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Love conquers all - From homeless shelter to a home of their own, deportee and physically handicapped defy the odds

Published:Sunday | October 19, 2014 | 12:00 AM
The Marie Atkins Shelter on Hanover Street in downtown Kingston. - Norman Grindley/Chief Photographer
Georgette McKenzie prodly displays her wedding band. - Photo by Gladstone Taylor/Photographer
Elvis and Georgette McKenzie - Photo by Gladstone Taylor/Photographer
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Nadine Wilson, Staff Reporter

He was deported from the United States and sent back to fend for himself in a country he vaguely remembered. She was homeless and struggling with a physical disability and subject to abuse on the streets.

But when Georgette and Elvis McKenzie met at the Marie Atkins Night Shelter in downtown Kingston, they found a love that has given them the strength to deal with the harsh realities of their lives.

Now, five years later, after months of courtship, they are married, out of the shelter, and striving to make a life together even as they give back to the facility where they first met.

The couple got married without informing the administrators of the shelter and lived there for one year after the wedding so they could save enough money to start life on their own.

Georgette recalls that Elvis proposed less than six months after being at the shelter; however, after years of mistreatment and being teased about a limp she developed following three strokes, she was a bit cautious.

"When he came here, I didn't like him, but I saw in him what no other man has ever shown me," Georgette told The Sunday Gleaner.

"All the man dem that live in their big house that I was up and down with them in my young days, none of them didn't show me what this man showed me, and he was a person who people call a deportee and try to downgrade and bring down. None of the other men with their money was like him," said Georgette.

She said Elvis made her a number of promises and was very protective of her while she lived at the shelter. Although they were provided with breakfast and dinner, he would sometimes cook meals for her on the wood fire she taught him how to build in the shelter's courtyard.

"He told me that he really loved me and he would really like to get me out of this place and would like for us to go on our own and be living somewhere. Many things he told me. He told me that we could start over and that my life is not finished yet, and I should stick around and wait for him a little because he wasn't working at that time," recalled Georgette.

INSPIRED BY WIFE

Elvis, on the other hand, has been inspired by his wife, who is the only family he has in Jamaica. He said she first caught his eye one day as she came down the stairs of the dorm where the females were housed.

"I started talking to her and then I got to like her, and then I fell in love with her and I told her I wanted to marry her, and she didn't believe me," he told The Sunday Gleaner.

Elvis migrated to the United States at five years old to live with his mother. He went to high school and started college in New York before deferring his studies to join the United States Army. After six years in the military, he left to pursue his passion to become a chef.

For 15 years, he worked in the restaurant division at an airport and was promoted to manager. But then he started using drugs and was eventually deported to Jamaica.

"It is a part of my life that I don't really like to remember because it gives me flashbacks, remembering the good times that I had over there and the things that I left. I am here in Jamaica now with my wife, so I live here and I think about Jamaica now," said Elvis.

After landing at the Norman Manley International Airport, Elvis was processed and released. He had no money, no family left in Jamaica, and no sense of direction. After six months of wandering, he hitched a ride to Montego Bay, St James. But not seeing many prospects for personal development in the Second City, he returned to Kingston just two days later.

ARRIVING AT SHELTER

Fortunately for him, he was told about the Marie Atkins Shelter, and one day, he went there in search of help. Elvis recalls that the shelter was at the time full to capacity, but with nowhere else to go, he decided to make himself comfortable in the courtyard and would, at nights, sleep on the concrete benches.

Elvis was eventually given a space on the male dorm after some months and was even assisted by inspector of the poor for Kingston and St Andrew, Elaine Walker, and her staff to go back to school. The deportee attended day classes at the Boulevard Baptist Church and was certified as a chef by the Heart Trust/NTA after completing a six-month course. Even so, it was very difficult to get a job because of his past.

"There is a stigma against guys who are deportees, but I don't call them 'deportees', I call them 'returnees' because they returned back home," said Elvis.

After some time, he was able to land a job as a garbage collector with the National Solid Waste Management Authority. He has been with the company for five years now, and enjoys it, although he is sometimes scoffed at when he tells people what he does.

"I just wanted to work and I am working now and my family is over there and they are proud of me," said Elvis, who, through his daily travels, is able to get reacquainted with the land of his birth.

"I have got to take care of my wife because she can't work, so I have to work for her," he said.

Elvis was able to use the money he earned from work to purchase his wife a gold wedding band, which she proudly sported during the interview with The Sunday Gleaner.

The two were married at the Registrar General's Department offices in downtown Kingston in a ceremony witnessed by Georgette's daughter and her friend.

"I wore my white dress and my white slippers and I looked very good with my bag. I looked very nice," Georgette beamed as she glanced adoringly at her husband.

Because the couple's wedding was a secret, they only wore their wedding rings on special occasions - like when they went to watch a movie or on their visits to Devon House, which became their favourite spot to hang out. Although it was difficult to keep their nuptials a secret, they both felt it was the wisest thing to do then.

"If they knew we were married at the time, we would have had to leave, and I hadn't saved up enough money as yet to get an apartment," said Elvis.

The two moved out of the shelter four years ago and are currently living at a rented property. Now, Elvis' greatest desire is to buy a house that they can call their own. Despite having to use his small salary to take care of his wife's medical bills and provide for their daily sustenance, Elvis said it's a promise he intends to keep.

"It's all about sacrifice when you really love someone."

Georgette had her first stroke shortly after the death of her mother about 10 years ago and lost the use of her right hand then. She also developed a limp, which made it difficult for her to walk. She recalls being teased by both adults and children, who would stone her and call her a handicap.

"One day, I was walking in Half-Way Tree … and two girls threw the juice with ice that they had and hit me and started to talk all sorts of bad things. The two girls were going to high school. I couldn't believe it. I thought those children would know better," she said.

WORKING AS ONE

Georgette has to visit the Kingston Public Hospital at least once a month, and often, Elvis is by her side as she consults with the doctor. During the day while he is at work, she prepares their meals and cleans the house. He takes on the more challenging task of washing when he is at home.

Most of Elvis' free time is spent at the Marie Atkins Shelter, where he assists with sharing food, cleaning the compound, and making pick-ups for the staff at no charge. Both he and his wife have nothing but high praises for Walker and her staff.

And Walker, who was the one responsible for getting them into the shelter, couldn't be more proud of their success.

"I am really happy to see how Elvis is treating her. It makes me feel good to know that even though he was a deportee - or whatever you want to call him - you can see that he was raised in a home with values and morals," Walker told The Sunday Gleaner.

"He has always come back to ask if we need help," added Walker.

For the couple, the relationship that started in a homeless shelter is still going strong and they are determined to make it work as they create a sturdy shelter to protect their love.

nadine.wilson@gleanerjm.com