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‘Traveling with purpose’ leads to lasting Jamaican experience

Jamaica. What a place. Can you believe it? I’ve just come back from a trip to Jamaica.
No, I am not a bronzed body. I didn’t even loll on the beautiful sandy beach. Years ago I got the clue that wasn’t my body style.
I did what one of today’s catch phrases says: I ‘traveled with a purpose.’ Others have tagged it ‘volun-tourism.’ It is literally mixing an entertaining vacation with an interactive humanitarian aid venture. And I think it is a dynamite experience when you take off on such a quest with a mix of people who come carrying a variety of skills and some definite plans. As you can sense, I’m just dying to tell you about our trip.
Often when visiting another’s country the hardest things to get to do is share everyday, real-life experiences with the people who live there. We are shown the ‘tourist spots’: grand architecture, beautiful landscapes and posh recreational areas. We do the same when visitors come to our towns. We take them to the highlights of our location, not our homes and work places. In traveling around the world, I have found that often the tourist industry stresses comforts and conveniences. Sometimes this gets pretty generic. Franchise restaurants and hotels look much the same whereever you go.
When I visited Jamaica, I did not want to experience it by merely peeking from behind the safe comfort of an American curtain. I want to feel bathed in the atmosphere of a place and a people. We were able to do that when visiting with a purpose. And so I have to ask myself, what made this possible?
This trip did not start with planning in a travel agent’s office months ago. It grew like a real community grows from exchanges between people taking care of their needs and wants over the years. Rotary International promotes exchanges between their clubs around the globe. The Rotary Clubs of Savannah La Mar and Indianapolis 15 years ago began to travel back and forth exchanging ideas, friendships and services.
Over time, other organizations and skilled folks heard of the trips and offered to take part as volunteers. Thus, it was a developing leadership team that boarded the plane for Jamaica last month.
I went along with a TV cameraman. We hopped around attending the various activities and recording them for a documentary to be shown as part of my public television series, ‘Communities Building Community.’ And we saw amazing things.
A dentist traveling with us repaired teeth for two days in a small clinic. The patient we recorded with our camera hadn’t had his teeth cleaned in 35 years. It costs too much, he said.
An Indianapolis doctor worked with a local nurse practitioner to assess what medical equipment would be helpful and how to get it effectively from Indianapolis to the public.
The Peace Learning Center conducted a one-day workshop for 70 teachers and social workers. They shared curriculum used in our schools and explored ways of adapting it to Jamaican culture. We visited seven grade schools and used some of their learning activities as tools to impart practical ways to resolve conflicts, having fun along the way. Also, a trainer from the Dyslexia Institute of Indiana led a two-day conference on identifying learning disabilities and approaches that are effective in meeting the learning variances of students.
Now, how were these technicians able to be effective in a foreign place? The ground work had been done ahead of time. People had earned the right to be invited into another person’s everyday life. Rotary had the on-the-ground team that knew how to plug the skills into programs that were ripe to receive them. Ambassador’s for Children gathered the volunteers from Indiana and Jamaica who were the willing, understanding and loving hands that worked one on one.
We walked among villagers, visited in homes, ate locally cooked food and sang together. We ‘felt’ Jamaica, and I think our hosts felt Indiana when in our presence. And believe me, we had a great time!
As our team floated in and out of projects, they left goodwill, fluoride teeth, more informed teachers and social workers, healthier poor people, wiser leaders and actual practical routes for continued activities between newfound associates. A computer and printer were left in a school so we can correspond easily. And by the way, the principal is also a Rotarian, and that organization will have access to the computer also. A date for next year’s trip has already been set, and several trips are scheduled in between by individuals and specific groups.
Traveling in this manner may not offer the relaxation or freedom folks often crave, but for me the trade-off was well worth it. We made a difference in the lives of those in need; we made new friends and work allies while having an invigorating time. Recreation became indeed re-creation.
All week we met smart, happy and hopeful people, people with varying resources to reach their potential. I speak here of both Hoosiers and Jamaicans. Two groups that for a brief moment in history formed one group. One with a greater capacity to use what they had to offer to better the world. That is ‘traveling with a purpose.’ Who knows the limits of its impact. But seeds were sown by friendships made, and I know I’m a richer person for having gone.