Isabel Acland - High School Specials, Care & Community in Jamaica
This summer I visited Jamaica on a High School Specials Care & Community project. Before going I was quite nervous as I still didn't know exactly what to expect despite all the information I'd been given. What would the other volunteers be like? Would I get on with my host family? Had I remembered to pack a toothbrush? But I soon found out I had nothing to worry about.
First impressions of Jamaica
My first memory from Jamaica is of walking through the airport and hearing buskers play reggae music. This was just the first of several cultural experiences that would really open my eyes to an amazing new place. At the airport I was met by a Projects Abroad driver and a group of the volunteers who I would get to know really well over the next couple of weeks.
We then had a two and a half hour drive to the house where we would be staying with a local family. Clara, our host mom, met us at the door, and instantly made us all feel at home. She showed us all to our rooms and insisted on learning everyone’s names as quickly as possible.
There were eleven volunteers staying in the house, however, they were split so there were only girls or boys, not mixed. Altogether, while I was there, there were nearly thirty volunteers on the High School Specials with about twenty on the same placement as me. In our house we had over five different nationalities, which thrilled Clara who wanted to hear all about where everyone came from.
Two of my best friends who I met in Jamaica were American and they thought my accent was hilarious. By the time we all went home they had taught me "how to speak" as well as picking up a few English phrases themselves, which apparently their friends now tease them about.
My Care & Community placement
I was placed at a local orphanage, helping to run fun activities for the children to keep them busy through the summer. The moment we arrived on the first day at 9:00am we were swamped by children and they didn't get any less enthusiastic as the week went on. The children were of all ages but mostly between five and twelve.
The activities we did with them included helping them to create "My Life Story" books all about themselves, painting large boards in groups or sewing patterns into bits of cloth. We also held a treasure hunt on one day for the children, which was very successful.
We had an hour off for lunch which was a welcome break as the children did require a lot of energy. Along with the programmed activities we also had chances to interact with the children in a less formal way, with a lot of hair braiding, soccer and cricket games to fill any quiet moments.
I think the most valuable thing we did while volunteering was give the children some one on one attention which was difficult to provide in the orphanage. We left the placement at 3:00pm every day once we had managed to disentangle ourselves from the younger children.
Enjoying our free time
On the first night we went out to dinner with all the volunteers and Projects Abroad staff; this was a really good way of meeting everyone and starting to get to know each other. The following nights we took part in organized activities; there was a karaoke night, a Reggae dance class, movie night, culture class - which involved tasting some of the best local foods - and other nights we just had time to go out to the shops. After the day’s activity we would be driven home in a taxi. The drivers told us some great stories and one of them even made me a mixed tape of all his favorite music.
Traveling in Jamaica
We went, with all the volunteers, to the beach on our first day off. We went out for lunch and then spent hours lazing around in the water to keep cool. Before heading back home for supper we went around a nearby craft market and tested our haggling skills. We all felt we'd been very successful even if we had paid four times what we should have.
On Sunday it was up to our host mom to organize activities and so Clara took us to visit some nearby waterfalls that we could swim in. When we arrived there was a huge tropical rainstorm which slightly delayed the swimming but was still amazing to experience. Once the clouds cleared we left the shelter and went up to see the waterfalls, which were spectacular.
On our final weekend in Jamaica volunteers started to go home and there were several tearful goodbyes, people were leaving throughout the night but we all stayed up to watch them go and promise to keep in touch (promises we have all kept).
There were only two of us left in the house by the Sunday because we had later flights. Clara was heading into Kingston to see some friends so she took us with her. We spent some time shopping in the ridiculously cheap shops and went to look round a famous park where brides went to get their wedding photos. While there we saw about twenty bridal parties and had fun choosing which the best outfits were.
In the evening Clara told us that a friend of hers was competing in a beauty pageant nearby and that we should all go and watch. A Jamaican beauty pageant is something special. There were no other tourists there and it was nice to experience something so cultural and untainted. There was one contestant from each of the parishes that make up Jamaica. They paraded in traditional costumes, spoke about how they would improve their country and sang songs or read poetry.
We left the next day and after one final taxi ride and a ten hour flight we were home again and, of course, it was raining. I would definitely recommend Projects Abroad to anyone interested in doing some voluntary work and visiting an amazing new place. My experience in Jamaica was wonderful; it's an amazing country and I would encourage everyone to visit it.