As a retired U.S. diplomat, Brenda LaGrange Johnson is on an airplane almost every week, crisscrossing the country to tend to one charitable cause after another, whether it’s raising money for cancer research or for Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art.
But one cause stands out: the plight of the Jamaican people.
“Raising funds for Jamaica, I have to go to people and ask them to contribute to an organization that is going to take their money and give it to another country,” she said. “You have to have some great connection and love for Jamaica to do that.”
Johnson is among six former U.S. ambassadors to Jamaica who have turned their devotion to the island of 3 million into a charitable one by serving on the board of the same philanthropic organization, the American Friends of Jamaica.
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Founded 36 years ago to help improve the lives of Jamaicans, the U.S.-based organization has become known as much for its philanthropic endeavors as for its diplomatic star power that includes both foreign service career diplomats and non-career, political appointees from both political parties.
“This is a very unique organization,” said Johnson, who served as ambassador from 2005 to 2009 after being appointed by President George W. Bush. “There are not Canadian friends of Jamaica or Spanish friends of Jamaica. It’s a unique group composed of every single living ambassador that served in that position, and all work very hard to give back to a country they served.”
For more than two decades, American Friends of Jamaica, or AFJ, focused its fundraising efforts in New York. In 2005, it branched out to Miami with its major fundraising event, the annual charity gala. This year, the $350-a-person event will take place Saturday at the J.W. Marriott Marquis, 255 Biscayne Blvd. Way, in Miami.
“The Jamaican diaspora in Miami is very diverse and includes individuals who have the means,” said Barron Channer, AFJ’s treasurer, who is also promoting the group’s $120 after-party with soca artist Alison Hinds. “Having grown up in Miami, I had a strong sense that there was a powerful combination of enthusiasm for brand Jamaica and spirit of philanthropy.”
Last year, the group helped raise nearly $600,000 in donations for programs in Jamaica including teacher and parenting training, conflict resolution and cancer outreach. And in a grant ceremony later this month in the atrium of the U.S. Embassy in Kingston, 86 organizations will be awarded about $345,000 of the donations.
“We are only giving to causes in Jamaica, so for the people who care about causes in Jamaica, we are a good match,” said Wendy Hart, the first non-ambassador to serve as president of AFJ, which has distributed $13 million since its founding.
Hart is hoping that this year’s gala will be as successful as last year’s. It will honor three Jamaicans: Diana Stewart, the chairwoman of Stewart Automotive, which has the Mercedes-Benz franchise for Jamaica; Eddy Edwards, CEO of the Jamaican Jerk Festival, one of the largest Caribbean food festivals in the U.S., and Felecia Hatcher, founder of Black Tech Week, which connects blacks in tech across the African diaspora.
The ambassadors who are invited to join the 16-member board, Hart said, are by no means “just figurehead ambassadors to make our profile look good.”
“They come, they give back, they outreach and we really value their contribution, network, input and guidance,” she said. “Everyone values their experience, values their connections.”
Luis Moreno, the newest diplomat to join the board, said with the proposed cuts in U.S aid by the Trump administration to Jamaica and other countries in the hemisphere, the work that AFJ does is even more important. Jamaica has struggled with poverty, high rates of unemployment and crime for decades.
“When you look at the money they brought in, it’s rather amazing,” said Moreno, who also serves on the board of Mustard Seed, a Jamaican charity that provides residential care to over 600 children and adults with disabilities. “You have some very committed people.”
Moreno, who ended his tenure as U.S. ambassador to Jamaica in June after four years, said AFJ allows him to stay connected and “is a marvelously convenient vehicle to help people” in a way he could not always do as an ambassador carrying out U.S. policy.
Sue Cobb, a former ambassador who served as secretary of state for Florida before taking the reins as AFJ president in 2007, said it’s great to see how far the organization has come.
Recalling trying to raise money during the global recession, Cobb said “we had to cut back on all of our gifts. We could barely support the New York city rent and the hiring of one person to keep us going.”
Still, she found the job meaningful.
“Our donations are not huge to these organizations,” Cobb said, “but to the Jamaicans who contribute their time to run their groups and are frugal, it’s very rewarding.”
Jamaica has a strong pull for her and her colleagues, she added: “There is something about Jamaica that captures almost everybody who goes there.”
To attend: The gala starts at 6:30 p.m. with a cocktail & auction, followed by dinner at 8 p.m. Tickets are $350. For the 9 p.m. After Party only, featuring soca artist Alison Hinds, tickets are $120. The event is at the JW Marriott Marquis, 255 Biscayne Blvd. Way, Miami. For information call 212-265-2550 or to purchase tickets go to firstname.lastname@example.org