A group of parishioners from the First Congregational Church will head to Jamaica next month to build a play area for a preschool in an impoverished area of the country.

Led by parishioners Sharon Dettenrineder and Carolyn Rushford, next month’s trip will be the local church’s third in six years in collaboration with Jamaica’s St. Thomas Parish, located in the suburban area of Surrey county, about an hour and a half south of Kingston.

Dettenrineder and Rushford travel to Jamaica in the months before the trips to meet with local officials, who identify projects that would best benefit the area, Rushford said, stressing the importance of serving – not fixing – the local community

“We want to empower them,” Rushford said. “We want to help them get the things done they need to get done.”

She said the group has learned some lessons along the way, like donating supplies directly to the school instead of the children, and ensuring all projects meets the community’s needs.

“We have resources, but they know what they need,” she said. “They know what works there.”

This year’s project will look to build on previous trips, during which the church group has built a 30,000-square foot garden and renovated the school building. The new play area will now help the school become certified by the state and receive funding and training for teachers, Rushford said. The group will also bring school supplies suggested by the school and gently-used soccer gear, which the school will then own and allow students to use.

The trips co-leader, Dettenrineder, has been traveling down to the Caribbean island nation for more than two decades, Rushford said, including trips with student groups from Hartwick College, where Dettenrineder was a nurse.

“She’s known the people forever,” Rushford said. “Anywhere we go in Jamaica, people recognize her. She’s done a lot in that community.”

For Rushford, the trips provide an opportunity to work with people from different cultures and help people from her church “discover Jamaica.” She also values giving back to those who may be less fortunate.

“There’s just so much need there and we have so much here. It just moves me to do this,” she said.

Rushford emphasized how supportive the Essex community has been to the church group, from local businesses donating supplies to a large attendance at the church’s yearly fundraiser.

The spirit of giving back has translated to making a difference back home, too; after winning two hours of the team’s time, which could be used for any task, a local bidder donated the prize to the Committee on Temporary Shelter, where the team finished a project last weekend.

“We’re just so appreciative,” she said.