My Post-Irma Trip to St. Martin: Part 4 – Sometimes in Life it’s All About a Smile

This post is the fourth in a series of posts I am writing about my first post-Irma trip to Saint Martin. I hope you can join me for all of them. Here is a link to the first, second, and third posts in the series.

December 31, 2017 – In a world where it seems as if mass-consumption tilts towards content that’s most shocking and dramatic, sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back, adjust and simplify. Instead of trying to solve all of the world’s problems at once, perhaps it’s best to start with one simple goal. What if life is simply all about a smile?

That’s the approach that Jeff Jhangiani and Jacky Rom have taken. When Jeff and Jacky landed in Sint Maarten and began to see what Irma had done to their adopted home, their first reaction was to break down in tears. It’s not scary here, but it is different. There are things that are simply gone. As if they never existed in the first place.

If you’ve never visited the island, you’d never know the difference. Sure, you’ll see buildings, cars and boats that have been ravaged by Irma, but how could you ever know that a bar, restaurant, or business once stood on what’s now a weed filled lot.

For all the physical alterations that Irma made, there’s an island full of emotional, human turmoil that’s been leveled on beautiful Saint Martin. One person told me it was as if Irma was a re-birth, a change to the core of the island that will live on with it forever. In a way, it was a cleansing. There is an appreciation for life in Saint Martin like you’ve never seen in a place. A new hope exists in the heart and soul of the people who survived the storm. Most feel like they’ve been given a second chance at life. Saved.

For me, this trip to Saint Martin has been about wanting to stop being an observer and start being a participant in the recovery and rebuild of this wonderful place. For Jeff and Jacky, as soon as they landed they started to participate.

Just about 9 weeks ago, Jeff and Jacky joined forces. They started by going to the hardest hit, most impoverished areas on Saint Martin. Bringing food, toys, linens, whatever they could gather from friends and family. Every single day they travelled and brought those with the greatest need a little more hope.

As they continued their mission, word started to get out about what they were doing. Donations started to pour in. People on the island were donating and people who visited were coming with suitcases filled with toys, clothes, you name it. Every single day they’d go out and give back. And it’s not what they are doing that makes this a great story, it’s how they’re doing it.

“I think it’s important to ask the people we are helping exactly what they need, and what they like,” Jeff shared with me. “I don’t want to just bring them food, that’s not good enough, these are people and they deserve a choice in what they get.”

There’s something transcendent in those words. Jeff and Jacky understand the human element of what they’re doing. They understand that in order to help those in need it’s not only about giving, it’s also about relating to people on a personal level. They want to be there, in person, hugging, shaking hands, talking and getting to know people, not just giving things, but giving respect. The people they help are important to them, they are important to this island, important to this world.

I was introduced to Jeff and Jacky, by SXM Angie, shortly after my arrival here in Sint Maarten. I met with Jeff over lunch on Saturday, December 30, 2017. We talked about the island, he shared his experiences with me, and told me about what he and Jacky had been doing. They decided that their mission wasn’t short term, and that they want to keep doing it well into the future. They’ve started the process to set up an NGO (non-profit organization) in Sint Maarten. The name is All About a Smile.

Jeff invited me to tour the island the following day, on New Years Eve, to help distribute toys, linens, gifts, food and building supplies. I humbly accepted his invitation.

Our first stop was to drop off some donations to an orphanage in French Quarter. Miss Sadi Webster — or Mama Webster — runs a home with 19 children ranging in ages from three to fifteen years-old. It’s one of the poorest areas on the island and not likely to be a place that many tourists go, unless they make a wrong turn.

The kids were all there, enjoying a New Years Eve lunch under the one light that was working in the house. There is an electrical issue that was caused by the storm, so in addition to the supplies that we were bringing, Jeff had arranged for an electrician to accompany us to hopefully assess what the problem was. It wasn’t to be. The electrician didn’t show up. Reliability can sometimes be an issue and today that was the case. So, we left the donations and the promise to find a more reliable electrician as soon as possible.

Our next stop was to the Dutch Quarter — another very poor area of the island. There we met with a couple who lived in a shipping container that they’d converted into a home, complete with a kitchen and two small bedrooms. The living room is outside, in the dirt lot next to their home. Daniel, the husband, is working on a project to add another room to the backside of the container using cement blocks and mortar. They needed more cement blocks though, several pallets still necessary to complete the job.

Jeff and Jacky could’ve easily arranged to have the blocks delivered without ever coming by the home. But they were adamant about coming to meet the couple face-to-face to find out exactly what they needed and where to get it from. Sometimes the human touch can mean so much more than a simple donation without questions.

We made two more stops that day. One to another orphanage called ‘I Can’ — run by a lovely, warm woman named Cassandra — filled with kids that were abandoned by their parents and left to fend for themselves. I asked her what happens to the kids when they leave her home after they reach 18 years-old. She gave me a look of despair and told me she wanted to convert two containers into apartments for older kids, where they can stay until they get their footing as adults. That’s a future project that All About a Smile has added to their growing list.

The final stop of the day was to drop off donations at a place called Centre Symphorien D’Insertion or CSI for short. It’s another place that helps children in the impoverished French Quarter. Jeff and Jacky had been there a week earlier to have a Christmas party. When asked about the party, Jeff shared, “We got the names of every one of the children so each one could have their own gift for Christmas.”

This was but one of the many days that Jeff and Jacky have been doing this, and they have no plans to stop. Jeff acknowledges that there has long been a need on the island of Saint Martin to help those less fortunate, particularly children in need. And that’s what they plan to keep doing with All About a Smile.

Their goal is to help families and organizations that serve children and young people on the island of Saint Martin. They are currently accepting donations of clothing, household items, food, and money (donate here), and they welcome volunteers to aid them in this incredible mission. This is a world wide effort to help those in Saint Martin who face the greatest hardships.

If you’re looking for a grassroots organization to support, one that you can donate to and be assured that your donation will have the maximum impact to help those in Saint Martin who need it most, please consider giving to this wonderful organization. And if you’re planning to visit anytime in the future, be sure to contact Jeff or Jacky to inquire about how to deliver donations yourself to those in need. Then you too will see that post-Irma on Saint Martin really is all about a smile.

Please help rebuild SXM and give today. Click here to visit the SXM Strong donate page.

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Jon Strong

I am a U.S. citizen living in Phoenix, Arizona, with my wife and two sons. My family considers Saint Martin a second home and we’ve been there countless times. We love the culture, the people, the community, and the beauty of this island. The people have always made us feel at home and welcome.

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