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Humanitarian, nurse and mission worker in Jamaica, Zona O’Connor dies at 72

The Jamaican village that Zona “Sonia” Emozene O’Connor came from was so small, the mere notion of trying to find it on a map would prove futile.

But every year, for nearly 30 years, O’Connor and her husband, Pastor Shirley Lloyd O’Connor, made the trip home to the misty mountains of Craighead, Manchester, Jamaica on humanitarian missions to bring clothes, food and supplies to the villagers.

As a registered nurse and teacher of home health and nurse’s aide classes at Nursing Unlimited in Miami Gardens, as well as a Pentecostal minister, O’Connor, who died at 72 from cancer on June 21, was in her element.

“The first time I went to her village I must have been 11,” her daughter Dinkinish O’Connor said. “At that time, there were no roads in the village and you had to climb various mountains. It was sort of a storybook. The mountains seemed to curve and dive and sway and, for me, as a budding writer from Miami with the flatlands, what was interesting about Mom is she’d be climbing these mountains in high heels.”

The child was dumbstruck as she spied her mom on the next mountain over, easily outpacing everyone else. “I’d say, ‘Dad, who’s going to watch mom?’ He’d say, ‘She’s from here. You just focus on going up.’”

O’Connor spent most of her life going up. Her birth home inspired her passion for healthcare and giving.

“Coming from such humble beginnings made her sensitive to other people. She’d say my grandmother would have to go to the river to fish and take care of the family. There were 10 of them ... my mother is the seventh of 10,” her daughter said.

O’Connor lived for about 40 years in Miami. For 20 years, she worked at Nursing Unlimited, an agency that trains nurses and nurse’s assistants.

“In most cases, her students were immigrants who were desperate to provide for their families all over the world and so she was relentless in making sure her students learned the material,” her daughter said. “She enjoyed the global travels of her classroom and journeyed everywhere from Brazil and Nigeria to Poland and Nicaragua through her students’ stories of home.”

That sense of vicarious traveling influenced her daughter’s palate, and eventual career.

“My mother served many Jewish clients as a registered nurse in her early years, and fell in love with many of their dishes, so my mom's fridge was truly eclectic. Containers and jars filled with gefilte fish, smoked salmon, smoked tuna salad sat next to leftover curry goat and oxtail stew. She loved charcuterie and cured meats, so it wasn't uncommon to find sweet soppressata and Prosciutto di Parma in my lunch box. She wanted me to be a lawyer, but I became a food writer,” she said.

O’Connor is also survived by her sisters Fay Campbell, Veronica, Hazel, Mabel and Claire Nunes and brothers Basil and Neil Nunes. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Gregg Mason Funeral Home, 10936 NE Sixth Ave. in Miami-Dade.