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By Merrian J. Brooks, DO, MS

I am writing this from my new desk as the lead pediatrician and research director for the Botswana UPENN Partnership. Botswana, a country the size of the US state of Texas with a population of a little more than 2 million people is one of my global health homes. The other is Jamaica.

10 years ago I graduated from medical school and I have been reflecting on my journey in medicine. Unlike some, I didn’t always want to be a physician. I admired scientists like Mae Jamison and Marie Curie, women who changed the world with their scientific contributions.  Then, as an undergraduate student, I discovered my passion for medicine during a study abroad semester in Ghana. I was a volunteer at the University of Ghana, Legon hospital. As an undergraduate student I didn’t have any technical skills so I just got to know the hospital system and helped out where I can. I helped check people in (which was very humbling!), helped clean rooms, helped gather and organize supplies, even changing some bed pans! After doing this for a several months I spent the last few weeks shadowing one of the only specialists in the hospital at the time (2004), a pediatrician. That’s when I decided I was going to be a physician. The world needed physicians and I could also change the world   maybe not as a Nobel laureate or trailblazing astronaut, but in a smaller way, as a compassionate, committed, and quality physician for the global underserved.

So, I went to medical school at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. There I worked with a trailblazer in global public health, Dr. Mario Grijalva PhD. She is a research scientist from Ecuador who has transformed the landscape of interventions for Chagas’ Disease in his home country. I travelled to Ecuador a few times with the Tropical Disease Institute that he and other scientists at Ohio University started. I learned a lot in preparation and when in Ecuador from Dr. Grijalva and is amazing team. What has stayed with me since then, though, and what I apply today in. my work in Botswana is that partnerships are vital, instead of seeing our colleagues in the countries we work in as conduits we partner with them. We help them with the resources we have, we lean on them as leaders, we collaborate as equals. Dr. Grijalva supports the education of countless Ecuadorian students at all levels and has brought his team to the US to further their education. As a team of US and Ecuadorian professionals this group has been able to do amazing work in many areas of public health in Ecuador.

As a pediatric resident I learned about how important global health concepts can be even in certain communities in the United States. I chose a residency that was in Camden New Jersey at a hospital system that serves as a safety net for a community with high rates of poverty, insurance that limits access to pediatric subspecialists, and social scenarios like high levels of community violence or food deserts that can make it hard for children to live full healthy lives. It was during my residency that I discovered the Issa Trust Foundations rotation program. What I loved about the program was that it was being well supported by the foundation. Many pediatricians came before me and many came after me and it felt like we were providing a service that really filled a need. Instead of being a once off visit all together we were ‘the pediatrician’ in these underserved parts of Northern Jamaica. I worked with Issa Trust Foundation several more times after that providing support when in the US and going on a few of the trips to do community screening and referrals. I still remember a song a few of the young men sang for us when we were preparing for a community pop-up clinic in St. Ann’s Bay. It was called Paper Cut, and it was about how their lost love had left the sting of a ‘paper cut’ on their hearts. I loved my time there. I felt like we were making a real difference. Connecting to services for the young man with cerebral palsy, providing treatments for infections and rashes, connecting people with chronic diseases like epilepsy with specialist, and also just being an listening ear providing support and reassurance to weary parents. I remember one mother that I saw a few times in Port Maria was so happy about getting her sons asthma under control that she brought me a bag of ‘ripe banana’ as thanks. Other families would bring me flowers, homemade jewelry, and homemade cards. I know that I was a part of a larger system that does a real service for kids on Jamaica, but I also know that taking care of those patients almost always made my heart sing. On one of those trips to Jamaica I remember sitting in the lobby of Couples Towers Isle and having my first of many deep conversations with Diane Pollard. What I remember most from that conversation is that she clearly worked hard to do the best she can so serve from a place of love. She and her small but mighty team worked tirelessly to continue to elevate the foundation so that it provided needed services, supplies, and expertise to fill the needs and requests of the expert pediatricians serving children every day in Jamaica. Of all that I learned between Camden and Jamaica in serving the underserved, I will always center my work, like Diane does, in love.

After completing training in pediatrics and then adolescent medicine I decided to pursue my calling in global health full time via a David N. Pincus Foundation Global Health Fellow with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. At that time four year ago I was able to be fully immersed in the health system in Botswana and really focus on how I can contribute, collaborate, and learn from and with my colleagues in Botswana. While here I have helped to enhance an adolescent health clinic, work with the ministry of health and wellness on guidelines, set up a research project that increases access to mental health services for adolescents and young adults and teach students of all levels about pediatrics and mostly about adolescent health. Most adolescents live in lower income resource limited settings, so I feel a particular affinity to teaching and building systems that work in all kinds of settings for adolescents. It can be difficult but building something that has a chance to serve youth for years to come, is so meaningful.

Now 10 years since graduating from medical school and A LOT of growth and development later I’ve accepted a position to be the Lead Pediatrician and Research Director of the Botswana UPENN partnership. Me and my husband and daughter will be based in Botswana for the next several years. Botswana is not just a good place for me to grow but it’s a place where I can authentically contribute and collaborate. My dear friend here in Botswana told me a few days ago, “Botswana had been good to you. You came here single as a fellow no kids and now! You must continue to be grateful for the blessings”. There are so many blessings. There are the blessings of amazing local mentors, colleagues and friends from Botswana. There are the blessings of a beautiful family that is with me and the privilege of having the most wonderful family and friends mentors and colleagues in the US (and Europe and Asia) who put in the work with us to stay connected. Even as I deal with grief and waves of disappointment because of covid I still can’t help but think wow, what a beautiful life I am privileged to live.
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Win A 5 Night Getaway at a Couples Resort of your choice! Enter by JULY 31st! Please join us in supporting the Issa Trust Foundation’s ONE LOVE SUMMER campaign, now through July 31st. Live drawing will be held on Saturday, August 14th. Your donations will go towards school supplies, critical medical equipment and supplies. We hope you will join us in showing and sharing your love for Jamaica! FOR EVERY US $50.00 DONATION, YOU WILL BE ENTERED TO WIN A GETAWAY FOR TWO AT A COUPLES RESORT OF YOUR CHOICE. Enter to win: Go to https://bit.ly/2EVNmgA to donate US $50.00 Learn more about Couples Resorts: https://couples.com/
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Stephen ‘Cat’ Coore shares a message and an appeal to corporations and organizations to give what support you can to the Issa Trust Foundation:

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2013 was the first year our Lions of Michigan Vision Mission Team partnered with the Issa Trust Foundation to bring much needed vision care to the school children of Jamaica. Lions Clubs International is the largest service organization in the world with 1.4 million members in 209 countries, with a worldwide mission of “We Serve”.

Our Lions Vision Mission team was started in 1992 by Dr. Dennis Cobler, initially making a yearly mission to Central America. Eyeglasses are collected by Lion’s members throughout the State of Michigan and brought to our recycling center. Here, every pair of glasses is inspected for damage or scratches and the “keepers” are washed, dried and then measured for their prescription. The unusable glasses are sent to a recycling center where the plastic and metal are completely recycled. Nothing is wasted. The clean/measured glasses are placed in a plastic bag with the prescription inscribed on a label. These prescriptions are then entered in our computer database and then each bag is given a number before it is packed in a box in numerical order. These glasses are then shipped to the mission site.

On the mission site, the patients have their eyes screened by an auto-refractor that measures their prescription and eye alignment objectively. The patient then sees the eye doctor, using this electronic screening as a starting point and then further examining the patient’s eyes for more precise prescription needs and complete eye health.

If glasses are needed, the prescription is entered into the computer program and the closest used glasses we have to that prescription are given to the patient. The glasses are adjusted on each patient’s head along with education on when to wear them and how to care for the glasses. If we do not have glasses close to the proper prescription, we have the patient select a new frame and we have the glasses made in the US. The finished, brand new glasses are then sent back to the patient through the Issa Trust Foundation.

During non-COVID times, we collect 500,000 of used glasses a year. Lions’ volunteers collect the glasses and perform all the recycling duties in a weekly session at the recycling center.

Our mission team to Jamaica usually consist of 4-6 Lions Optometrists and up to 10 more Lions volunteers that do the preliminary testing, computer operations and dispensing the glasses to the patients.

In Jamaica, we examine school age children from 1st grade through high school. We try to examine 200-300 students a day for 4 days. In the 9 missions we have made with the Issa Trust foundation, we have examined almost 7,200 patients and provided 1,750 pairs of glasses.

Issa Trust Foundation, headed by Diane Pollard, is the invaluable teammate that makes this all possible. Diane coordinates all the mission sites where we work, whether it is right in the school or at a local church. Diane obtains permission from all the student’s parents for us to examine them and coordinates with the teachers and administrators to schedule the students into our makeshift clinic. Diane also facilitates all the paperwork required by the Jamaican government for us to operate with our professional licenses in the country and the volunteer permits required. The Issa Trust Foundation transports our used glasses into Jamaica and secures them and our equipment before our arrival. Finally, our safe travel to and from the airport, the mission sites and our accommodations in country all are provided by the Issa Trust Foundation.
From the very nearsighted student that could only see three inches from his face clearly, to the very farsighted student that could not count their fingers in front of their face, we provide much needed eyecare for the students of Jamaica. We use vision for 80% of what we learn. The future is positively different for Jamaican students because of the partnership between the Issa Trust Foundation and the Lions of Michigan Vision Mission Team.

If you would like to help the vision mission initiative, used eyeglasses can be sent in boxes of any size to:

Lions of Michigan Eyeglass Recycling
4060 29th Str. SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49512

In Service and Friendship,
Lion Dr. Gary Anderson
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The National Health Fund (NHF) has received pharmaceutical drugs valued at US$900,000 geared towards boosting inpatient and outpatient care across Jamaica. This contribution to the country’s health system was made possible by Direct Relief in partnership with the Issa Trust Foundation.
Read Full Article Here
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From the very first moment we set foot in Jamaica we were awestruck with the beauty of the island, its culture, vibe and most of all the warmth of its people.

Like many, our early visits were pretty much confined to soaking up the sunshine, tranquility and taking in the laid-back vibe of the beautiful resorts on the island. We discovered Couples Resorts on our second trip to the island and, from that moment, we knew we had discovered something truly unique and special – a place that we would long to return to year after year for over 15 years now. Our desire to return to this incredible slice of heaven only intensified as the years went on often returning “Home” two, sometimes even three, times a year when possible. Being an avid photographer, my visual senses often would go into overdrive during our trips as it seemed everywhere I turned or looked there was something of beauty or interest that I felt compelled to capture for personal remembrances and to share with others. My eyes were fascinated by the ever-shifting light, color and natural beauty within the resorts. Capturing it all became somewhat of an obsession and it seemed at times I could barely walk 20 feet without having to stop and take a picture often times much to the dismay of my wife…thanks for being patient and supportive of my passion over the years, Deb.

As time went on, we began stepping outside the gates of the resort, at first just to visit some of the local eating establishments and attractions. Never did I imagine these first experiences outside the gates would lead to an ever-greater desire to explore and capture what I now think of as the “real” Jamaica. I found with each trip a yearning to go deeper into the country to explore the natural beauty, see its people as they really live and to learn more about their culture and customs. This desire ultimately culminated in an all-day adventure exploring beautiful coastlines and coastal towns before turning inward to go through the back roads, mountains and interior of Jamaica between Negril & Ochi. What an awakening that trip was for us. My (our) perspective of Jamaica forever changed on that day, not only from how much natural beauty existed outside the walls of the resorts in the countryside, but also a realization and appreciation for the simpleness and challenges of life outside the place we all call paradise and home. Yet perhaps one of the greatest impressions left upon our minds from that adventure was a realization that there is truly genuine warmth and an almost unbreakable spirit of optimism and hope in the people of Jamaica despite many having so little. It’s hard to explain, but, in what so many might see as difficulty and sadness, we witnessed so much happiness and gratitude for life and family.

Over the years prior to my involvement with the Issa Trust Foundation, we had developed several deep personal relationships and connections with some in Jamaica. Real relationships built on mutual respect for each other that last to this day. We have been welcomed into their homes to meet and celebrate with their family & friends and they have, likewise, been welcomed into ours. We have prepared meals together, sitting at the same table with their children and, likewise, they have here with our children, grandchildren and friends. We have been invited to join in celebrations of life & death and have always been welcomed by so many with open, loving arms. This is the true spirit and warmth of the Jamaican people we have come to know. It is these early relationships and experiences that surely helped form a foundation of understanding, awareness and compassion that would eventually prepare the way for my involvement with the Issa Trust Foundation.

Perhaps no other event would more dramatically influence and change the course of my personal destiny than a chance meeting of two other resort guests who were planning to take school supplies to the children through the Couples / Issa Trust Foundation School Excursion Program. I was fascinated by their eagerness and sense of responsibility and grateful for the invitation to join them. The next day, with camera in hand, I boarded a bus with them and several others and set off into the hills outside of Ocho Rios to get a firsthand view of school life of the children of Jamaica. We spent several hours together touring the school, speaking with teachers and administrators, sitting in classrooms with the children as they did their lessons. I remember being completely overwhelmed by the stark contrast of my own school life as a child as compared to theirs and how very little the students and teachers seemed to have in terms of resources, equipment, supplies & facilities and how antiquated or broken everything seemed to be that they did have. It was like stepping back in time…way back in time. My eyes and heart would soon become filled with joy as the children exploded out of the classrooms into the courtyard for recess / lunch, almost seeming oblivious to us as they darted about us with so much enthusiasm and happiness going about their business. Girlfriends walking arm in arm while groups of boys chased each other around the courtyard, everyone gathering at the community drinking fountains to quench their thirsts and interact before darting or skipping off elsewhere. I remember thinking to myself children are children everywhere…. their eyes wide open to the world, full of happiness, wonderment and hope. I couldn’t help but wonder what might become of them in time when they would one day face the harsh realities and challenges of their world that lay ahead which for now seemed so distant in their minds. I will never forget their initial shyness, their ultimate curiosity and their eventual openness to us being amongst them. It’s such an incredible feeling when you earn a one child’s trust and suddenly find yourself surrounded by so many smiling curious little faces. I still carry that same feeling of joy with me to this day every time I get to go see them. It was during these moments here that I took my very first of what would eventually become many thousands of photos of the children of Jamaica, and it was here that I first became familiar and appreciative of the amazing work being done by the Issa Trust Foundation. I would leave this experience with the children with an even greater consciousness of the struggles of others and a greater appreciation of who and what the Foundation is and does for the children and people of Jamaica. Thank you, Elizabeth & Steve, for your humanity and opening my eyes on that day and for your ongoing amazing friendship.

Upon my return home, I reviewed and processed the photographs I had taken and thought the images might be useful in helping tell the story of the Foundation so I reached out to Diane Pollard, President and CEO of the Issa Trust Foundation asking if she might be able to put them to some good use. She gratefully accepted them. With this first experience with the children and Foundation still fresh in my mind, a short while later I learned of an upcoming Vision Mission and reached back out to Diane asking if I could volunteer my photography skills to help capture the event. Mission budgetary constraints however at the time did not afford for her to offer me that opportunity. I so deeply wanted to be part of the amazing work being done that I decided I would reach back out to Diane again and offer to pay my own way and expenses to be a part of the effort. I am so very thankful she decided to accept my offer. Thus, began what has been an incredible 5+ year journey and friendship with one of the most inspiring motivated persons I have ever had the privilege to meet and work with.

It would be impossible in such limited space to speak of all the incredible and emotional experiences of the many medical, educational, vision, and general humanitarian related missions I have been on with the Issa Trust Foundation since that moment. So let it suffice to say a picture is worth a thousand words and I hope I have served the Foundation well in this capacity of helping them visually convey the needs of the children and people of Jamaica as well as assembling and sharing the extraordinary visual stories of the Foundation’s humanitarian efforts. I am truly incredibly blessed and fortunate to be a part of such an amazing organization and cause.

Without a doubt, these have been some of the most gratifying and fulfilling moments of my life. I am in constant awe of all the amazing people I have had the privilege to meet and work with on this incredible journey. So many unsung heroes who give so generously and unselfishly of their time and / or resources to make life a just a little better for others. It is an honor to call so many of them dear friends. I encourage you all, no matter what cause you choose to support, to consider being a force of positive change in the lives of others less fortunate. Reach out, volunteer your time, your skills, your knowledge and your resources for the betterment of the next person. I assure you no matter how slight the gesture of kindness it can come back to you tenfold and change your life in ways you could never imagine possible and most certainly result in a change in the lives of others forever.

God willing, I will be back in person as soon as we are able, to continue documenting the good work of the Issa Trust Foundation, Couples Resorts, the Issa family, Diane Pollard and all of the amazing people of the Foundation who so generously give of their time and all of you who contribute to the well-being of the children and people of Jamaica.

With utmost respect and gratitude. One love.

Chris Panetta, Photographer/Videographer
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The Issa Trust Foundation (ITF) on Saturday handed over personal protective equipment and medical equipment valued at US$286,529 (approximately J$40 million) to the North East Regional Health Authority (NERHA) in a ceremony at Couples Tower Isle hotel. Read full article here.
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THE CHILDREN IN JAMAICA NEED TABLETS TO CONTINUE THEIR EDUCATION

Please join us in supporting the Issa Trust Foundation’s tablet campaign, now through February 24th. Live drawing will be held on February 25th. Your donation will go towards providing 40 tablets for each resort. so that the children of the employees can continue down the path of education. $150.00 will sponsor one tablet for a child. We also invite you to encourage family, friends, and companies to consider sponsoring a tablet!

FOR EVERY US $50.00 DONATION, YOU’LL BE ENTERED TO WIN A GETAWAY FOR TWO AT A COUPLES RESORT OF YOUR CHOICE. Here is how you enter to win:
  1. 1. Go to our Donate Now on the website and at least US $50.
  2. 2. We’ll announce the winner during our live drawing on February 25th.

*All bookings subject to availability. Certain blackout dates apply. Airfare not included. Limited between March 1, 2021 to March 1, 2022.

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Our focus on the health of our less fortunate citizens goes to the heart of mankind’s need to nourish the soul by caring for the bodies of our suffering brothers and sisters. Read more in our newsletter here.
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The legendary Third World band can add Goodwill Reggae Ambassadors to their resume. The group was recently signed by the Issa Trust Foundation – the non-profit arm of Couples Resorts Jamaica. In making the announcement, Diane Pollard, president and CEO, stated, “It is fitting that, on the anniversary of last year’s very successful fundraising concert, ‘An Evening with Air Supply and Third World’ featuring Koffee, that the hosts of the event, the Issa Trust Foundation, is announcing that the legendary Third World has come on board as Goodwill Reggae Ambassadors for the foundation as they continue the work being done to enrich the lives of children in Jamaica.”…   Full Article Here
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