Several years ago I phoned Food For The Poor to ask founder Ferdinand Mahfood about their plan to build 2,000 houses in Jamaica. His well spoken assistant told me Mr. Mahfood was out of the country. He sounded young so out of curiosity I asked him about himself. His name was Romeo Effs and he was 29. I found the idea of a young guy doing charity work unusual. How had he ended up there? It’s a long story he laughed. Sounds interesting I said, tell me more. Sure he answered. But he was busy, so check back next day.
Romeo seemed to be always busy. But when I caught up with him his story indeed proved intriguing. (It occurs to me now that I know Romeo only by phone and have no idea what he even looks like.)
At 19 Romeo was general secretary of the JLP youth arm and the Caribbean Youth Congress, and co-founder of the Jamaica National Youth Council. He laughingly recalls Ian Boyne introducing him on TV as a “potential future prime minister”. Romeo became an airline executive and later an airport projects officer. He was also ran a thriving event management firm, and helped to organize the NDM youth arm. At 28 he was a success in every way. Except one.
“I had a good career, a lovely girlfriend, a happy family background. I lacked nothing. Yet I felt empty. There was this yearning for something more. One day Fabian, a friend I hadn’t seen for years, called saying I just ran on his mind. He had resigned his job to work at the St Patrick Foundation. I had laughed at him once for giving up his career. But now I was beginning to understand. He couldn’t talk long as had to go to Food For The Poor. So I tagged along.
I knew nothing about FFTP then. But then executive director Milton Ettrick told me how they helped people. I was impressed and said call me if you need volunteers. He asked about my background and I told him I was a project manager. He remarked that they needed a project officer and described the job. But I didn’t give it much thought.
On the way home I kept thinking how FFTP project officer seemed right up my street. So I called Mr. Ettrick and went for an interview. It went well, until the salary came up. I was earning twice as much and couldn’t see myself working for that. He understood, but FFTP operated on a strict budget. Only 8% of intake went to administration and 92% to actual relief.
Then Sam Mahfood called me in. He said I was someone who could grow with the organization and they really wanted me. I was almost convinced but then he said they couldn’t raise the salary and reality broke in again. I just couldn’t pay my rent and car payments on that. So I said I’d get back to him.
I went to visit my grandma, who is my soul mate. My father died when I was nine and my mother taught two shifts to make ends meet. So I grew up with grandma. She always told us some things in life are more important than money. And she insisted on us helping the less fortunate. On Sundays she would always cook extra food and have us bring some to people who didn’t have any.
She knew of my dissatisfaction. And I told her I liked the job but the salary was rough. She knew my dream of one day becoming marketing vice president for Air Jamaica. But grandma was a bible person, and pointed out that Jesus didn’t worry about food or money. He simply served the less fortunate and had faith in his father. I had to develop that faith.
Of course it sounded good. But the reality of my payments. She said Romeo, that job will give you the satisfaction you are looking for. No wife or friend or family or job can give you the satisfaction that comes from serving the poor. Then she asked me what sacrifices I would have to make. I said rent and car loan. Well get a cheaper place she said. And I could live without a car. I started thinking it might make sense. But still.
Two weeks later Ferdinand Mahfood called me over. He was a different version of grandma. How important it was to serve poor. The internal satisfaction. How being Christian is not about you but about what you do. All things I had heard before. But then he asked me Romeo, how much do you want God to pay you for doing his work? That struck me inside. But still thinking of the salary I said God knows my needs. He wrote an offer and said think about it and get back to him.
After the interview I felt distraught and guilty, and drove straight to grandma while still in my suit. Before I even got out she pointed at me and said Romeo take that job! In my family we said she had a straight line to God. And she said she had meditated and God had told her this is the job I need. I might not stay in it all my life but it would change me forever.
My girlfriend was supportive. But my friends were shocked. They understood giving money or time to charity, but my entire career? I remembered Fabian and me!
On Friday Mr. Mahfood called and I said I’ll take the job. He said good, see you Monday. On Sunday I checked out a cheaper apartment I saw in the papers, but it was taken. I was walking to the car disappointed when someone called out Romeo. I looked up and saw an old school girlfriend. I told her the situation and she laughed. You working for charity?! But she was moving to the US, so did I want her apartment? I couldn’t believe it. I said is God this. What a co-incidence. But there have been so many of them since I now call them God incidents.
I sold my car and begged drives and someone was always willing. But three weeks into the job Mr. Mahfood made me his assistant and gave me a car to use. I was shocked again. I had been asking God to make things work out and justify the trust I put in him. Because I had never put all my eggs in one basket before. And he didn’t disappoint. Since I have been at FFTP I have never lacked for anything. Grandma always said your blessings multiply when you help others. This is certainly true for me.
Working here has convinced me more than ever that if you trust in God and serve him he will always provide for you. And I have never had such personal, emotional and spiritual satisfaction. Today’s society urges you to push for material success – possessions and status and money. But the only real success is inner success.
As Mr. Mahfood says, in order to serve God the ego must die. Most of us live in a vacuum of me, myself and I. And a lot of uptown Jamaicans act as if people from poor areas are not the same flesh and blood as them. I always knew we are all the same but I have now learnt it in my heart. I take friends with me when I can. To show them what I have learnt.”
Who says all young Jamaicans are selfish and materialistic?
Written by Kevin O’Brien Chang
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