Beatrice Updegraff - General Care Projects in Jamaica
Booking my trip
My Projects Abroad trip was completely spontaneous. Whilst on my gap year I was unsure of what to do next and felt it was time to do something worthwhile. I really couldn’t have picked a better project or destination. Both the UK and Jamaican staff were fantastically helpful and organised my trip at very short notice, efficiently answering any questions and concerns I had. As a drama student, I signed up for a ‘Dance & Drama’ project at a boys and girls club in Jamaica – a country that I have always wanted to visit.
I don’t think it hit me I was going to Montego Bay until I was actually walking through the Jamaican airport at 10pm in the sweltering humidity, looking at a life size poster of Usain Bolt! My expectations of a colourful, vibrant, friendly city were met the next day as I had my induction around Montego Bay. The streets were filled with people haggling for fresh fruit, reggae music blasting from speakers and Rastafarians greeting you with a laid back ‘eh whitey, wagwan?!’ I was instantly charmed!
To begin with the city seemed very intimidating as it all looked the same and I had no idea how I’d ever find my way around. Within a few days I was showing other volunteers shortcuts. Because there is such a brilliant network of staff and other volunteers on the ground, if ever you are lost there is always someone just a phone call away to help you! Before you know it you’ll know the city like the back of your hand and will feel like a true Jamaican from Mobay.
Unfortunately, for various reasons, my Drama project didn’t work out. Disappointing as this was, I was able to speak to the Projects Abroad staff member who was entirely sympathetic and very helpful. Within two working days of expressing my desire to change placements, I was on my way to a new care placement in a children’s home in a small village just outside Montego Bay. I was thoroughly impressed with the way Projects Abroad listened to my concerns about my previous placement and the fact that the staff did everything they could to change my placement as quickly as possible.
My Care project
The children at the Garland Hall Baptist Orphanage were aged between nine and fourteen and were there for a number of reasons. I often found my work quite upsetting as several of the children had behavioral difficulties and had had traumatic childhoods. However, these children were so energetic, cheerful and loving that it was a joy to spend time with them. Often we’d spend our mornings colouring and drawing, or simply sitting and talking in the sunshine of the orphanage playground.
Simple clapping games were hugely enjoyed and played over and over, and the little girls in particular (and some of the boys!) loved nothing more than braiding my hair. One of the highlights of my time at the orphanage was teaching an illiterate twelve year old boy named Damien to read 30 words. He’d never been taught to read as a child so was in classes at school with seven year old children. After a shaky start, Damien was soon thrilled to be reading basic words with confidence. I couldn’t have been more proud of his progress and was thrilled that I was able to impact on a child’s life in such a simple but vital way. Every day my time at work would fly by and I developed a very close bond with the children – saying goodbye was heartbreaking. It is an experience that I will always remember and cherish.
My host family
As well as my care placement, one of the highlights of Jamaica for me was my host family. On my first night I was told to make myself at home and after a few days I felt like one of the family. They were anxious for me to experience true Jamaican family life so I was invited to church with them every week, as well as their Friday evening family worship in their living room. My host mum was a fabulous cook and introduced me to traditional Jamaican cuisine, right from my first breakfast of guava juice, saltfish, ackee, rice ‘n peas, kallaloo and plantain. She would go to any lengths to ensure my stay was comfortable.
I feel there is no better way to experience another culture than to live with a host family. I learnt firsthand about their customs and beliefs and was expected to live in accordance with their way of life, meaning I was lucky enough to get the experience of being a true Jamaican for a number of weeks. My host family were incredibly friendly, kind and humorous people who I miss very much and really hope to keep in touch with.
Free time in Jamaica
There is plenty to do in Jamaica so the other volunteers and I were definitely able to make the most of our time on the island. We took part in activities that Projects Abroad organised such as ‘Dirty Days’ (where we all spent a day cleaning and painting at one of the placements), a patois and culture quiz and a fantastic reggae dance class.
As well as this, we organised our own trips. This included swimming in the beautiful glistening waters, swimming with dolphins, going to a delicious jerk festival, climbing Dunn’s River Falls, staying at the stunning beaches of Negril and rafting down the tranquil rivers at Martha Brae. We were lucky enough to be in town at the time of ‘Sumfest’, one of the world’s most famous reggae festivals, so spent a fantastic night dancing until dawn watching Damien Marley perform.
My final impressions
Leaving Jamaica was very hard. It is such a colourful, bustling and beautiful country that is brimming with infectious national pride, tradition and plenty of character. After spending four weeks there I had built up a daily routine of going to work, buying fresh fruit from a particular stall, eating a beef and cheese patty for lunch and spending an afternoon relaxing on the beach (my sun tan was glorious!).
My friendships with the other volunteers are some that I hope to always keep and I would love to be able to go back and visit my host family in the future. The children at the orphanage were incredible people and I feel privileged to have been able to spend such a fantastic few weeks with them.
Volunteering with Projects Abroad is something I would not hesitate to do again in the future. The experiences and opportunities you get with their placements are unrivalled and the staff offer fantastic local knowledge, support and security, which is truly vital when living in a developing country and different culture. For anybody in doubt, volunteering in Jamaica truly is worth every penny.
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.