Time Well Spent: Volunteering While Visiting Dominica*

In truth, I had already planned my return to Dominica before Maria’s catastrophic landfall. Despite the devastation, I was not deterred from visiting my beloved adopted country. However, I knew that my long-awaited reunion with the Nature Isle would not be a typical ‘vacation’.

During the almost two decades that I lived there, I happily offered my skills whenever called upon to do so or when I felt I could make a worthwhile contribution to an organization, event, or institution.

This time around, I decided that I would approach two schools, the humane society and a business to see if I could do anything for them in the short time I was there.

In addition, I was honoured to spend considerable time listening to people share their ‘Maria stories’ and their post-hurricane thoughts and feelings with me. Every day, I went about my travels, errands and experiences with the conscious intention that I would allow time for anyone: stranger, acquaintance, or friend to share with me whatever was on their minds.

Melvina and CLean up Crew
Melvina (centre) of Pointe Michel chats with me across the ravine where several people lost their lives. She and other villagers are cleaning up the area as best they can . Melvina lost  friends and family members in the storm, as well as her popular seaside restaurant business.

As a matter of fact, weeks before I arrived on Dominica, I was advised by friend Tina Alexander of Lifeline Ministries to “be prepared to do a lot of active listening.” While I have no background in counselling and as such could not offer professional advice, I did consciously hear all kinds of ‘Maria stories’ without judgement, but with the utmost of compassion. I only hope that I was able to slightly ease the pain or allow individuals to express some of their thoughts and feelings so that they might be able to heal a little bit from the terror that was ‘Maria’.

CARIB SAND & STONE

One of the most pleasurable activities for me was the continuation from earlier times of walking the two security dogs at a local business, Carib Sand & Stone, aka the Pointe Michel quarry. I had previously learned from friends Wendy Walsh and Liz Madisetti, who frequented the on-site spring for drinking water that the two canines had survived the wrath of Maria, as they had TS Erika two years earlier. However, I did not have any details until I arrived at the site and spoke to Roy, one of the managers. He informed me that the dogs had been taken to the property of a worker who lived nearby, but they were nevertheless traumatized by the hurricane as they happened to be in one of the hardest-hit areas (Loubiere). After the storm, they spent a month or so wandering the area freely until they were able to settle in to their guard duties at the quarry once again.

When I arrived at the quarry  after a half hour walk from my apartment in Wallhouse, I approached the mother and daughter dog team slowly. They had taken note of me, and the expressions on their canine faces were almost comical. ‘Quarry’, the elder canine, tilted her head and gazed at me quizzically. Her daughter ‘Forty-Two’ (named after a quarry machine) wagged her tail uncertainly. Once I spoke to them, a noisy commotion ensued. Perhaps it was my scent too, but there was definitely a ruckus that caused nearby workers to pause from their work and laugh out loud.

That first day, I did not put a leash on them and they remained in their customary spots. Instead, I sat between them on a convenient bench, put some treats in their bowls and provided lots of pats. I was recovering from a back injury, so it would be another couple of weeks before we would ‘hit the road’. It was a thrill to reacquaint with “the girls,” as I affectionately call them. For the next six weeks, I would visit with them a few times a week, give them a half hour walk each, and receive dog hugs, among other types of pet affection in return . Of course I cried the last time I saw them, as I had when I left the country a year and a half before. I told them I would be back and look forward to that happy reunion, God-willing.

 

ST. LUKE’S PRIMARY SCHOOL

Sometimes after visiting with “the girls,” I made my way a little further south by either walking or taking a bus to the nearby village of Pointe Michel. This vibrant seaside village had sadly suffered significant loss of life during Hurricane Maria. Five months later, they were struggling to regain a semblance of normalcy and cope with about 18 tragic deaths, which had adversely impacted their community. I really wanted to do something for my next-door-neighbourhood that I had gotten to know quite well during my almost 20 years in Dominica.  I approached Sister Anita, Principal at St. Luke’s Primary School to see if I could offer any assistance.

Although I had no experience teaching in a primary school, Sister Anita enthusiastically welcomed me and immediately suggested that I might be able to assist with the K’s and Grade 1’s Reading Intervention Program. It was being coordinated by Ms. Kathie Richards and Sister took me over to meet her right away.

Ms. Richards greeted me warmly and asked when I could start. Then she told me that she is a Canadian-Dominican who had spent a number of years “up north!” We hit it off right away and often proudly disclosed our shared dual nationalities to other teachers and some parents during the course of my time there.

I already knew St. Luke’s reputation as a very progressive school, with a well-rounded holistic approach to learning. But to see how things worked in that encouraging learning environment was truly remarkable.I did not actively teach, but instead supported Ms. Richards with her one-on-one work in helping young children with reading challenges to recognize vowel and consonant sounds, form simple words and then read basic sentences with those sounds and words. One day I expressed to her that I felt I was not being helpful enough. She quickly responded: “I assure you that are helping tremendously. You are showing an interest in the students and they want to please you and show you what they can accomplish. When you are not here, they ask me when you are coming back!”

In this nurturing environment, I experienced so many heartwarming moments. I could not help but feel uplifted every time I was there. At one assembly, Sister Anita reminded the students to think of others in the world who have suffered from tragedies. “Remember the children in Syria in your prayers,” she counselled. I also observed community-mindedness during the season of Lent. Each class delivered a basket of items to someone else in need in the neighbourhood. As well, the popular Environmental Club toured nearby areas to better understand  the types of devastation caused by Maria.

One morning, I was waiting for Ms. Richards following a Friday school mass at the church of St. Luke’s on the compound. When it was over, a group of students passed directly by me on their way to their classroom-in-a-tent. Some children greeted me while others focused on getting back to their desks inside the temporary structure. Their teacher, Ms. Dangleben, was at the back of the group. She approached me with a cheery “Good Morning!” and then asked, “Did the students say ‘Good Morning’ to you?” “Some did,” I replied. She first looked horrified and then called out,”Class, turn around now. We are going back…” In the next few minutes, the class reappeared, in orderly file, and EACH one acknowledged me with a ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’, accompanied with plentiful smiles.

When I spoke to Ms. Dangelben about that scenario sometime later, while her class was occupied with a science activity, I did thank her but assured her that I was not offended when the entire class did not greet me. She replied: “No – that is not acceptable. They must be courteous to our visitors.”

Even though I was only there once a week for a short time, I was constantly amazed by the high degree of dedication, discipline, devotion, encouragement and compassion exhibited by all of the teachers. Ms. Richards shared with me her concerns for the children following the trauma inflicted by the hurricane. One day, I heard about it directly. I accompanied Ms. Richards to pick up a little boy from his classroom for reading assistance. He looked very tired and seemed somewhat agitated. She asked him what was wrong. He replied:”I heard rain and wind last night and I could not sleep!” The after-effects of that terrible storm will certainly linger for a long time. I imagine that this little boy was likely living under a tarpaulin-covered roof. Ms. Richards and I both comforted him, let him speak about it, and provided as much assurance as we could by telling him that he was safe.

On my last day, the school held a general assembly, in which I was thanked profusely for assisting them. I was presented with some lovely tokens and a beautiful handmade card in which was written: “Thank You: We appreciate the time you spent with us. We love you!!”

I was moved to tears by this thoughtful gesture and assured everyone at St. Luke’s Primary School that I would be delighted to assist them again during my next visit to the Nature Island.

 

ORION ACADEMY

After Carnival in mid-February, I was able to catch up with Ms. Elizabeth Madisetti, Principal of Orion Academy, a privately-funded, holistically-focused secondary school. Previously, I had taught English Literature there, from the school’s inception, for about eight years. I enquired as to whether I could help in any way – in particular with fourth and fifth form, as I had always enjoyed preparing the senior literature students for their external CSEC examinations. Ms. Madisetti spoke to Ms. Charles, the English Literature teacher, and they asked me when I could come!

When I first arrived at the school, there was considerable excitement as they were preparing for a’Games Night’ fundraiser. Orion had, like most other buildings, received extensive damage as a result of ‘Maria’. Principal Liz Madisetti showed me the worst of the devastation straight away: half of the school was no longer there! Between the close proximity of the raging Roseau River and the extreme winds that night, there was not much left of the western side of the building. Instead, some twisted metal and the remains of an appliance where the kitchen used to be occupied that portion of the school property. (The fundraiser was successful but much more would be needed to upgrade and repair the extensive damage).

With the typical resourcefulness and resiliency that is prevalent in Dominica, the teachers, parents and students pulled together to make it work, despite the less than ideal circumstances. Twice a week for the next few weeks, I guided the senior English literature students through some of the poems and short stories that are required reading on the syllabus for their regional examinations. Ms. Shirley Charles, their exuberant and effervescent instructor attended the classes too. The popular teacher, who is also a renowned calypsonian, had already prepared the students well, and they responded with enthusiasm during our lively analytical discussions.

And it turned out,  it was I who had the greatest challenge in the classroom. While my group gathered around a table on one end of the room, other students were being taught a different subject concurrently on the other side of the room. There was neither partition nor any kind of sound-proofing. I had to focus and concentrate very hard to present my lecture in a cohesive manner. It took all my energy in the stifling room, however, the students were not deterred. Time passed too quickly, and on my last day, one of the students expressed appreciation on behalf of the class for assisting them with their studies. I in turn thanked them for being a wonderful class – so productive and cooperative despite the circumstances, and I also wished them well.

As I was leaving the school, Ms. Charles approached me and thanked me again. “When are you coming back?” she asked. “Next January. I’ll stay through April next year, God-willing and weather-permitting,” I replied. Oh good!” she responded, “Could you please help the students review their course work before their final exams in May 2019?” “Certainly. I’d love to!” I eagerly responded.

(No photos available at this time, but you can see some of the Orion family by clicking here).

HUMANE SOCIETY OF DOMINICA

Then, on my last week of this visit, I happily volunteered to assist the Humane Society of Dominica (HSD) with the first in a series of ‘Spay/Neuter’ initiatives, in collaboration with the Veterinary Unit of the Government of Dominica. In keeping with the nation’s climate resilience objectives, the HSD, a charitable organization explained their recent mission in this way: “In the aftermath of disasters that affect people’s homes and create displacement, pets are often left homeless and the roaming pet populations can escalate rapidly. More cats and dogs hunting in search of food directly affect the ability of local wildlife, such as small reptiles, iguanas and birds, to come back to pre-disaster levels. Spaying/neutering is a first, humane step in helping our environment regain its richness and variety, important factors for Dominica’s resilience.”

As an animal lover and keen environmentalist, the HSD is no stranger to me, and I have supported them in small ways since their inception 18 years ago. In return, they have always helped me with any domestic animal concerns and questions. I admire what they do, in terms of education and specific events to help people and animals co-exist in more humane ways.

When Yola Toussaint, Director of the HSD asked me if I could lend a hand (or two) with their first Spay/Neuter initiative, which would be held in the Kalinago Territory, I did not hesitate. Although I have environmental allergies and would have to avoid medical/surgical products, I still felt that I would be able to put myself to good use.

As it turned out, I stayed in the background and occupied myself with varied tasks. If Yola the Director or Sasha, the other volunteer needed supplies from the vehicle or something  to be located in the “operating” room, I was the go-for person. As well, I ensured there were covered places for the recovering dogs on the floor on-site at the Salybia Resource Centre. From about 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., four veterinarians, two  assistant veterinarians and we three volunteers concentrated intensively on the overall process of spaying and neutering 30 dogs!

And then there was the human element: a few dog owners expressed concern about how the procedure might affect their pets. With empathy and a positive outlook, I reassured and comforted them. As many of the dogs were free to roam in their neighbourhood,  the pet-owners understood that sterilization would prevent too many puppies and not enough homes for them, among other concerns. I could see that their humans loved them dearly, and I listened attentively to their stories of how these animals came into their lives and that they wanted the best quality of life for them.

During the post-op recovery, there were sometimes (understandably)  a few little “accidents”: ‘bodily functions’ still functioned while under anesthetic, and I willingly mopped up, wiped up  and cleaned up, as needed. I was happy to do whatever I could to help: my love for all animals has no limits!

Really, it was not a problem, especially since I was filled with even more joy when children from the nearby school dropped in after class. They did not hesitate to gather around the surgery tables while the procedures were in progress. As they quietly looked on with fascination and focus, I observed that not one child was faint of heart. I was so impressed! Perhaps one or two of them were inspired to pursue studies in veterinary sciences!

 

The Humane Society of Dominica’s ‘Spay/Neuter’ initiative continues and I look forward to volunteering with this important local organization, my two special schools and tending my foster quarry dogs when I return to the Nature Island. I can hardly wait!

*For further information about specific visitor-related ‘voluntourism’ packages in Dominica, contact the Discover Dominica Authority (DDA) at tourism@dominica.gov.dm. Individuals interested in a particular organization on-island may make a direct enquiry. Alternatively, the DDA can assist with related queries, if required.

** If you would like to make a donation in cash or kind to St. Luke’s Primary School, Orion Academy or the Humane Society of Dominica, then please click the links for further information.  They are all in need of materials and supplies, as the recovery from Hurricane Maria is an ongoing process.  Thank you for your consideration!

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