A week at an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica is usually about sun, fun, beaches and relaxation. But last year, my family’s week also included goats — at least five of them.
The goats weren’t roaming the resort but rather were located at a school not far from our hotel. Through an Internet search, I’d found a school that would allow us to visit so my girls, then ages 5 and 8, could learn more about the beautiful, but very poor country they were visiting. I wanted my kids to meet some people who weren’t employed by the resort (dressed in uniforms and serving drinks or cleaning our rooms). I also wanted to give them an experience that would challenge them to think about other people’s realities, which are so unimaginably different from their own.
So one morning, we went to the school, where our first glimpse into this different world was that of goats cheerfully chomping on grass in the yard. Our three daughters were transfixed. “How come our school can’t have goats?” asked Maya, then 5 years old, as one of the animals nibbled on her braids.
I mumbled something about discussing it at the next parent-teacher meeting and herded the children into the building. For the next hour, we got a tour of the elementary school, where we met many of the students. We got to tell them a little bit about our snow-covered home, and see how this school was both very different and also sometimes the same as it was back in Montreal. We also came bearing bags of school supplies, art materials, books, and games we had brought from home to donate.
There were no smart boards or computers in these classrooms, no overhead projectors or indoor gymnasiums. However, the classrooms were covered with bright posters and student artwork and many had shelves of books and workbooks. The cinderblock building left one wall of most classrooms largely exposed to the lush foliage and tropical flowers outside.
The children wore neat uniforms and politely stood to greet their principal in unison in every room we entered. Most were excited to come forward and hug our girls in welcome, many of the girls reaching forward to touch Maya’s blonde hair. Our older girls, twins then in grade 4, were interested to learn a bit about what their Caribbean counterparts were studying, and excited to see one of the walls adorned with the same poster the kids had at their school.
The principal was delighted to give us the tour, and we spent a bit of time with him discussing the challenges of running such a school. He said his students benefited from the opportunity to meet kids from other countries and to hear about their homes, though most had difficulty imagining what snow really looked like.
Our trip back to the resort was full of chatter about the people we’d just met and the ways in which our daughters’ schooling might be different than that of the kids they’d just met. They were most impressed by the students’ impeccable good manners and respect for all the teachers and principal. They found it interesting that, instead of a cafeteria or hot lunch program, the children could buy food and treats from vendors who set up in the schoolyard at midday. And, of course, they were extremely impressed by the goats.
This was precisely what I had sought when we left the relatively luxurious enclave of our all-inclusive resort. Between the time spent relaxing and playing together as a family, we had also learned some important lessons about life in a poor country, the value people all over the world give to education and appreciating the many things we too often take for granted.
Making a vacation more meaningful
Many countries and foundations host programs allowing tourists to make contact with people in the communities or countries they visit, to make donations to schools, orphanages, daycare centres and hospitals, as well as to spend some time doing volunteer work. Before you go, invest a few hours online looking for ways to give back through community tourism. Some places may have tour companies specializing in cultural encounters and volunteer opportunities.
I found the principal of the school we visited by searching the TripAdvisor forum for the region of Jamaica we were visiting; I posted a question about visiting a school and others who had done the same wrote back with contact information. These forums can be a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the real people in the region you will be visiting and their particular needs, and I highly recommend them to check out any tour companies you are considering if you prefer not to go on your own.
Before you go:
- Research online the area you will be visiting, making use of travel forums where people can write their own unedited reviews and offer suggestions.
- Contact the institution you wish to visit for permission. Security concerns may mean this is not always feasible, and not all will be interested in hosting visitors.
- Consider the ages of your children. School aged children and teens will benefit the most from these encounters.
- Involve your kids in the planning. Would they be more interested in a school or daycare centre? What items do they think the kids will appreciate?
- Personalize your family’s experience by donating toys, clothes or books from your own home. Giving away a book your child used to enjoy can be more meaningful than buying one in a store.
- Be creative. Perhaps you can spend a few months collecting used eyeglasses from friends and family, books for schools or even clothes. Use social networking websites like Facebook to broaden your collection reach, if possible, or ask your children’s school if you can put a collection box for these materials in the office. But remember – you will have to carry whatever you are bringing on an airplane, so keep airline baggage restrictions in mind.
- Be sensitive to their time and space. You may be invited into someone’s home, workspace or classroom and it should be treated respectfully. Minimize disruptions and get permission to speak to children or to take pictures.
- Bring pictures from home. When we tried to explain to the students what Montreal was like, it occurred to me they could not really understand what our snow-covered city looked like. I was sorry I hadn’t brought pictures to leave behind.
- Follow up your visit with a note of thanks, and if appropriate, copies of pictures you may have taken during your time with your hosts.
Websites that offer volunteer opportunities:
Want to combine travel and good works on a budget? Check out this site: