There is something I have always wanted to do when I'm in the Caribbean, and it has nothing to do with snorkeling, shopping, sunning, swimming or sipping.
It has to do with volunteering in a classroom, working on a farm, helping plant coral fragments on an endangered reef, climbing a ladder to nail down a shutter, picking up plastic litter on beaches, protecting a turtle nesting ground, organizing a library, helping plan an event at a local community center or serving as an escort on a school field trip.
To find out how I might be able to do it, I spoke with Heidi Clarke, executive director of the Sandals Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Sandals Resorts International.
The foundation marked its 10th anniversary on March 18 with celebrations at Sandals and Beaches resorts across the region, attended by many of the 14,000 Sandals Resorts team members who "drive the foundation and are behind our commitment to another 10 years of investment in sustainable projects that protect the islands and improve the lives of the Caribbean community," according to Clarke.
When she joined Sandals Resorts in 2008, Adam Stewart, deputy chairman of Sandals and president of the Sandals Foundation, told her he had "a small project" that he wanted her to do.
Since its inception in 2009, that "small project" has evolved into more than 120 projects and programs across Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Lucia and Turks & Caicos. Stewart said the foundation's work has impacted 348,000 community members, reached more than 43,000 people through environmental programs and implemented projects and programs valued at more than $58 million through its network of donors, volunteers, partners and team members.
Clarke explained that the projects included building schools, establishing reading programs, sponsoring scholarships, outfitting computer labs and libraries, running sports programs, managing marine protected areas, offering free medical and dental care and providing women with vocational training, tools and counseling to learn a trade, among others.
Heidi Clarke, executive director of the Sandals Foundation.
"How can I participate? How do guests get involved?" I asked Clarke.
She told me that more than 30% of Sandals Resorts guests over the years have signed on to volunteer in many of the projects. The number is even higher with repeat guests who already are familiar with some of the programs and sign up again on subsequent visits.
"When guests book, we send them information on how to get involved if they so wish," she said.
"Our travel advisors have been terrific partners. They spread the word because many of them volunteer when they're visiting our resorts."
Each resort has information on available volunteer programs. Island Routes Caribbean Adventures, a division of Sandals Resorts, also has representatives at its tour desks in each lobby who can answer questions and arrange transfers to project sites.
Children's education has been a key focus of the foundation since the beginning.
"We see education as empowering," Clarke said. "It's a huge opportunity to raise literacy levels in this region, and we've worked with 578 schools on various projects. One of the most popular hands-on program with volunteers is the Reading Road Trip. Many guests bring books with them when they're coming and then spend a morning or longer at a school, reading to and with the children and helping them in the classroom."
Another program with a proven track record is Cares For Kids, which has awarded 180 five-year scholarships to students. The scholarships include not only uniforms and books but also mentoring. Many of the recipients go on to college on a scholarship.
"They come back to thank us, some as doctors, teachers and other professionals," Clarke said. "Each high school scholarship student is required to do volunteer work, and by the time they graduate, the spirit of volunteering is ingrained in them, and they continue volunteering as adults."
Over the next 10 years, the foundation is planning to double down on protecting the Caribbean ecosystem and is placing special emphasis on the environmental component.
"The role we all play in supporting protected areas and teaching the next generation the importance of caring for their environment is crucial, now more than ever," Clarke said.
A student at a West End elementary school in Jamaica, one of many schools supported by the Sandals Foundation.
Last year, in partnership with Oceanic Global, a nonprofit that provides solutions to issues impacting oceans, the 19 Sandals and Beaches resorts eliminated more 21 million single-use plastic straws and stirrers at their properties, along with plastic laundry bags and plastic bags in the gift shops.
Last month, styrofoam products were eliminated at the resorts, and reusable lunch kits in place of Styrofoam and reusable water bottles and shopping bags are being provided to the schools.
In partnership with the nonprofit Clear Caribbean organization, the foundation has established two coral nurseries in Jamaica and St. Lucia to propagate and plant 30,000 coral fragments onto reef systems threatened by pollution, overfishing and rising sea temperatures.
"We are getting our guests involved in this and hope to expand to other islands to bring attention to coral restoration," Clarke said.
"We are committed to engaging 100,000 people in environmental protection and conservation over the next 10 years," she said.
As for me, the next time I'm headed for one of Sandals' resorts, I'll bring some supplies to a local school as part of the Pack for a Purpose program, spend a day on a Reading Road Trip, purchase some craftwork from the Caribbean Artisan Collections to benefit local artists and venture out to a reef to plant some coral fragments.