22 OCT 2015: Go to St. Lucia, a lush gem of greenery in the Eastern Caribbean. Pack the usual sun vacation gear but add notebooks, crayons, kids’ learning tools and a determined spirit when you take part in a Global Volunteers’ trip. The American-based non-profit whose mandate is to work only on projects that have the full participation of the local community, have had more than 32,000 volunteers participate in 32 countries since its inception in 1984.
Voluntourism is estimated to be one of the fastest growing trends in tourism but firm statistics are scant. It is believed some 1.6 billion people throughout the world have participated in these excursions where volunteers do everything from pounding nails and teaching English to counting turtles or soothing babies. (Volunteers pay their flight plus a fee and Global takes care of meals and accommodation that may be a basic room in a jungle or a comfortable tourist-class city hotel.)
St. Lucia was an easy choice for my third trip with Global. The 42-km long island boasts rural routes that weave through banana plantations and tiny towns with only a sprinkling of resorts along sandy beaches. Accommodation is JJ’s Paradise Resort, a pleasant three star with friendly staff, comfortable rooms, restaurant, small bar, pool and a short boardwalk to Marigot Bay, described by James Michener as “the most beautiful bay in the Caribbean”.
My volunteer group of 16 ranges in age from 18 to 86, whose backgrounds are as diverse as the parts of North America they came from – a single Mom from West Virginia, a retired surgeon from New Hampshire, a just-retired child psychologist from Ontario, a nurse, and others including an 83-year-old New Yorker who still travels the world. Our 18-year-old high-school student Becca, has come with her grandmother Susan.
The first day we go on a walkabout in Anse La Raye, the village where my group will be assigned duties either in a classroom, daycare, health unit or planting vegetables. The village that wraps around a picturesque bay is known to be St. Lucia’s poorest.
Along with Lois, another volunteer, I am assigned to Marigot Bay Secondary School. There is always something a little daunting about teenagers and I feel this overwhelmingly on my first day. Despite the enthusiasm of the principal, Mrs. Dujon and a highly dedicated staff of 33 teachers, the students seem to have more than the usual teen-age apathy. They seem to vacillate between crazy antics and despondency.
My first few days are discouraging. Under the direction of two teachers I am to assist students in improving their English writing skills in Form 2 to Form 5 (grades 8-12). They are a tough audience. The classroom scene is one of teen-agers wandering aimlessly, a few texting on dated cell phones, girls huddled gossiping, loud banter, some pushing and shoving – it is well beyond general chaos.
I constantly remind myself of the depressing statistics: only 50 percent of the students eat breakfast regularly, the majority come from single family parents, and many have reported concerns about their personal safety at home and in their neighbourhoods. No wonder school seems more of a social outing, a time waster, than a place of learning.
However, fast forward two weeks. In a class of 14 seniors I put a sentence on the board to start them writing a story. We have a rowdy discussion but then not only do all of them begin to write but when the bell sounds for morning break, all of them continue to work – they are engrossed in their writing!
This was one of a few eureka moments in these classrooms - they were always insightful and often heart tugging.
One boy penned ‘this was the happiness after all the sad times’ a poignant statement from a 15-year-old. One girl wrote about her brother, his love of music and that “he helps me with my life”. Another student wanted to write to the prime minister who had promised education and jobs to young people. These deep thoughts from the young made me wonder if I was reading from future writers (one of the island’s two Nobel Laureates was poet, Sir Derek Walcott), especially when I read “the ocean was mellow that day” from a tough young man who always looked sullen.
The rest of the Global team experienced equaling challenging days. Pat, our 86-year-old tutored primary students individually but one day was put in charge of a class. Even after years as a university professor Pat’s comment was: “a period is a very long time” as she had experienced rambunctious grade threes.
A volunteer trip is all about people: the camaraderie of the Global team you share problems with and the children and enthusiastic locals that make up your day. It is always memorable.
While voluntourism isn’t for everyone, if you like a challenge along with a good time, consider one. You won’t regret it.
For information on volunteering: www.globalvolunteers.org
For information on St. Lucia: www.stlucianow.com
Judi Lees has been travel writing since 1985, prior to that she was a journalist specializing in general interest and business articles. She has visited some 70 countries and been on more than 100 press trips.