Even before the sun rises over the beautiful island of Jamaica, the day begins at 5 a.m. for the 36 young men who live at the Sunbeam Children’s Home. In addition to making their beds and other assigned chores, an important part of the morning routine is daily devotions at which the boys sing the familiar hymn, “This is the day the Lord has made.” The boys have much to be thankful for – they now have a home and people who care about their well being. Teaching the principles of christian living is the mission of the Sunbeam Association for Mission (SAM) in addition to providing a safe and nurturing environment for the boys who come to Sunbeam from abusive homes or who have been in trouble with the law. They are placed by a government agency at Sunbeam, one of 57 licensed private or government-owned orphan homes in Jamaica. During one of her many visits, Sherry Bigalke, the Executive Director of SAM, asked some of the boys (there is no language barrier) if she could give them a hug. “They didn’t know what a hug was! I had to teach them how to hug,” said Sherry. “Now they stand in line for one!” Sherry, who lives in New London, is one of the many missionaries from West Central Minnesota, and other states, who travel to Jamaica and stay up to two weeks at a time to reach out to the boys at Sunbeam and to continually improve and update the mission. The home for boys was originally started in the 1970s by Pastor Cedric Lue, a Jamaican minister who purchased an old house in order that displaced young men could have a home. With more boys arriving, the first two homes were not large enough, and in 1990 the boys moved from their cramped quarters to its present location in Spring Village, a small impoverished area about one hour west of Kingston, the capital city of Jamaica, an English-speaking country of nearly three million people. Since its opening, Sunbeam has always struggled financially to provide the basic necessities for the boys and their home. In 1992, the first mission team from Minnesota traveled to Sunbeam led by Dick and Lois Hokanson from Little Falls. Marcus Anderson from St. Cloud was a member of the first team, and was inspired to lead a team in 1995 from Peace Lutheran Church of New London, the same year the dormitory was constructed for the missionaries. A member of that team from New London, Patsy Cordes, continued to lead teams to Sunbeam. Sherry, also a member of Peace Lutheran, joined a team in 1997. “I felt God’s call to do more for Sunbeam,” Sherry recalled, and she became the coordinator of mission teams. In 2000, Pastor Lue asked Sherry and Patsy if they would purchase and take over the operations of Sunbeam. Many team members researched the options and in January 2001, the mission became incorporated as Sunbeam Association for Mission, a non-profit 501(c) 3. The three founding congregations were Atonement Lutheran Church in St. Cloud, King of Kings Lutheran in Woodbury, Peace Lutheran, New London, and an endorsement from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Twenty churches of various denominations are now members of SAM with a goal of 100 congregations to join the ministry venture in addition to individual members who can sponsor a child for $30 a month. Close to 20 mission teams visit Sunbeam every year from several states and Canada. The teams have completed many new and renovation projects including reroofing, painting, putting in septic tanks, bathrooms, creating a learning center and school, and buildings for the chickens and pigs on the five-acre farm. Unfortunately, hurricanes may also create work after the storm. Fred Zwart, also from New London, and Gerry Plowman of Zimmerman, are the facility project coordinators, who decide what work needs to be done and assigned to mission teams. Fred, who has been going to Sunbeam two to four times a year since 1998, boasted of the new twin home recently completed for the long-term team members, each with two bedrooms and complete kitchen setups. “And they even have hot showers,” he emphasized. Team members interact with the boys individually and in a group setting. They may help them with their school work, do various activities, and worship with them every evening. “When I’m at the mission, I read to the boys every night,” said Sherry. “They loved to be read to!” During one of her trips in November, Sherry prepared two 22-pound turkeys donated by Jennie-O. “The boys had never seen a whole roasted turkey before and there was plenty to eat including pumpkin pie,” she said, adding that over 60 people enjoyed the meal. When it was time to carve the turkeys, a machete was used to slice the birds, including the bones. It’s a tool used frequently in a Jamaican kitchen. Sherry’s daughter, Mel Harmon, talked her mother into joining a mission team with her in 1997. “God must have had another plan for me as I’ve been going two to four times a year ever since as well as serving as the Executive Director,” said Sherry. Mel is now the Team Coordinator. Sherry and husband, Dean, will return to Sunbeam in January for a two-week stay. Not only do mission teams from various churches go to Jamaica, but college teams also journey to the boys’ mission where they focus on building relationships. Many teams focus on projects such as providing shoes for the boys, leading a Bible School, or another area of interest that will benefit the young men. Each team member develops a “special” friendship with a boy. One such boy is Kevel, an abandoned nine-year-old, who was stricken with cystic hygroma, a growth of large benign tumors around his neck and head, which has partially obstructed his breathing. He and Fred have formed a special bond. “When I go to Jamaica, Kevel is always glad to see me,” Fred shared. “I usually rent a van and take Kevel and other boys around, and then we always have to get some ice cream! That’s a real treat for them!” He added that the boys are very creative. With the scraps of lumber left over from various building projects, they will make trains, houses, or other toys. After a heavy rain, the boys use the mud as modeling clay. The Learning Center at Sunbeam is now in its third year after a teacher from Wisconsin dedicated a year in 2006 to get the school started. Mrs. Duffes is now the full time teacher who is assisted by a part time volunteer in teaching the boys through the sixth grade. In Jamaica, all students take the GSAT test after completing the sixth grade. If they pass, they go on to high school. Students who do not pass continue to learn the basics and eventually a trade such as welding, tailoring, cooking, or hotel maintenance, the latter being very popular due to the tourism in Jamaica. In 2008, Sunbeam’s first student passed his GSAT and is now attending high school. Sunbeam has two Boards of Directors. The SAM/USA board is the governing board and the SAM/Jamaica board is in charge of operations. Joint meetings are held in November at Sunbeam and the May meeting is held in Minnesota. During one of his earlier visits to Sunbeam, Gary Broman, New London, who is the chairman of the governing board, befriended Richard, a seven-year-old boy, the same age as two of his grandchildren. “Richard, at age seven, had nothing, not even a home. But my grandchildren have everything!” Gary explained. “But now Richard has a safe home, clothes, food to eat, and he goes to school. That’s what homes are all about! After one visit, mission team members want to return to Sunbeam. “What drew me was the ministry itself, which is ecumenically based,” added Gary. “We’re providing and helping to enrich a Christian-based home for the boys with a goal that we’ll prepare them so when they leave Sunbeam at the age of 18, they will be productive citizens of Jamaica.” He said that some boys may live only for a short time at the mission as they may be reunited with their families. Those who remain at Sunbeam are encouraged to become active members in the community of Spring Hill by joining a church or volunteering. And many boys who lived most of their childhood at Sunbeam are now living productive lives and will stop by to visit the mission or greet a mission team member they see on the street. Before the young man leaves Sunbeam when he turns 18, he is helped in finding a job and a place to live. “We want them to make a good transition into the real world,” Gary concluded. As part of SAM’s goals, the mission also does outreach into the neighborhood including Island Farm, an impoverished squatter’s area near Sunbeam. Mission team members want to spread the Gospel and establish a better life for them as well. SAM also works closely with Food for the Poor, the largest international relief and developmental agency in the U.S. that feeds over two million people every day in the Caribbean Latin America. Sherry encourages individuals and churches to be a part of SAM. It’s her passion and mission. Every team member would agree that the young men at Sunbeam have “hearts as big as big as their smiles” and they want to continue in providing a nurturing Christian-based environment. SAM’s website is www.sunbeammission.com.
Learning what love really means