Building hope by building homes in Jamaica

If there are better ways to spend a New Year’s holiday than performing a decidedly amateur rendition of Billy Joel’s “The River of Dreams” before a small but appreciative audience in a remote Jamaican community — Jim Hiltz can’t think of any.

Nd Mba Mustard Seed Jamaica

Hiltz and Zachary Pedersen, both University of Notre Dame MBA Class of 2018, devoted a week of their winter break to a special building project in the tiny community of Jacob’s Ladder. Located on 100 acres in the smack-dab middle of Jamaica — far from the island nation’s more glamorous vacation spots — Jacob’s Ladder has a simple mission: to provide a home for individuals with mental and physical disabilities over the age of 18. Otherwise, they would have nowhere to go.

“Without Jacob’s Ladder, it would be horrible over there for these individuals, unless they somehow had a family member who would take them in, which was not common,” said Hiltz. The alternatives were to place disabled children in orphanages, or simply abandon them on the street.

Jacob’s Ladder is part of a larger initiative, Mustard Seed Communities (MSC), an international nonprofit founded in 1978 by Monsignor Gregory Ramkissoon. MSC’s mission is to care for vulnerable populations throughout the developing world, which includes children and adults with disabilities or HIV/AIDs, as well as young mothers in crisis across Jamaica, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. 

Pedersen and Hiltz traveled to the community, which is located in the village of Moneague, with a group of 14 men from parishes in northern Kentucky, including Hiltz’s father and brother. Hiltz’s father had been traveling to Jacob’s Ladder for more than a decade; this was Hiltz’s third trip and Pedersen’s first.

The two Notre Dame students spent their days hauling heavy loads of cement and hammering nails as the team constructed rooms on two structures. The residential buildings are modest but well-built, each accommodating six residents and a medical attendant. There currently is enough capacity for about 150 individuals, but Mustard Seed has hopes of scaling to 500 or more.

Mixed in the daily work schedule was an opportunity to get to know the residents, and to spend time with others in their group reflecting on their faith, and what it means to make a difference.

“Every time that I’ve gone, the impact is there,” said Hiltz, who had made the trip three times with his father and brother, and others from his home parish in northern Kentucky. “You can see it in just the physical work that we leave, but we make an impact beyond that, as well—on the residents themselves and the other people that work there to help support the residents. There’s also time at Mass, time for reflection and just the bonding of doing hard work for a week straight.  You get to know people better and you make an impact in that way.”


For Pedersen, even the walk to work brought inspiration. “Every single day on the way to the work site or on the way to lunch, we interact with the kids,” he said.  “They would always be so joyful.  One day we gave soccer balls and footballs out and everybody just exploded with energy and excitement. It was awesome to see.”


And then there was the highlight of the week — the Thursday night concert.


“The caregivers and actually the residents are very spiritual, and they really enjoy music and singing,” said Hiltz. “So every year we visit, on Thursday night, they put on what they call like a concert for us. Some of the nurses will get up and sing some songs, and then some of the residents will get up there and either do a dance or a song, or read a poem. And then they ask us to do something.”


Cue Billy Joel.


“It wasn’t a Grammy-winning performance,” Hiltz admits. “But they just get so excited and you can just see the joy that they have, despite the fact that they’ve been given a tough situation in life. But they don’t let that hold them back from having fun and being happy.”  


Originally published by Carol Elliott at on February 23, 2018.