Sharing Culture, Encouraging Education

Jamaican American Cultural Association approaches 25 years of granting scholarships

By Krisha Chachra | Photos by Daniel Coston, courtesy of Gaynor Russell

South Charlotte resident Gaynor Russell moved from New York City to the Queen City over 35 years ago with her husband and infant daughter. When she did, Russell, originally from Jamaica, craved the culture and camaraderie of her homeland. “It wasn’t just the social scene and meeting other Jamaicans,” Russell explains. “I missed sharing the food, music and dancing and wanted to create a community and also give back.”

She and her husband had two more children, and she finished her undergrad degree and earned an MBA at UNC Charlotte. Although she had a career and a growing family, Russell recognized that the community was growing too. “There are many people of Jamaican and Caribbean descent in South Charlotte who are very supportive of promoting the culture, so we started a group called Friends of Jamaica.

“New people are moving here all the time,” continues Russell. “I used to know most of the Jamaican people in Charlotte, but now there are thousands.”

Friends of Jamaica evolved into the group Russell founded, the Jamaican American Cultural Association. It has three main goals: One is to share Jamaican culture. The second is to support local high school seniors with dreams of pursuing higher education — focusing on those with an African American or Afro-Caribbean background.

Lastly, Russell felt the association could help children in Jamaica by sending tablets, computers and other technological resources to Jamaican schools. Russell has made several trips to Jamaica to make deliveries to rural schools, mainly around Kingston. She and other members of JACA have a goal to donate to schools in each of Jamaica’s 14 parishes.

Gaynor's son, Travis Russell, and his girlfriend, Jayden, with guest Christopher Braswell.

Next year, JACA will celebrate 25 years of awarding scholarships to local high school students, donating technology to schools in Jamaica and sharing Jamaican culture with the greater Charlotte community.

“Since we started, [JACA] has grown to about 200 to 300 members who support our events, and we’ve averaged giving $10,000 to $12,000 in scholarships yearly,” says Russell. “This year, JACA awarded 12 rising college freshmen $500 to $2,000 to help them attend their college of choice.”

JACA works with local high school guidance counselors to identify students who excel in school but face financial hardship. Applicants must submit an essay to JACA in the spring about who they are, their education and career goals, and how they will use the scholarship. They must also disclose their household income and demonstrate need. The organization awards the scholarships at its annual summer fundraising gala.

“We initially focused on helping students of Caribbean descent,” said Russell. “But now we have a point system developed by the JACA board that includes goals, aspirations and need.”

The JACA board consists of 10 members — several of them South Charlotte residents — who carefully select the scholarship amounts awarded to the applicants. This year’s recipients span high schools from Central Cabarrus County to Fort Mill High School.