Cathy Keefe and her daughter, Ashley Keefe, don't mind getting a little dirty and sweaty when they visit Jamaica.
It is all part of the package.
While most people head for the resorts where they can soak up the sun and take dips in the ocean, the Keefes' destination is closer to the middle of the island. They stay in Chapelton, Jamaica, home of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish, the sister church of Sacred Heart Parish of Altoona.
Cathy of Altoona and Ashley of Palmyra have traveled to the island nation four times with others from Altoona and central Pennsylvania. Three of those trip involved working on projects to improve life for people.
The trips began about 12 years ago, when Cathy and Ashley were among a group that visited St. Robert Bellarmine Parish and the community to see what life was like in the parish that was Sacred Heart's sister church. Sacred Heart is one of 19 parishes in the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown that have sister churches in Jamaica. Among them are the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Altoona and St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Hollidaysburg.
The relationships began 15 years ago when the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and the Diocese of Mandeville, Jamaica, began a twinning program. Known as The Global Solidarity Partnership, it has created a bond between the churches of central Pennsylvania and south-central Jamaica.
The program benefits everyone involved, said Sister Patti Rossi, C.S.J., the assistant director of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown missions office.
"It binds us together spiritually, culturally and mutually," she said. "We are brothers and sisters in one human family. We are different, but we are the same."
In addition to the twinning program, all 89 churches in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese have an opportunity to be part of the partnership.
Each Ash Wednesday, (Feb. 13 this year) the collections taken at all Masses are designated for the Diocese of Mandeville. The money is used for evangelization, education and medical resources in the Mandeville diocese, Sister Patti said.
Collections are also taken monthly at the 19 churches to support their twin church or ministry. Individuals and churches add further support by sponsoring a child in an orphanage, school or children's home.
The short-term missions experiences began after that trip in 2000 where parishioners from the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown made a cordial visit to Jamaica. After that trip. Cathy wanted to do more. She wanted to return, not as a guest but as a worker. She and the others on the trip saw many needs that could be fixed with a little manpower.
Cathy then worked with Sister Patti to form a missions team with Sacred Heart taking its first trip to Jamaica in 2005 followed by trips in 2007 and 2011.
Sister Patti, one of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden, had lived in Jamaica for about 10 years in the 1990s, along with two other sisters. They provided leadership training for the various ministries at parishes and schools.
Her knowledge and relationships are invaluable to people who take part in the mission experiences. She said she usually accompanies groups taking the trip for the first time and sometimes makes return trips with teams.
Ashley said having Sister Patti on the trip brings a sense of comfort to the workers.
Once in Chapelton, the work begins. Cathy, who has helped to organize the trips from Sacred Heart, has helped to build homes, spruce up the parish and organize textbooks at the Catholic school. She also helped to convert two storage rooms into a teacher supply area and school library. Ashley enjoys working with the children, playing games, making crafts or just giving out hugs. In addition to Ashley, Cathy's husband, Ray, has lent a hand in Jamaica.
And after a hard day's work, the teams return to their accommodations - homes with running water and electricity, but there is no hot water or air conditioning.
"They don't have much, but they give you what they have," Cathy said.
She said about 70 percent of the people are unemployed.
Ashley explained that Sacred Heart provides the money for the work projects. While tools and building materials are to be available when the teams arrive, it does not always happen, said Sister Patti.
Ashley was part of a crew that made a visit to a hardware store to buy needed supplies and said the trip is nothing like going to a neighborhood home improvement center.
The hardware store only allows the purchase of one item at a time. If the crew needs boards and nails, they can purchase the boards but must get back in line to buy the nails.
Construction is a hands-on experience. Ashley remembers one trip where she carried 2-by-4s on her head for about one-half mile.
"It's a different way of life," Ashley said. "You have to respect that."
"They don't marry," Cathy said. "I think the priest said he only performed one marriage in 10 years."
Despite the lack of wedlock, couples have many children. Often lacking the means to care for their offspring, many families place their children in orphanages where they have food, shelter and an education.
During their three mission trips, jobs to benefit the students were carried out, including installing new swings at the playground and building a mini bridge to cross the schoolyard.
On the last trip, the new library was stocked with books by donated by Catholic students in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. School desks, chairs and other furniture were donated by Moshannon Valley School District and transported to the Jamaicans under the direction of Food for the Poor, an international relief organization.
St. Robert Bellarmine Parish also received gifts. The Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown sent a Stations of the Cross, a cross, a holy water font, baptismal font and ambo from a parish that had closed.
While the days are filled with work, the mission groups also have fun. They hang out with the kids, playing volleyball and other games. One year the group from Sacred Heart held a carnival a first for the Jamaicans with a fish pond, games and token presents.
Because the Jamaicans have little, the travelers take old suitcases filled with gently worn clothes and shoes they leave behind.
For one trip, the Keefe's other daughter, Brande, decorated and sent 50 to 100 pairs of flip-flops.
The suitcases, too, are given to the Jamaicans to serve as drawers for clothes that can be stored under beds.
The members of the team leave with basically the shirts on their backs, but they don't give it a second thought.
The friendships that have developed over the short period make it difficult to say goodbye.
"Everyone is in tears," Cathy said.