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Meriel Anderson - Care & Community in Jamaica

Mural painting

My name is Meriel Anderson; I am currently in my final year of High School in Vancouver, Canada. I came across Projects Abroad early last year and within 5 minutes found the amazing 2 week program during the summer of 2009 that appealed to me because of the time frame and the wide range of countries I could pick from. I decided to choose Care and Community work in Jamaica and not one moment I experienced over there would make me doubt my decision.

Projects Abroad was very reassuring and helpful all throughout my pre-departure; always replying to my questions within a day and loading the website with useful information about what I needed to bring, what kind of culture I was going to be exposed to, and more. Of course, the time before a trip on your own to a new country would be nerve racking, but the comfort and the knowledge I received only excited me more. 

My placement was at the Hanbury Children’s Home, a place full of wonderful, bright, and entertaining children of all ages. Each of them carried a story and love for everyone that they met. Since I was there during the summer and most of the older children were done with the school portion of the year, me and my volunteer group ran a little summer camp program for the children who wanted to join.

Being a 5’2 blond Canadian girl, I knew that I would stand out and people warned me to be careful, but everyone I came into contact with greeted me with welcoming smiles and questions making sure I felt comfortable and was happy in Jamaica. Even upon our first tour of the placement, before our introductions to the children, within the first 30 seconds every one of us had a child to hold our hand. Everyone was so warm, friendly, and excited to share the next few weeks with us. It felt amazing to have such an overwhelming feeling of love from people who probably did not remember your name yet.

Work on the building

Throughout the weeks I got to know almost all of the children there. Our activity director set us up with all kinds of paper and paints so that we could do arts and crafts with the children for a few hours in the mornings. Two other volunteers, Chloe and Casey, and I were to work with the 9 – 13 age group. In the mornings we would gather the kids together in the undercover area with tables and give them materials to do crafts. The first project we did was mask-making. We gave each participant a paper plate with eyes cut out and helped them decorate the plates to make a face with crayons, paint, feathers, markers, and string. Every kid was so excited and each felt very accomplished after they completed theirs, parading around with it on for the rest of the day.

The thing I found outstanding was that all the kids were so responsible and respectful towards us. They said “please” and “thank you”, and after every activity we did they were always out with brooms and garbage containers even before we asked. Another activity we did was paper weaving, which showed to me how loving and grateful all of these children were, helping their friends that didn’t understand how to do it.

After our morning activities, which were divided by age groups, all of the volunteers and kids would get together to play. Sometimes we would gather around the iPod speakers we brought and dance to the newest reggae songs we all shared a love for. The children love to just have fun; they would teach us the dance moves to some of the songs, and we would share the other kinds of music we all listened to at home. Every day I was amazed by the inspiring stories I heard throughout the day from each of the children and I learned so much watching the way they cope and look out for one another.

With fellow volunteers and kids

During the hours of the day we spent there, minus the 20 minutes in which we would eat our delicious lunch, there was always a child there to hold our hand or sit on our lap. Once in a while they would compete for who got our hand. Even if we could not remember all of their names, the children just wanted to feel loved and it felt incredible to be able to give them that attention and warmth they all deserved. Despite the extreme heat I never quite got used to, the children were always eager to keep us pleased getting us ice juice and resting with us under the shade. Volunteering at Hanbury Children’s Home never felt like work and we would leave even more excited to find out what we would experience the following day.

For a couple of the days at the home we worked on our group gift which would be 3 murals that we painted on each side of a storage building. One side would show each country the members of our group were from, the other would be a fun underwater scene, and the last wall would be collaboration with the children. Throughout our work days everyone in the Hanbury community was eager to help us out. Whether it was children mixing paints, clearing away rubbish or singing us songs, everyone put in their part to help create the 3 walls. At one point almost 30 children were gathered around the paint asking what they could do next.

Another thing all the children were amazed by was our cameras and video cameras. Hours would be spent making funny dance or rap videos with each other or taking photos of funny faces. I even took a video of them dancing and singing in the house we painted to their favorite song “Stookie”. The kids were so happy to be able to share parts of their lives with us and just talk to us as friends.  I was surprised how well I managed to relate to all the kids, despite living in completely different cultures half a world apart.

The Projects Abroad staff were very organized during our trip; they arranged for our transportation to and from the home every day and we ended up becoming good friends. We also had a set schedule as to how the week would be laid out, including all the extra activities like dance classes, patois lessons, and weekend day trips.

Play time

On the final day at the home we held an exhibition, displaying all the artwork and creations the children had made throughout the previous 2 weeks and a chance for everyone to come together and sing songs and dance. The hardest part of my experience was saying goodbye to all the children who I had learned so much from and grown to love over my stay. Even the tough girls shed tears. Everyone at the home was so loving and opened up to us quickly, which allowed us to create a bond in a very short time. It was such a rewarding experience to know that I touched each one of their hearts as they did mine.

Going on this trip has so far been the most memorable experience I have yet had in my life. Every single day I learned and grew as a person, as well as gained the satisfaction of helping those less fortunate than me. I got to share and spread smiles, and looked forward to every day ahead. It was amazing to be able to completely immerse myself in a brand new culture and gain friendships with people I never would have run into otherwise. I cannot wait until I can return and see the progress each of the children has made. Almost every day I am somehow reminded of my two weeks spent in Mandeville and I can’t help but smile. They are right when they say Jamaica is the country of one love.

Meriel Anderson

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