After an hour and a half drive from Kingston, with scenic views of the valleys, peaks, and lush vegetation, we arrived at our destination: the St. Anns Bay chapter of Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL). Excited for the opportunity to see the work this great civil society organization does, we all clamored out of our shuttle to a quaint unmarked building on a hill, with a stunning view of the bay. Met with warm smiles from the Chapter’s staff, and cute baby goats frolicking around a well-maintained yard, I marched up into the building and experienced something much different than I expected.

From hearing about the work of JASL regionally, and interacting with their well-informed and professional management team earlier in the week, I was expecting a state of the art facility with very formal, professionally-distant staff. Instead, I encountered a humble establishment with the friendliest, warmest and most inviting and passionate staff I have ever come across. I would be remiss to even call them mere staff as, from observation, they operated more as a tight knit family.

Throughout the day, there were several presentations and a tour of their facility, with a demonstration of processes, to showcase how they eagerly serve their community. The purpose of this learning exchange was to witness JASL’s service delivery, community engagement, and collaboration models. From the onset of the various presentations, of which many were very informative, it was clear that the team had an unwavering passion for the work that they do, and were very informed about their roles and how they aid in the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

However, the highlight of the chapter visit was the fishbowl exercise; where the JASL team invited a few of their clients so that we could experience their stories. Having never heard of a fishbowl exercise, I was very keen on seeing how it would work. For those who may not know what it is, it is where you have your clients, the ‘fish’, sit in a complete circle, the ‘bowl’, and everyone else, the ‘observers’, sit outside the circle. The goal was to replicate how one would observe fish in a fishbowl.

I was expecting the exercise to follow in the fashion of a support group. However, I was not prepared for the level of testimony these brave ‘fish’ put forth. They were courageous; it is not easy to stand before strangers and rehash your journey as an individual living with HIV. Hearing how instrumental JASL was in bringing them back from the depths of dark times in their lives, hearing how grateful they were to JASL for providing such a strong social support system, for re-empowering them, guiding them back to health, and to many of them, rekindling the sense of meaning and purpose, was an overwhelming experience that certainly left me, and others in the room, silent with emotion.

In the short 30 mins of the fish bowl exercise, it put in perspective how necessary it is for civil society organisations to not only provide direct services, but to foster an enabling environment where their community members are empowered to transform themselves and others that they know. As I prepared to make the journey back to Kingston, I felt a renewed passion setting in my bones. I looked up at the unmarked building overlooking the bay with a greater sense of appreciation and purpose.

Here it is, this family of professional and passionate individuals, with humble facilities, is guiding lost fish into their bowl of empowerment, and releasing courageous, thriving fish back into the tides of life.

In a short week, JASL has shown me how they form the bowl that transforms their fish. And now, I will go home to form the bowl that will transform our fish in the Bahamas.