Sending love home by the barrelful

For many Caribbean immigrants, this is the time to share with those they left behind.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
Published December 2, 2007

Sonia Williams has spent the past year gathering treasures for her children, grandchildren, sister and neighbors.

Last week the laundry worker stood in a sea of plastic bags stuffed with clothing, food and assorted gifts, all destined for Kingston, Jamaica.

They'll arrive in barrels, just in time for Christmas. Throughout the Caribbean similar barrels - with toys and clothing, sardines and tuna, corned beef and ham, evaporated milk and cereal - will spread the joy of the season.

It's a Christmas ritual that begins in homes of Caribbean immigrants across the United States and Canada.

Thousands of the jam-packed barrels, made of sturdy cardboard or plastic, make their way to Caribbean countries year-round, but the dispatches take on a frenzied momentum as the diaspora scramble to send the hefty gifts "back home" in time for Christmas.

Their American-born children know that little-used toys and clothing will disappear into the barrels and that they'll be called upon to climb into and atop the overflowing drums to force everything to fit.

One day last week in her St. Petersburg living room, Williams stood in a sea of plastic bags stuffed with clothing, food and assorted gifts destined for Kingston, Jamaica.

She was amazed at all she'd accumulated.

"I've been getting this stuff, putting it down, putting it down, not really realizing I have so much," she said.

For months, she's shopped at thrift stores, pursued sales at supermarkets and put items on layaway at Kmart. With no car of her own, she bought a shopping cart to lug her purchases. She will spend another $500 for shipping.

Every penny is worth it, she said.

"I'm helping my kids, my family, because things are very expensive," she said. "They are glad for it and they thank me."

At Miller's Grocery in St. Petersburg, the barrels "have been selling like hotcakes," said Ola Miller, 50, who owns the store with her Jamaican husband, Washford, 56.

The 55-gallon cardboard barrel - called the jumbo - is the most popular and sells for $36. A 45-gallon plastic barrel costs $37.

"People like to get the plastic, because when they send them to their country, then they can use them for catching rainwater or to store dry goods items in them," she said.

Busy time for shippers

Laparkan Shipping, with headquarters in Miami and offices and brokers in areas with large Caribbean populations in the United States and Canada, expects its Christmas shipment from Florida to include about 8,500 barrels and 75,000 cubic feet of other gifts.

Christmas is the company's busiest time, said Brian Edun, Laparkan's business development manager.

"Our big markets are Guyana, Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica and Antigua," he said.

In Tampa, Laparkan brokers Totaram "Tito" Radhacharan of Caribbean One Stop Grocery and Claude Wilson at Caribbean Trade Grocery & Shipping are kept busy.

Radhacharan, 54, a Guyanese who owns Caribbean One Stop with his wife, Veronica, said he has to make two trips a week to Miami instead of the usual one to accommodate increased Christmas business.

While others might send a barrel or two, Sarah Diane Reid is aiming a bit higher. She wants to send an entire container of barrels to her husband Abraham's numerous Jamaican relatives, neighbors and anyone in need.

A container can carry 90 barrels, Reid said, adding that she has packed about 60 barrels so far.

"I've been sending for many years, one barrel at a time," said Reid, 45, explaining that the effort took on missionary zeal after she visited Jamaica for the first time a couple of years ago and saw how poor many people were in the countryside.

"When we pack a barrel, it's so heavy, you can barely move it," she said.

Scrimping, shipping

That's common, said Chuck Archibald of Hibiscus Shipping in St. Petersburg.

"They are trying to ship everything home to help their families," said Archibald, who is based in Tampa but is building a clientele in Pinellas and surrounding counties.

Many people make sacrifices to send the barrels, said Archibald, who is from St. Kitts. Occasionally, he returns a portion of his fee to customers, he said, recalling a woman who didn't have money to buy food for herself after paying shipping costs.

His clients include "working-class people who are sending to their families who are much poorer than they are," he said.

Last week, as Williams waited for Archibald to pick up her second load of cargo - a barrel and a large moving box that had also been pressed into service - she carefully put a piece of masking tape on a toy jeep and wrote the name of her grandson on it. Bottles of lotion and body spray also carried the names of recipients.

"I feel so good that I am doing something, helping out everybody for Christmas," she said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or 727 892-2283.