Driving around California during her graduate school experience in 2016, Bobbi Rossiter pondered the fact that she was doing a disservice to her two young children by not exposing them to the Jamaican culture she grew up in. Having left her island home at the age of 16 to move to the United States with her family, she had a strong yearning to share this aspect of their heritage with her children. Searching for a solution online garnered no immediate results and she knew she had to do something about it.
“I am not very good at not doing anything when I see a problem, I am the kind of person who will stretch the hours in my day so that I can fit more in to solve it,” says Rossiter, co-founder and chief cultural facilitator of Irie Camp Jamaica, LLC. “It bothers me tremendously when there is an unsolved problem and there isn’t even an effort to find a solution.” Identifying this gap, she thought to herself, “My problem isn’t going away. I still have two kids I want to expose to Jamaican culture.”
Building the Basics
On her quest to find a resource for her children, the military spouse thought a camp onsite in Jamaica could be the answer. In her groundwork, she researched Jewish camps where children traveled to Israel, but that was as close to a model she could find to her idea. Her go-to guide on the matter was her uncle, the director of the Jamaica Cultural Development Center (JCDC) at the time, who admitted there wasn’t anything in the works that parents like her could take advantage of while living abroad.
“This is not an answer I would usually take sitting down and so I didn’t,” says Rossiter. Her uncle’s sudden passing in 2017 brought planning to an abrupt but short-lived halt. “I picked back the idea again and decided to do this in his memory because this is something that he would have wanted to see thrive.” She formed Irie Camp Jamaica in 2017, undertaking the necessary training and learning about running a business. “I never pictured myself an entrepreneur so I learned about the industry and how to do this right.”
Irie Camp Jamaica consists of two one-week sessions held at St. Hilda's Diocesan High School campus in Brown’s Town, Saint Ann. The camp is for children ages 6-17, with day camp and resident camp options and each week has a theme. The first week is always Irie, that quintessential Jamaican term signifying good times. The second is independence week encompassing two Jamaican holidays – Emancipation Day and Independence Day.
Creating a Community
The inaugural camp last year saw 20 local children participate each week. Cultural experts shared different aspects of art, stories, music, and dance, and local performance groups visited to showcase other elements. “Our focus is Jamaican culture and any kid that wants to experience that is welcome,” shares Rossiter, who also still works at her day job as a program manager. “The first year with only local kids proved that even those on the island could benefit from connecting with their culture through authentic means.”
That’s an aspect Rossiter understands all too well. Born and raised in Jamaica, the 34-year-old mompreneur has now lived outside of the country longer than in it. She also lived in Japan for four years and now calls Maryland home. Hers was a conscious decision not to lose her Jamaican identity which she owns she took for granted when younger. Working as a summer camp counselor when in college left a mark on her. “I wanted to make sure I was setting up a camp to have a similar kind of impact on kids.”
Connecting with Culture
The camp includes storytelling and music components. “You can’t have stories and not have music because one of the things Jamaica is famous for is its music,” says Rossiter. The focus though is on historical music and traditional instruments. Also, of course, there is art so children can learn to work with their hands to make, for example, whistles out of tree leaves. Last year’s campers learned to make coconut drops and play music with household items like pot covers.
“We use music, dance and art as opportunities to talk about the culture and then give the children activities to cement it all together,” she shares. Local cuisine is also an integral part of the camp and the food served is all Jamaican. “You can’t talk about Jamaican culture and immerse kids in it without offering them the food!”
Camps this year will take place July 28 – August 2 and August 4-9. Plans are on to offer three weeks of camp next year that will extend to 4-6 weeks in the next five years. “We are looking to grow and want to increase reach and demand. We will never turn a kid away.”
Rossiter shares, “That’s one of the beautiful things about my island home, we really do live by the national motto, ‘Out of Many One People.’ There are no strangers.” As it so happens, Camp Irie takes places in the same location where Rossiter graduated from high school. “A lot of who I am today was formed on that campus. I want kids somewhere in the world someday in the future to think back about camp and see how that thread connected get them to where they are today. I am looking forward to that.”