Exploring the Joy of a Long-Distance Family

“In trying to articulate what, perhaps, joy is, it has occurred to me that among other things—the trees and the mushrooms have shown me this—joy is the mostly invisible, the underground union between us, you and me,” writes poet Ross Gay on the elusive idea of joy. It seems just as lessons were learned from trees and mushrooms, so are lessons from the love at Mustard Seed Communities. 

Joy emanates from the voice of Kaitlin Cruickshank over the phone, days after she returned from her mission trip to Jamaica. Kaitlin is a pediatric occupational therapist who first encountered Mustard Seed Communities seven years ago, when she traveled to Jamaica with Augusta University. Her trip took her to Jerusalem! and Jacob’s Ladder, two of MSC’s homes for children and adults with disabilities who have been abandoned, where she made lasting connections: connections so strong that she felt called to visit again as an alumna of the Georgia university this autumn.

On her first mission trip in 2015, Kaitlin approached each day with a plan. Augusta University offers the mission trip as occupational therapy fieldwork experience for their students, and Kaitlin had embraced the opportunity. “I tried to be as prepared as I could,” she said. “I was so focused on making sure that I provided the best experience with the activities I planned and the supplies I brought, but then I got there and I found that the most powerful moments were the ones that were totally organic.” Natural connection, on a simply human level, led to the most powerful moments of friendship and growth. 

It was with this openness that Kaitlin approached her second mission trip to MSC’s homes in Jamaica. “The moment we got on the first bus in Jamaica, I felt like I was coming home,” Kaitlin recalls. The feeling only expanded as she encountered new and remembered friends from her previous trip. Described as infinitely kind and welcoming, the staff and residents of MSC welcomed Kaitlin and her occupational therapy colleagues with the open arms of family.

As she continues to recount her arrival at Jerusalem!, Kaitlin’s voice fills with renewed emotion. It’s her reunion with resident Chickeria that really touched her heart.

Seven years before, on her trip to MSC Jamaica in 2015, Kaitlin befriended a resident named Chickeria. It was a strong connection that grew into a trans-Atlantic pen pal friendship after Kaitlin returned home. She describes the process that made this friendship possible: through the building trust between Augusta University’s occupational therapy team and Mustard Seed, Kaitlin was able to send a journal of letters to Chickeria, and Chickeria could send letters back each time Augusta sent a new team of mission volunteers to Jamaica.  

However, as more years separated Kaitlin from the graduate program, it became difficult to connect with the new teams. So, when Kaitlin was guest speaking for the program and relayed her passion for her occupational therapy fieldwork with MSC, she was happy to reconnect and join this year’s mission volunteer team as an alumna. 

It wasn’t just an opportunity to bring her occupational therapy experience to MSC. It was also an opportunity to reconnect with a friend. 

“Chickeria was actually a big reason why I wanted to go back,” Kaitlin says, a new layer of emotion entering her voice. “The reunion with Chickeria was really special. It had been several years since I had seen her, but she remembered my name.” She describes how caregivers arranged a special moment for the two to see each other once again, and their embrace in that moment is a testament to the close connection remaining across a great distance and many years. 

“Kaitlin! You came back for me,” Chickeria said.

The trip continued with many outings and activities. The Augusta students were eager to share their training with the residents, particularly by practicing Activities of Daily Living (ADLs), which are planned self-care learning activities like feeding oneself and personal hygiene movements. Many residents need extra training to perform such tasks, so this occupational therapy work is invaluable. “I can see the growth of Augusta’s program,” Kaitlin comments, and the experience of stepping into the residents’ daily lives with them was once again inspiring to her. 

Walking around the green-lined paths, Kaitlin also noticed the growth in resident support and education that occurred at Jerusalem! in the seven years past. The residents were proud to show the team their new therapy building and accessible bathroom. In these updated settings, residents are better able to practice ADLs, building upon their independence. Their school, also, is a site of which the community is particularly proud. “The growth has been exponential,” Kaitlin describes. 

The growth of one resident in particular, Kevon, inspired Kaitlin. While she was attending Mass at Jacob’s Ladder, “I looked across the room and I saw his face and immediately recognized him. That looks like Kevon, I thought, but he’s so much older.” It turns out Kaitlin had another reunion in store. 

In the following days, Kevon accompanied the Augusta team on an outing to a water park and visited Jerusalem!. Like other lifelong residents of MSC, Kevon grew up at Jerusalem!, but moved to Jacob’s Ladder to join the all-adult community as he got older. While he guided the team around his childhood community, Kevon shone with pride. He showed the Augusta mission team his childhood bed, his old school, and introduced them to his favorite caregivers. Kaitlin recounts fondly how excited Kevon’s caregivers had been to see him – they “couldn’t stop talking about how much he had grown, how good he looks physically, and how well he was walking.”  

“I was just so happy that I could be a part of these experiences with the residents,” Kaitlyn says, referring to exploring the MSC homes and going on outings to the surrounding communities with the residents. The Augusta team, in addition to the water park, also went to the beach and into the town’s shops with the residents. Seeing the residents in a new environment was inspiring; they showed off their independence and excitement for life at every turn. 

It also reminded the team of the spectacular joy that comes in everyday activities we all can take for granted. “Just being able to put my body in water, and feeling the flow of it” at the water park, Kaitlin described, is something for which to be grateful. The residents’ joy at the experience was contagious, and still in her heart after returning home. 

The residents were never shy with their joy, either. When making banana pudding, listening to music, and playing with the parachute, Katilin was consistently touched by how inclusive the community was. “They’re pure joy and happiness, to just be expressing themselves through dance and movement is a huge deal,” she shares, and describes a moment when she was on the sidelines of an activity and a resident danced over to make sure she was smiling and included. 

Kaitlin’s advice for future mission volunteers is to be present in these moments of joy and to always be open to learning. Moving ahead, she hopes to bring her passion for recreation and rock climbing to MSC. “I have a passion for helping kids see their potential through recreation, especially for kids with disabilities,” Kaitlin, who herself lives with a disability, shares. “I enjoy taking kids rock climbing and seeing a transformation from the time they walk into the gym to the time they leave. They realize what their bodies are capable of.” She traces this passion in part to her first fieldwork experience at MSC in Jamaica, and hopes to continue giving back. 

“Magic happens” in those unexpected moments of connection at MSC’s homes, Kaitlin says. It’s the joy that emanates from the residents and caregivers each day that inspires her and countless other mission volunteers to keep Mustard Seed in their hearts. Joy, like Ross Gay writes, which is sometimes invisible but is always providing an underground union across distance and difference. The home Kaitlin senses with the residents of MSC is the beating heart of our family that is dedicated to joyfully caring, sharing, and training for years to come.

Special thanks to Kaitlin Cruickshank for her time and wisdom, and to the Augusta University occupational therapy team for sharing their expertise with our community.