Rachel Cass - International Development, Disaster Management in Jamaica
You might be thinking ‘why did I choose Jamaica?’ Well I had my heart set on 3 - 4 months volunteering in South Africa, also with Projects Abroad, and I thought it might be wise if I did a month away first, as a sort of test run! I am interested in disaster management because of my geography background so I thought ‘why not apply and see what happens?’ Within one week of applying I had a host family and a placement and within 5 weeks I would be on a plane to Jamaica... let the adventure begin!
The first week was a mixed week as there was so much to take in and so many new people to meet. There were 19 volunteers when I arrived and I was the only one based in Black River, the others where based in Mandeville. There were regular taxis running everyday to Mandeville so this wasn’t too much of a problem, the only thing I did miss out on was the regular cinema trips or dinners out!
I was staying with a host family in the New Town area of Black River. Black River is the capital of the Parish (a parish is equivalent to a county in the UK) of St Elizabeth, which is one of the largest Parishes in Jamaica. At the Parish Council I worked with the Disaster Preparedness Coordinator for the Parish.
When you volunteer with Projects Abroad they give you an induction to the town (Mandeville or Black River) on your first full working day in the country. The induction was interesting because I attended a 3 hour meeting at my placement (they’re not normally quite this long!). It was fascinating to see the different processes that they use and attitudes of the parish councilors with regards to disaster preparedness and management.
My first official day at work was a day of visiting schools which was informative because I got too see how very different the education system is in Jamaica to what I am used to in the UK. The larger schools run on shift work, this is where the students are split into two groups and the first group go to school for the morning and the second group go in the afternoon.
Within two days of being in Jamaica a day visit for all the volunteers to the Bob Marley museum in Kingston was organized. This is a MUST see, and I was fortunate enough to go and do it in my first week in Jamaica. There were other social events organized by Projects Abroad such as Patios Classes, Reggae Dance Classes and Dirty Days. Unfortunately I didn’t go to the dance class because I was at work... well I was in a truck (aka lorry) which broke down for 5 hours! It’s not all glamorous in Jamaica, but it is very eventful!
When working at the Parish Council in Black River some of the tasks I helped with ranged from distributing posters and tests too several schools (Basic; 3-5yr olds, Junior; 6-12 and Senior; 13-18) in the Parish, attending a RADA open day, driving around the Parish to check on flood levels, distributing aid relief items across the Parish, filling out Disaster Assessment Reports around the Parish and the list goes on!
Well the placement is called Disaster Management and I was lucky (if you could call it that) enough to experience a tropical depression (aka a tropical storm). This was a very mentally and physically draining section of my time in Jamaica! If I am being honest I don’t think I would change any of it, because I actually got to see a natural hazard at work! Some of the damage it caused was horrific and I found it very hard (emotionally) to drive around and see how people’s lives and houses had literally been ripped apart by the storm!
I guess the old English saying of “what doesn’t break you makes you stronger!” was very appropriate for my time away in Jamaica, as this month made me a much stronger person. I was asked to write up a report to give to the Councilors and to the organization ODPEM. This was very interesting because it meant that I was not only observing the damage, but that I had to record it all.
When you volunteer with Projects Abroad, you get the weekends to do with as you please. Some of the places I visited and thought were a must see while in Jamaica ranged from the beautiful YS falls to the sandy beaches of Negril. Another aspect of Jamaica that some people forget to mention is their love for food. Some of the food is amazing! I have eaten so much fried chicken with rice and peas, but it was all worth it! Juici patties, rice and spice buns with cheese are a must have!!
When volunteering in Jamaica, not only do you gain the work experience, life experience and love for this beautiful country, but you gain friends and connections across the whole world. Living with a Jamaican host family is an experience I will never forget. My host family in Jamaica was lovely; they were warm and welcoming and my host mum was an amazing cook! One last piece of advice - if you are in two minds about going to Jamaica to do some volunteering... don’t be! It’s amazing and is an experience you will never forget, so grab it with both hands and good luck.