I’m sure, at one time or another, you’ve each bought a box of chocolate-covered almonds for charity. You know, the ones sold by students, usually to raise money for a school trip.
I bought one a while back to support a different kind of trip and realized I’d completely forgotten to tell you about this worthwhile project.
A colleague was selling the chocolate treats to help her friend fund a trip to Haiti this month to volunteer with Third World Awareness. When I bought some, I asked her some questions about the project and she sent me a link to their website.
Here’s what I found out: Third World Awareness started in 1989 when a Toronto drama teacher named John Calaghan put out a notice asking if any students would be interested in traveling to Kingston, Jamaica, to work with the poor.
A total of 54 students signed up and after that first year the trips became a regular pilgrimage during the school’s March Break. The trips continued even after the original group started university and they eventually established the group as an official Charity naming it Third World Awareness.
When I visited their website, once I started reading the “reflections” of some of the volunteers, I couldn’t stop. I’m including an excerpt here that I found particularly moving. (Sorry it’s so long, I think you’ll see why once you get to the end.)
Riverton City, Jamaica. assisting at two schools.
Day 1, Lesson 1
“There,” says the man pointing in the direction of the deserted opposite corner. He has been kind enough to get off the bus with us and take us to where we catch the bus. “There?” I ask pointing in the same direction. “Yes. God bless.” he says as he turns and leaves.
Riverton City has developed and grown around a huge garbage dump and now holds approx. 20,000 people. Children go swimming in the fetid water around the garbage heaps. The smell is indescribable and must be experienced in order to be truly appreciated.
When I first arrived at the school, the Principal came over to say hello and ask us what we were doing there. I said we were sent to do whatever he needed to be done. He said, “All right good. Take this class outside and teach them about travel. We are learning about travel this week.”
I said, “Sure no problem,” not realizing that I was about to jump from the pan into the fire. I took the class outside and looked for a place to sit. The Principal said to sit in the shade and tear up newspaper for them to sit down on so they wouldn’t get their uniforms dirty.
The children began running around with the paper and taking it from each other. They would then run up to me and ask for more, shouting, “Me want one! Me want one!” I would give them one or say, “You already have one.” They’d respond to this by throwing it away and shouting again, “Me want one!”
A handful of students sit patiently watching me frantically tear newspaper while shouting, “Sit down! Don’t do that! Hey get back here! Put that down! Stop hitting her! Stop pinching him!”
A voice deep inside me begins to push its way up into my brain, as I look in terror at the scene around me and cries, “I don’t want to be here! Why can’t I simply be washing lepers, shaving and feeding old, sick, dying people! That would be easy compared to this.
The Principal came out to say it is time for their snack break. What? What do mean their break? We’ve just started. Alas no. Apparently I have been tearing newspaper, yelling and staring reality straight in the face for 45 minutes. I haven’t taught a single thing.
Day 2, Lesson 2
The next day I was more prepared for the onslaught at Riverton. When the teacher assigned me a class to help with writing skills, I knew I was only going to get through to a few children or perhaps even one. They all at first gathered around and wanted a pencil.
“Me want one!” “Me want one!”
“You have one man!” I would say in the worst Jamaican accent you ever heard. “I gave you a pencil.” Some of their pencils needed sharpening and so I sharpened each one as needed.
Some didn’t need sharpening and I would tell the students this and so with that most wonderful, absurd logic that only kids can express, they would run to their desks and break the points of their pencils deliberately and come running back to me with a huge smile and show me the broken pencil.
After a couple of times I stopped and started with the lesson. Some kids would leave but the ones I could make direct eye contact with stayed and tried to write. At one point I was writing with both my right and left hand.
“You make a ‘C’ and you make a ‘D’ and on and on until lunchtime. We sat and had lunch with the teachers, Principal and the students. That’s when they came, the kids who didn’t attend the school.
They would be able to eat whatever leftovers there were. Some bigger kids come into the school and begin circling the kindergarten kids like sharks. Moving in and eating their food.
I watched one little girl about 4 years old quietly place her bowl inside her desk and sneak spoonful amounts into her mouth while watching them, regularly stopping and pretending like she had already finished.
The afternoon class was dedicated as usual to singing songs involving positive affirmations in the same way as the morning begins. One of the sayings is this. “I look in the mirror and what do I see. I see I am smart and beautiful, and there is no one else exactly like me.”
Day 3, Lesson 3
I took the whole class outside and read to them. The book is a cool one, which has been donated to the school. It is the story of Puss ‘n’ Boots but there are little pictures which replace the names of the characters or even a few objects.
The task is for them to identify the picture with the written word for the object or character. More of the children were paying attention to me now. They would bump and push each other out of the way so that they could see the book and even sometimes break into all out fights.
As I read the story to them I notice that other kids from Riverton City began to come around and listen in. One of them was an older boy of maybe 12 or so. He had no clothes except for dirty, torn, underwear. This of course meant nothing to me as I had already seen kids without clothes playing barefoot among the garbage and glass.
No it was not that which caught my attention but the long, wide, jagged scar which ran down his stomach. It looked like it had been done with a bottle opener or broken bottle, something like that. He muscled his way through the kids pushing them aside regardless of their size. They looked at him with resentment but were too afraid and he was clearly too big to fight with.
As I read the story and asked questions he answered them and looked at me for approval, (which I gave), with a wide, broken, shy smile. I didn’t want to exclude anyone.
I kept glancing at the scar and asking myself how it happened. Was it a fight with a broken bottle? Was it a gang attack? How long ago? When he was the age of these other school children? The other kids started telling him to move and tried to push him away.
He pushed back saying, “Get away! Him teach’n me how to read.”
Then Kenwa cames to the group. Kenwa is also about 12 or 13 and works at the school helping with the children and preparing meals. He is bright and articulate.
I can define his attitude for you by telling you that at lunchtime the day before when we were serving the kids, Wendy, (one of the girls on the trip with us), asked him to sit down and eat while she finished serving and he looked at her and smiled saying, “It’s not my turn yet miss.”, and finished serving the younger children.
He was now telling the boy with the scar to leave. “You don’t go to school.” “You are trouble.”
“No man, I no make trouble. Him teach’n me how to read.” said the boy with the scar.
“You go away now or I’ll tell matron.”
They argued back and forth with the scarred boy getting angrier and fiercer and Kenwa standing his ground, matching him glare for glare. Finally Kenwa said, “Alright I’m going to get Matron.” He turned and called for the matron who looks after cleaning the school.
The scarred boy suddenly said, “No. Don’t. I’ll go.” Right there and then standing in front of me was a sad, scared, hurt, child who just wanted a moment of kind attention and a chance to learn something. He apologized and moved to the back and helped the smaller children to the front making sure they could see the book. He looked at me and said, “No trouble. I stand here.”