Kingston, an unincorporated community comprised of the poorest of the country’s poor. But to the Newsome family – mother Jenni and her six children Nastassia, Jaday, Josh, Timanie, Joseph and Nick – it’s home.
Riverton serves as the repository for more than 60 percent of the country’s waste, according to the Jamaica Environment Trust. Many residents of the area make their living by scavenging the landfill for things to sell. The area has also been plagued by several fires in recent years, adding stress to a community already marked by abject poverty, crime, teenage pregnancy and poor education.
Jenni Newsome and her children live in a small, makeshift house crafted from discarded tin and putty, with board partitions to create the illusion of rooms. The family keep each other’s spirits up by attending church and singing Gospel music together. Josh, 10, even crafted his own drum set from overturned Phillips paint cans and rusty screwdrivers.
Often, when there is no money for food, Jenni Newsome feeds her children discarded bits of chicken from the landfill – an almost inedible slop pig farmers feed to their animals.
‘Uncle Jeff’ brings hope
But due to their connection with Pivotal Directions, a Mequon-based non-profit that hosts service learning camps and international trips for Milwaukee teenagers, the Newsomes say they have hope for their future.
“I think that kids back in Jamaica, they don’t believe in themselves – they have one mindset. ‘OK, I grow up inthe ghetto and everybody drop out of school and pick the guns up, and that’s what I should do,’” said Nastassia, 21. “But we’re different because we look at things differently. We know that becoming something of yourself and having a career and an education is important … and Uncle Jeff coming into our life; he instilled that in us: you guys need to go to school. Uncle Jeff is a motivator to our family.”
“Uncle Jeff” is Jeff Wenzler, executive director of Pivotal Directions and Catholic Herald Family columnist, who founded the organization in 2011 in the hopes of expanding the worldview of privileged suburban kids in the Milwaukee area. Pivotal Directions fosters leadership qualities in students in sixth through 12th grade, and promotes the philosophy of servant leadership through youth camps at Concordia and Marquette universities, and biannual service learning trips to Jamaica and Guatemala, where students meet with local families, visit community centers, schools and orphanages.
It was on the first Pivotal Directions international trip in 2011 that Wenzler connected with the Newsome family. Three and a half years later, Wenzler and other Pivotal Directions supporters gathered the funds to bring Newsome and four of her six children to visit Milwaukee on a whirlwind 10-day visit in August.
For more information on summer camp offerings for grades six to 11 or to donate, contact founder and executive director Jeff Wenzler, firstname.lastname@example.org or (414) 403-2279 or visit www.pivotaldirections.org.
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“Everything that is happening to us now, these were dreams for us – we want to go on the plane one day, we want to go to America one day, we want to know what it’s like to eat a certain kind of food, because we can’t afford stuff – and he came and his group came and they totally changed everything for us,” said Nastassia.
“This organization, as long as I’m doing it, is all about relationships,” said Wenzler. “I always say there are three levels of service. The first is writing the check to a shelter, which is important. The second is going to the shelter and serving corn or mashed potatoes, which is also important. But the third level is sitting down at the table with the people that are eating and talking with them, asking them questions, and letting them get to a point where they can ask you questions. That’s a lot deeper. That’s something I think our kids are doing.”
Servant leadership in action
In 2011, Jeff Wenzler received a call from a friend who was having trouble with his eighth-grade son.
“He wanted some perspective (instilled) in his eighth-grader, and I kind of laughed to myself – what eighth-grader doesn’t need perspective?” said Wenzler, a Mequon resident who has worked in youth ministry at Lumen Christi Parish, the Wauwatosa trio parishes and Marquette University.
“I said, ‘If you’re sitting down, I have a crazy idea for you,’” he remembered. “‘I’ll take him to work in a garbage dump in Kingston.’”
Wenzler has a master’s degree in education from Boston College, where he also ran an international service program that traveled to Kingston. He knew that seeing firsthand the reality of life in a city where crime and unemployment plague the population would be an eye-opening experience for a young man from the suburbs of a deeply segregated Midwestern city.
Wenzler made Pivotal Directions a non-religious organization, not wanting to alienate potential students who do not identify as Christian. However, the group’s mission is steeped in Catholic social teaching. Wenzler loves the quote, often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”
“I love that approach with young people. I’ve been involved with the Wisconsin Right to Life movement for years, but my thing is, if you take them to Missionaries of the Poor, an orphanage in Kingston, and you take a 15-year-old boy or girl and you put a severely disabled child into their arms … you’re doing more for the pro-life movement than any kind of statistics you could throw at a kid,” he said. “The emotional experience, the heartfelt experience, in a young person – they have to have that first.”
In Jamaica and Guatemala, Pivotal Directions partners with local organizations like Missionaries of the Poor andSt. Patrick’s Foundation to demonstrate to the kids the values of servant leadership.
“Service, getting dirt under your fingernails – it’s really the bridge to answering other things later on down the road, including faith,” said Wenzler.
Mother’s love guides family
Wenzler met Jenni Newsome on a visit to Kingston three years ago, when he traveled to the area with 12 Milwaukee-area boys on Pivotal Directions’ inaugural trip.
While photographing the Riverton area, Wenzler unwittingly snapped a powerful photograph of Newsome’s son Timanie, who was 4 years old at the time. Hoping to use the photograph to promote Pivotal Directions, Wenzler asked the local school principal to get him in touch with Timanie’s mother.
The two met and, while walking from the local school back to Newsome’s house, bonded over a conversation about parenthood.
“I learned more about a mother’s love, her hope and her faith and struggle in that walk than I probably ever will,” said Wenzler.
The Newsomes are now an integral part of Pivotal Directions’ mission in Riverton, becoming close friends with many of the participating students and welcoming them into their home.
“To us it was surprising, because our house is not all that – I thought that, ‘Oh, these people will be uncomfortable coming into our home,’” said Nastassia. “(But) they come in and embrace everybody…. It was overwhelming to know that they would come in our home and they’d be a part of our family.”
The Newsomes’ trip to the United States would not have been possible without the patronage of Pivotal Directions’ families, many of whom donated money for plane tickets and visas. One family even paid for a limousine to pick the Newsomes up at the airport in Chicago.
During their 10-day trip, the family visited the Bristol Renaissance Faire, viewed downtown Milwaukee from a pontoon boat on the river, ate at American restaurants, went inner-tubing and even celebrated a real American Christmas … in August. They have also twice appeared on TMJ4’s “The Morning Blend,” where Jaday showed off her vocal talents and Josh performed on the drums.
Nastassia says she hopes more teenagers in the Milwaukee area will participate in Pivotal Directions’ trips to see the reality of life in a developing nation.
“You will feel like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe people live like this.’ You will see 8-year-olds eating from the landfill, digging rubbish to get their next meal or wear (their) next clothes…. It’s a lot of crime there. Most of the crime that is committed there is teenagers – our age. They are the ones who have the guns.”
She appreciates the mission of Pivotal Directions, because even though her family doesn’t have many material possessions to share, the Newsomes, too, believe in the importance of servant leadership.
“My mom, she’s always helping even though she doesn’t have it to help,” she said. “She always taught us that we should always help, even if the person is not being nice to you – you should always have a heart of helping.
“When the (Pivotal Directions) group come to Jamaica, you will see kids – they actually cry, because they’re showing them love, and they don’t have love, they don’t get love from their parents, they don’t get certain things, they don’t get a smile or hug or a kiss,” she said. “And when the group come in with Uncle Jeff, these people embrace them and hug them and give them a kiss. They don’t get that every day, some of them don’t get it at all.”