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State College-area church reaches out, helps kids in Jamaica

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

PORT MATILDA — Good Shepherd Catholic Church members helped open a twin parish in Maggotty, Jamaica, about 13 years ago, back when the Rev. Marek Bzinkowski was holding Mass for local residents in a goat pen.

But parishioners of the Grays Woods church said their mission didn't stop there.

Church member JoAnn Vautour said the March trip — Good Shepherd's 10th to Jamaica — allowed parishioners to work with people from St. Francis University who were establishing two projects to the community that surrounds Good Shepherd's twin church, Holy Spirit Church. They opened a physical therapy room on the church's grounds in the medical clinic for volunteer therapists and saw 120 patients in the first week.

The university and church teamed up to work with children during an after-school program, and Vautour added that they also started microlending projects to help build the area's economy.

Microlending allow entrepreneurs in impoverished areas to borrow small amounts of money to start businesses and grow the local economy. More than 90 entrepreneurs who had ideas to start their own businesses were interviewed.

“There is sometimes up to 70 percent unemployment there, but this is an opportunity to work together to help an economic struggle,” Vautour said.

These projects were sparked after the bishop of Jamaica in 1999 reached out to the Catholics in the United States who were looking for twinning of their parish. The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown spread the word, and Good Shepherd responded.

“They are very proud of the little they have,” said the Rev. Charlie Amershek, Good Shepherd's pastor. “It's both joyous and beautiful to be a part of that.”

Bzinkowski helped build a 14-acre complex in Maggotty that included the church, a rectory, a convent, a medical clinic, a meat-processing factory, a community center, a library and computer classroom that services in total more than 10,000 people annually.

“Marek is what a holy man is,” Amershek said. “There is a receptivity and a spirit between the two (churches) that I felt like I was at home. I saw things like the amount of personal and material poverty that I could have never imagined, but was touched by the spiritual depth of those folks.”

Amershek said he is glad about the work his church has done that will help advance the education and faith in Maggotty.

“The progression each year is astounding,” he said. “This is what Jesus calls us to do, and we're able to make this connection. I'm glad that we're doing this, and it's a blessing to us.”

Amershek said the poverty tears at his heart, but he explained the celebration of life and activities at the Jamaican church is one of the most rewarding things he experienced with the locals.

Initiatives such as the meat-processing plant help pull people from poverty by employing them, Vautour said.

“It's the most rewarding experience that the church is in action with faith and community development,” she said. “It's more than charity, but helping others get educated so they can advocate and contribute to society.”

Initially, Vautour said, the Jamaican locals were skeptical of their presence, but over the years have accepted their help.

“I think they learned we're not just spectators,” he said. “It's about caring for your brothers and sisters all over the world.”

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