A Read to Succeed Success Story at Downtown

Survival as a Jamaican Immigrant

by Paul Brown

(as submitted to The Change Agent)

   October, 2013


I lived with my grandmother and my aunt in Jamaica until I was a teenager. Our life in the country was much harder than the city life. We were poor so we lived in a house with no electricity. We put kerosene in the lamps for light in the house. We had no refrigerator or running water. We cooked over a wood fire.

I had to walk a long way to get water and wood. Then I had to carry them back on my head.  Everyone in Jamaica carried the weight on their heads unless they had a donkey. We couldn’t afford a donkey. I had to go into the forest to cut the wood down with a machete. I had to clear the land to plant crops for food. I had to dig potatoes and yams. I had to root cassava, turnips, and carrots out of the ground.

I always had a hard time remembering things. My grandmother and my aunt would send me to the store and I would forget what I had to buy. I would come home with something else. The same thing happened when I went to school. I couldn’t remember what they taught me, so I quit in seventh grade.

My aunt sent me to trade school to learn furniture making. I was good at turning chair and table legs, or turning the posts for beds. I worked at that until I started having kids and I needed to earn more money to support them. Around eighteen or nineteen, I went to work on a plantation where I used a machete to cut sugar cane in the hot sun. That was the hardest work I ever did. Next I went to work on a banana plantation where I had to carry the bananas on my head from the field to the trucks. On the same plantation I picked up coconuts and threw them on the wagon behind the tractors.

I worked at several different plantations. Some were more modern. Then I had to pull the bananas on a line over my head for a couple of miles.

In my mid-twenties I had an opportunity to get a work card to come to the United States. I had to go to Kingston, Jamaica to pass a physical exam. After I passed the exam, they sent me back home to wait for a telegram. When I got the telegram, I packed up my clothes and was taken by bus back to Kingston where I got on a plane with about two hundred people to come to Miami, Florida. We got on a Greyhound bus and they gave us fifteen dollars each to use for food for the three day non-stop trip to Connecticut. We were taken to the camp for tobacco workers. We slept in bunk beds and were fed from trays like prisoners. We could go and come, but we had to be there for work at 6:00 in the morning and worked until 4:00 in the afternoon. I made seven dollars an hour. I had to tie up tobacco to keep it straight while it grew. When it was ripe, I had to pick off three bottom leaves from each plant and put them on a carpet where it was pulled to the tractor and taken to the barns to dry. I worked at this for three months. When the tobacco was harvested, I got on a bus with another group of workers, and took a five hour bus trip to northern Maine where we picked apples. At the camp we were allowed to cook food for ourselves. Most mornings there was ice on the apples, so when I picked them, my hands were frozen. I had no choice because I had signed a contract with the government.

After I finished the tobacco-apple cycle I was flown back to Jamaica. When I came to the States the second time, I could get a green card and all my papers in the U.S. if I married someone who was working. I married a woman from Connecticut and we moved to Rockville, CT and then had two kids while I continued to work on a tobacco farm in Windsor.

My life began to change after I got married. I injured my left arm in a tractor accident. I could no longer work, so I went to the library in Vernon where a woman from England started teaching me how to read. She tutored me to get my driver’s license. After physical therapy I went to work for a textile manufacturer and saved my money until I could get a car. With my little reading skill I could get by because I used my common sense. I worked a lot of hours. They would call me sometimes to come in before my regular shift in order to cover for someone. Then I would work through my own shift. I loved to work. Because I was a good worker, the supervisor kept pushing me to become a part-time machine operator. The other workers told me that the job would be more stressful because it had more responsibility and more reading and writing. I did not take the job until the company started laying off people and the machine operator job became full-time. As an immigrant, I had not established any credit, and I needed a full-time job to earn more money. My old car had caught on fire and I was making payments on a new one. I couldn’t refuse the machine operator job.

I continued to work in that job for fifteen years until they closed the doors because of bankruptcy in June, 2012. In the settlement package I was given the opportunity to go back to school. I went to the CT Department of Labor to provide funding for my education. Now I am a student at Read to Succeed. When I can read better I will look for a good paying job.

Open House at CREC- It’s all about partnerships……

This past weekend the GHYMCA and CREC hosted an open house at The Learning Corridor in Hartford  3-6pm.

Our FootLights team from Downtown and Megan, our Zumba instructor, provided demonstrations for visitors. The pool was open for tours and Kevin Brown taught a water fitness class with some LiveStrong participants!

The purpose of the open house was to introduce parents to the options they have in regards to CREC schools and also introduce them to the wonderful benefits of the Y! Parents had the option of signing their children up for swim classes that are held at the Learning Corridor and also to sign up for Y membership if they chose to. It was a great day!!

Below is a picture of our FootLights team performing at CREC.


Sue- Downtown

WinterFest 2014

This week the Downtown Y has been volunteering their time at Hartford’s WinterFest at Bushnell Park.  We have been collecting hats and gloves over the past few weeks to give away to children who do not have hats and gloves that come to skate at the park. We collected them from members, board members and staff. Many of our staff and board members also volunteered their time to go to the park and distribute the hats and gloves. The smiles on the kids faces were priceless! Several of them even tried to return the hats, thinking that they were supposed to. When they were told they could keep them, they were so surprised and happy!!

This is all part of our work of forming partnerships in the community!

Sue- Downtown


Mission in Motion is off and pedaling!!!!

On March 22nd, The Downtown Y will hold it’s 4th Annual Mission in Motion cycle-a-thon to benefit the Annual Campaign. The event takes place in the atrium of the XL Center from 9:00am-1:00pm.The energy and excitement is growing here at Downtown as we secure sponsorship and teams are starting to form! Kristi, Mary and Vicki Bullock(fundraiser and member extraordinaire) went to dinner the other night and came back with a sponsorship and a team! Go Ladies!!

Our Mission in Motion event involves companies and people forming teams to raise $500 or more per to ride for 4 hours. You can have as many people as you want to ride the bike during the 4 hour time period. We are also looking for sponsorship and raffle prizes from healthy product vendors to compliment our event.

All the money that we raise will directly benefit the wonderful programs we have at the Downtown Y.  Some of these life-changing programs are; Read to Succeed, LiveStrong, FootLights and aquatics. These programs and services are accessible to youth, families and adults regardless of their ability to pay.

If you are interested in forming a team or providing any level of sponsorship please follow this link for more information!  http://missioninmotion.kintera.org/

Hoe to see many of you on March 22nd!




LiveStrong Graduates at the Downtown Y!!

This week the Downtown Y was proud to graduate it’s members of their LiveStrong program. As always, this was an exciting and emotional event.  Here is a copy of the speech that Leslie Amant, our LiveStrong coordinator, gave at the graduation….


You made it!

The program may have ended but your journey to a healthier lifestyle has just begun. I feel like a proud mama who gave birth to all of you(w/o as much pain of course;)

To say that we at the Downtown Y are proud of you is an understatement. We are that and then some.

To say you are an inspiration is an understatement. You do that and then some.

You are survivors, athletes, role models, wives, sisters, siblings, parents, friends and …then some.

I’d like to take a minute to thank the LiveStrong Foundation. It proves that Lance started an amazing and impressive foundation and that it is not the voice of one man that resonates but rather it is the voice of millions of survivors, like you, that is heard the loudest.  And I hope that holds true going forward for you and those in succeeding programs.

What we learned as time passed was that we were not the only trainers and coaches here. You all motivated each other and provided guidance. The 15 minute sharing time at the end of each night was just as important as the strength, endurance and balance training you received.

The collaborative effort was amazing to witness and we believe it helped many of you reach new goals, new levels of fitness but also we hope that it helped you become stronger through life’s struggles, helped alleviate some of the latent side effects and that it helped put you in a better frame of mind.

This class made you devote time to you and no one else…sans the guilt.

Cancer doesn’t define you its just something you have like brown eyes, or a small nose; but what you can now add to your list of attributes is more muscle, improved balance(some of you;) and a happier more satisfied you.

LiveStrong is a better program because of your participation. My world, Kristi’s world, Jason’s world and Wes’s world is a better place for knowing you.

Thank you for being you and surviving.

~Yours in health,

Leslie St. Amant



New Year’s Resolutions…..

I always find it fascinating to watch how people react to the beginning of the year….

Some of us “weed our gardens”…get rid of what is not working in our homes, jobs and relationships. Some of us get really motivated to “better ourselves” and some of us choose to do nothing because we know that we won’t stick to it 🙂

Personally, I love the excitement of a fresh start. This week I have been surrounded by new members signing up to have a fresh start on getting healthy here at the Downtown Y!  It’s so wonderful to see the excitement on people’s faces when they sign up. We are looking forward to a very successful January Campaign with lots of new members coming through our doors looking forward to making positive changes in their lives and in their health. 🙂

Sue- Downtown


Not even snow can keep them from coming!!!!

After our first snow storm of 2014…I arrived at the Downtown Y this morning wondering how busy we would be today with people not being able to get into work and kids being home from school on a snow day. I was so surprised when I got here…to see  the dedication of our members who still decided to come and work out! It was buzzing!! We are so fortunate to have such dedicated members who want to come and see their friends and get themselves back on track for the new year! That’s what we love to see!



Sue – Downtown

We Are Blessed….

Every day I try to think about something that I am blessed with….today I am blessed to have Dan Laffin in my life.

For those of you who have met Dan, totally understand what I am talking about.  Dan is best described as an institution here at Downtown and today is his 81st birthday!

When Dan is around, you know it.  He is joking and laughing and often times whistling.  He is a role model for all who have the pleasure of knowing him. Every day, no matter what may be happening in his life, Dan is always smiling and that in turn makes everyone around him smile!! Dan is special.

Thank you Dan for being part of our lives and Happy Birthday!!image

Sue- Downtown

The Rewards of Giving

Over this past year, as many of you know, the Greater Hartford YMCA has partnered with the Hartford Marathon Foundation. While we were at each event, we held a raffle for people to enter to win a free 1 year and 6 month membership. As the season ended on December 8th at the Mitten Run, we drew the winners this week.

The winners are Brenda Bachman from West Hartford and Mary Anne Lynch also from West Hartford.

When I called Mary Anne Lynch to tell her that she had won the 6 month membership she was not at home so I left a voicemail. When I arrived in the following day there was a return voicemail from her…..

She said she couldn’t believe the voicemail that I left her, she was so excited to have won the membership. She said that she was a marathon runner and with all the cold and snow this season she had been starting to worry about getting in her training…. She ended by saying she just couldn’t believe that she had won the membership!

The best part about this story is that it has another piece to it……

When I wrote to the Hartford Marathon Foundation to let them know who had won the raffle, Beth Shugler, CEO of the Hartford Marathon Foundation, told me that Mary Anne Lynch had been a long time volunteer for the foundation and how delighted she was that she had won.

It’s amazing how what goes around comes around….When we give, we often get back in a variety of ways. It was so great to see how excited she was to be a member of the Y and it was even better that she was connected in some way to our partnership with the Hartford Marathon.

Sue- Downtown

Paying it forward!

This past week I received a card from a woman who lives in Kansas who had reached out to me to ask if she could borrow our piano to practice for a Christmas show she was going to be in back home. She was traveling in Hartford and had no where that she could practice.

This is what she wrote…

Dear Sue,

Thank you so much for allowing me to practice the piano during my convention stay in Hartford.

As a stranger in a new city, I turned to churches and the YMCA for help. Thankfully, your organization was gracious to not only provide the needed space, but also to present a friendly and welcoming face. It’s amazing how kind gestures can make a lasting impression on an organization and a city!!

I feel this is admirable, and I would like to donate to the Strong Kids Campaign. Since our cantata is made up completely of volunteers and any donations that we receive are given to Christmas Baskets for the needy, I hope that our mutual efforts make a difference to those in need!!

Best wishes for the Holidays,

Linda Roberts

Paying it forward…….

Sue- Downtown