Chris Jefferies - International Development, Disaster Management in Jamaica
As I write this, nearly six months has passed since my visit to Jamaica. The memories however are still as fresh as ever. My friends always joke about how barely a week goes by before they hear the (now famous) words - “Oh yeah, this one time in Jamaica…”
I’ll start by introducing myself. My name’s Chris, I’m 18 and soon to start medical school. I took a year out because I wanted time to experience the world before starting a long five years at university! My gap year has taken me to many places…from the pristine sandy beaches of Kenya to trackside at the Monaco Grand Prix. However, I can honestly say, Jamaica tops all of these places.
I signed up for a month volunteering on the Disaster Management Project in the parish of St Elizabeth (a parish is like a state in the US). The project definitely intrigued me. I’ve been a British Red Cross volunteer for a while and always had an interest in emergency planning and how communities cope with disasters. Plus, it seemed something a bit ‘different’ instead of the more common teaching/care placements (no offence to anyone on these – they look amazing and I don’t think I could do them!)
St Elizabeth is one of the larger parishes in Jamaica; I was staying in the capital - Black River. This is where the St Elizabeth parish council is based, and where I would be volunteering for the next month. My supervisor was the disaster preparedness coordinator for the parish. Her role was to liaise with various organizations (emergency services, community groups, utility companies etc.) in building resilience in the event of a natural or human disaster.
So on to what I actually did! Well, when I arrived in Jamaica, it was only a short time after the terrible events in Haiti. As a result, earthquakes were on people’s minds. A large amount of our time was spent organizing and running earthquake drills in schools and businesses. I was involved in planning and running these drills. We taught people to take cover (under desks, tables, chairs etc.) when the shaking starts and to stay there until it stops.
We also taught people how to evacuate the building to a safe place away from power lines or utilities due to the risk of fire. I knew a little about earthquakes from A-level Geography; however it was quite a daunting experience standing in front of large groups of school children. Running these sessions however was incredibly rewarding and the children were always grateful.
As well as earthquake drills, we worked closely with the Jamaican fire brigade to carry out fire inspections and drills. The highlight of this was waking up an entire boarding school at 2am to carry out a drill (“Fire can strike at any time!”). For me, working with the fire brigade was an interesting experience. Back in the UK I’m a volunteer ambulance crew, so I seized on this and arranged some first aid refresher training for the local fire crews. This was definitely challenging – it’s quite hard to run a first aid course with no resources and a language barrier!
Another (not so glamorous) task was sorting through donations for Haiti. People donated masses of spare and unwanted clothing, toiletries and shoes to be sent over. This had to be sorted into male/female and size so that it could be sent over by ODPEM (Office for Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management). The generosity of some local residents was amazing, especially when they themselves were suffering hardship and poverty.
The wide variety of activities on my placement definitely appealed to me. I confess to having quite a short attention span so it was refreshing to be doing something different every day! It wasn’t all work though – weekends off consisted of traveling about the south and east coast, discovering hidden beaches and exploring local cuisine. Projects Abroad arranged a trip to Kingston to visit the Bob Marley museum, definitely a highlight of the trip as I’m a massive Bob Marley fan. The Projects Abroad staff was really friendly and helpful throughout, also the map they give you in the welcome pack is a lifesaver sometimes! In addition, everyone I met out and about was incredibly friendly and welcoming.
For those considering Jamaica on whatever project, I’d say go. It will be a once in a lifetime experience which you won’t forget.