To give back on vacation: Yeah or Nay? The highlight of my trip to Jamaica was participating in a Reading Road Trip at a local school coordinated by the Sandals Foundation. I’d love to share with you my experience and shed some light on why a properly coordinated volunteer experience by a knowledgeable organizer can make all the difference when considering voluntourism.
On my most recent trip to Jamaica for the Social Media on the Sand conference, we participated in a Reading Road Trip organized by the Sandals Foundation. This is the third time Beaches Resorts has hosted this amazing conference, and I’ve been fortunate enough to attend all three of them. The first two conferences were at Beaches Turks and Caicos. This year, the venue moved to Beaches Negril in Jamaica.
This was the first time we have been able to do a Reading Road Trip. Last year, the schedule planned for us to do it, but due to extreme rains in Turks and Caicos before we arrived, the school were closed on the day our trip had been planned. So I eagerly anticipated being able to make a journey to a local school and interact with the kids.
Give Back on Vacation
The Sandals Foundation is the philanthropic arm of Sandals Resorts International, and “believes education at all levels provides the greatest opportunities for positive change for individuals and our nations throughout the Caribbean…support[ing] thousands of students in educational facilities throughout the Caribbean community. The focus of the Sandals Foundation is ensuring as many children, youth and adults as possible have the educational opportunities they need to reach their full potential. Programs include community scholarships, adopted schools, book drives and literacy programs, and support of new libraries and computer facilities.” Two such programs offered are Pack for a Purpose and Reading Road Trip.
Pack for a Purpose
The Sandals Foundation partners with Pack for a Purpose, which asks guests to pack backpacks with five pounds of school supplies from a list of needed items (that amount to avoid duties). Since 2009, guests have donated more than 18,000 pounds of supplies and more than 16,000 people have volunteered. That’s a lot of giving back!
All the Beaches Moms attending Social Media on the Sand packed our backpack with specific school supplies that were needed. These packed backpacks filled with school supplies will then be culled and distributed to the schools. As you can see, we made a mountain with all the backpacks!
Reading Road Trip
The Sandals Foundation offers guests at Sandals Resorts and Beaches Resorts throughout the Caribbean opportunities to make a difference in local communities with programs like the Reading Road Trip. Developed in response to travelers wanting to meet children in the community they visited, the program allows visitors to spend a few hours at a local elementary school reading with the students.
My teen daughter went with me on our Reading Road Trip to Cove Primary. Although it was an added bonus that she earned community service hours, nothing would have kept her from going with me. We both were overjoyed to go to a school and meet Jamaican kids because they are few and far between at a resort.
Cove Primary is a short 15 minute bus ride from Beaches Negril and teaches 124 students from 1st-6th grades.
Over the school’s front entrance, the school motto reads: “Hard work brings true joy”–followed by the reading motto “Read More to Know More.” And as you leave the school, the sign “Dream Believe Achieve” sends you out into the world.
Nothing prepared us for the welcome we received. They invited us in with open arms, singing a song and immediately talking to us as we paired up with our reading partners. Sitting in their library reading Fancy Nancy with 6 year old Bland was a surreal experience since it’s a book I read with my daughter when she was little.
While we read with the younger kids, our teens and tweens played soccer with the older kids outside. The favorites were soccer and taking lots of photos together.
These kids are fascinated with technology, especially the HP Sprocket smartphone printers. I featured this magical printer as part of My Favorite Things November post.
One of my favorite lines from any song is from the musical Wicked: “I have been changed for good.” This day at Cove Primary changed me for good. Spending time surrounded by loving, gentle kids who seemed genuinely thrilled to spend time together was more uplifting than I imagined. It made me want to be a better person. It made me think beyond the resort or my vacation or my blessings. When I think about my trip to Jamaica, this day always jumps forward and crowds out the other memories because it was JOYFUL.
How You Can Help
Sandals Foundation knows what the needs are in the community and can meet those needs with our help. They are raising funds for Hurricane Irma relief efforts. 100% of donations will go directly towards purchasing emergency relief supplies as well as invest in the recovery and rebuilding efforts in the islands of Antigua & Barbuda, Turks & Caicos and the Bahamas.
Why Give Back on Vacation?
“For it is in giving that we receive.” -St. Francis of Assisi
Sure, there are skeptics of voluntourism. The standard criticism about these type of visits is that they are so short lived. We went one day–now what? But it all boils down to how to give back in a meaningful and appropriate way.
When considering giving back while on vacation, I came up with two questions: How will the project chosen benefit the local community? And what kind of an impact am I looking to have?
Sandals Foundation helped me answer both of these: I hoped to make a difference by benefitting the region I was visiting not only with tourism dollars but also school necessities for the local kids. Having a love for children and being an advocate for education and reading, the Reading Road Trip seemed like the perfect merger of my passions and helping address stated needs in Jamaica. So I am very thankful that I could participate in a voluntourism experience while on vacation.
Pointers for Voluntourism
1. Vet the Charity
2. Find Out What Is Needed
Naturally, charities would like donations. But when asked to fill a specific need, it’s important to have a sense of what is absolutely vital and those items that may not be as beneficial to that community. In our case, the Sandals Foundation is plugged into the local communities and finds out how best to serve their needs without undermining local opportunities for employment. As Heidi Clarke, the Director or Sandals Foundation explains it: “For us, it is about being the eyes and ears of the community, knowing where there is need and filling that need, rather than creating a need.”
3. Continue the Connection
I’d like nothing more than to keep in touch with Bland and the students at Cove Primary to make this more than a one time experience. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask when they gave me so much in the few hours we were there sharing their school, hugs, and stories.
Don’t let naysayers talk you out of giving it a try. You never know what this experience may bring out in you. The connections you will make. The lives touched. Mostly, your own. There is truly nothing better to give back on vacation and to say: “I have been changed for good.”