I arrived to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), a country in the southern part of the Caribbean, with four other European Union Aid Volunteers (EUAV) at the beginning of November 2017. The project is based at the Richmond Vale Academy (RVA), a different kind of school – as they like to call themselves. It is a community that strives to make a positive impact in the region by leading by example and by carrying out specific environmental actions.
As members of the community, we complete many tasks together and also arrange social gatherings and activities of various sorts. We take care of the organic garden, we clean, we maintain the premises, we cook, we prepare birthdays, etc. We work together for the common good.
The objective of the project is to build organic home gardens, based in the principles of permaculture, for single women. I worked with three other volunteers in the backyard of Clio, a single woman of 32 years old with two kids who works in her family nutmeg farm. Her garden was initially unused and dirty.
It took us around a month and a half to finish the garden. We received help from Clio, her children and neighbours, the local permaculture expert, a visiting permaculture professor, previous volunteers and our project manager, who worked 24/7 to ensure all the logistics were functional and the decisions taken appropriate. It was hard work and extremely rewarding. Clio is now proud of her garden and her family as well as neighbours are somehow jealous, in a good way obviously. I have been stopped several times on the street by people who want us to start a garden in their backyard.
We work together for the common good!
Expectations vs reality for a student at RVA
Before coming here, I had a very vague, unclear idea of what my life would be like for the next 6 months living in St. Vincent as a student at RVA. In fact, I made it a choice not to read the details of the program and other people’s posts about their experiences living on the island. I wanted to start the program with as few expectations as possible because I’m starting to learn that places and people that are completely new to us never are how we imagine.
To read a person’s personal experience of a place is also very subjective. What defines our experience depends on a lot of different factors and most of the factors we are not able to know beforehand, simply because we haven’t been in this particular environment yet. So what’s the point of creating a lot of expectations that most probably won’t come true?
It’s my philosophy that you will add to a great atmosphere if you are open to learning and going along with how things are done. Then, after you have observed for a good amount of time, you can start to reflect more in depth and make suggestions for changes. With this mindset I feel like I have been able to learn a lot about the challenges of running an NGO, meaningful volunteer work, personal time management and community living, just to name a few things. Most of all, I have gained a new perspective on life about the forces that rule the world, how we are a part of it and how we can challenge the status quo.
So why am I writing this post about my experiences if my advice for you is not to read previous student’s experiences? Because you probably will read a lot of reviews anyway. It is understandable that we would like to have a feeling of the place that will be our life for the next period and that we’ll invest a lot of time, energy and money into. Therefore, my aim is not just to paint a pretty picture of RVA for you. I want to paint a realistic picture that hopefully will give you a better feel of what everyday life is like here.
And how will I do this? During my time at RVA, I’ve heard several students speak about certain expectations they had for their stay at RVA. So for this post I will address some common expectations and try to explain how I perceive RVA life to be like in reality. So let’s begin!
Expectation: I will be working to develop St. Vincent by working most of the time in the community and with locals.
Reality: I will spend a lot of the time in the school working to maintain and develop RVA, especially in the first period. Later in the program, during “Making SVG Climate Compliant”, I will spend more time working directly in the community and together with locals. My final project can also be out in the community.
Let’s clarify further:
The first period is dedicated to studying and absorbing knowledge that you will need in the volunteer work you are doing out in the communities. For our team it included studying climate change and doing a presentation for around 25 children and youth in a church about different themes like protecting marine life, plastic in the ocean and the agriculture industry. The purpose of this first period was for us to be able to explain the effects of climate change to locals that we meet during our time here and why they should get engaged in the fight against climate change.
We were also lucky to be the first team to do a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) with a Vincentian as a certified teacher. This course formed the base for our projects of building home gardens during the “Making SVG Climate Compliant” period. We learnt about companion planting, crop rotation and how to build a garden using the natural materials you have available.
Being out in the community also depends a lot on yourself. It’s what you make of it. Slowly you might start to get to know more locals who are working at the school and you might end up being really good friends. A lot of us have gone to Sunday church together, worked on their farms, made roti, callaloo soup or coconut oil and gone fishing.
It’s also important to remember that working in the school doesn’t just benefit RVA. The energy that you put into developing the school are the skills that you will leave with. If you want to gain new skills like using tools, how to build a raft using bamboo and plastic bottles, how to put together a balanced and healthy menu for 50 people, you will have the opportunity to do so if you make it a priority.
Expectation: My teacher is an expert on the subjects we are studying and can answer any questions we might have on the subject, e.g. climate change.
Reality: My teacher’s main purpose is to be a team leader. He/she will guide our group as best as possible in our daily schedule. In the classroom the students and teacher will facilitate the presentations and discussions together.
Let’s clarify further:
Some people have certain expectations towards a person with the title “teacher”, for example you expect them to have as much knowledge as a professor. At RVA though, the teachers come from very different backgrounds and therefore they have different experiences and knowledge that they bring to the program.
Although the teachers have often studied the topic before their group arrives at RVA, the format in the classroom is that we study together or split into groups and make small presentations for each other. We then discuss the information the groups have brought forward to see if we all have somewhat of a clear idea of the topic.
As a team leader, the teacher will help a lot with practical things such as organizing transport for the team when we are working in the community and making sure we have the materials we need. Their role is to have an overview of all the work we do and to ensure a smooth coordination of our daily schedule. Besides that, they do a number of other things at the school like giving presentations about previous development projects they’ve been a part of or relevant themes from their education, e.g. sustainable architecture, mental health, ecology and biodiversity.
Expectation: Because RVA claims to be a democracy, it means every decision will be made in the school community and students are able to change a lot in the program.
Reality: Certain things about the program are decided by the school director and teachers and should be respected. However, within the different responsibility areas we are able to have a big influence as a student.
If you want to be heard and you want things to change, your opinion will be respected a lot more if you present a solution to the problem you’re addressing.
Let’s clarify further:
When I say that certain elements of the program should be respected, this too is one of my survival tips. I think everyone can agree that the first period at RVA - or in any other new environment - can be a difficult transitioning time because you’re moving out of your comfort zone in different ways. For example you might need to adjust the amount of alone time you have and at what time of day you create these small breaks for yourself. Being around so many people can feel overwhelming at times - but my experience is that if you accept the schedule, eventually you will become comfortable and forget how difficult it was in the beginning. And the time you would otherwise spend on critiquing the structure, can be spent working on the things you want to achieve, which is the reason you came here in the first place!
And to mention some of the areas you can focus your energy, I will list the responsibility areas that my group was able to choose:
Kitchen (making weekly menus, chase after people who don’t show up for kitchen duty, work together with the cooks to make the kitchen more sustainable)
Organic vegetable garden (improving compost, pest control, increasing production)
Maintenance (organizing tasks for “building weekends”, run around school fixing whatever needs fixing)
Fruit Forest (beautifying the forest of amazing fruit trees (guava, mango and starfruit just to mention a few) using a machete to cut grass and wild plants)
Sports & Culture (organizing events and games in or outside the school, with/without/against locals, e.g. playing football against a highschool team, movie/BBQ/poker nights, celebrating Independence Day and other national celebrations)
Health & Hygiene (making cleaning schedule, chase after people who don’t clean their crap, managing budget for cleaning supplies)
Within these groups there is both maintenance and development work included.
Expectation: As a person doing volunteer work, I am completely free to choose or create the projects I would like to work with.
Reality: As a student at RVA, the work that I do needs to consider the challenges and visions of St. Vincent and RVA as an NGO working with Vincentian communities.
Let’s clarify further:
Sometimes we tend to think of volunteer work as an opportunity to grow our own skills because we are doing the work for free. However, the purpose of volunteer work should first and foremost be about the community or cause that you are trying to help. This means that it won’t always make sense for you to start up a whole new project if for example there is a need for you to continue a project that a previous team started and ran out of time. In this situation I see it as an opportunity to expand the areas you prefer to work with and to feel good that you are working towards the bigger picture, e.g. fighting for climate change, making St. Vincent and/or RVA more sustainable.
In your role as a volunteer working in a foreign environment, it is very important that you are prepared before you try to change anything. Even the best of intentions can cause damage if the person isn’t aware about the bigger mechanisms that rule the country. I would really advise you to watch these two videos before you do any volunteer work, to understand the importance of your role as a volunteer coming into a new environment:
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post and that you’ve found it useful! As a final note I would like to say that I’ve truly enjoyed my 6 month stay at RVA and I can’t believe how fast the time has flown by. I’m having trouble remembering my life before I came to this beautiful island and I can’t imagine going back to my life how it was before; working a 9 to 5 job that doesn’t thrill me and that isn’t working towards repairing the damage that our past generations have caused without realising the impact on our planet.
I’ve met so many great people from around the world here and I want to keep exploring different cultures while figuring out how we can all live more sustainable lives. Therefore, I’ve chosen to start my next chapter in Mexico, learning from a woman who started her own business making fermented vegan food that she sells at local farmers markets. In the near future, I would also like to give back to the school that has taught me so many things - about myself and the world. Whether I will come back to RVA to work as a teacher, work on a development project in the Caribbean or something else - only time will tell.
Whatever you choose to do in the next chapter of your life, I hope you remember to see the positive sides of your situation and to see the challenges as an opportunity to grow.
Best of luck,