Before reading, read these first five posts leading up to my trip:
I know nothing about the terror of a hopeless future in the aftermath of a natural disaster. I haven’t gone through a debilitating earthquake, hurricane, tornado, or volcano. So I don’t know what it means to accept help when my life and home are threatened. I guess this has created an arrogance and a disregard for people who need assistance when they are in the throes of losing everything they know: cars, homes, money, life. This is a terrible truth I readily accept. I have often turned a blind eye at people seeking to make a difference with their charity bags and messages for donations. I don’t donate to these charities because, mainly, I have no idea where my money is going to or who it helps.
It’s easy to think there isn’t suffering outside my own little world. If I don’t see suffering, then I don’t know about it. Therefore I don’t care about it. That’s my reality, as terrible as it sounds.
Change for Good
Two years ago I joined the American Airlines Change for Good program. I became a Champion for Children. The Change for Good program is a partnership between UNICEF and American Airlines. Donations are collected from passengers traveling to and from international destinations. These donations are used to make the world a better place for children who are suffering. But, I have often wondered where do these donations go? Who does it really benefit? Do kids really get that money?
A Chance to See UNICEF in action
In March, I participated in a contest to travel with UNICEF to see how these donations help protect vulnerable children. I won that contest. I got to go to Antigua and Barbuda to visit schools where donations have been used to help rebuild after they were destroyed by hurricanes Irma and Maria.
I guess I thought I was going on a sweet, cute excursion. A week-long vacation, if you will. What I didn’t know was that I was also going to get a 360degree attitude check on my lack of empathy. My worldview was going to be on a collision course with reality.
This is my journey:
Day 1: Arrival into Antigua Airport, ANU
I arrive into Antigua to the smiles and welcoming arms of the UNICEF leaders hosting our group of Champions. “I bet you’re all starving, huh?” We actually started in JFK, New York super early this morning, so it is definitely appreciated that our first concern was to get food. We take a shuttle through a small town that leads us to a road that is close to the ocean. The beach is literally just steps away: crystal clear ocean waters, soft cloud-like sand, and an indescribable blue sky without a cloud. We approach a wooden shack. Sand gives way to wooden steps that lead up into this open-air eating, bar area. The view is phenomenal.
I order lobster. Rock Lobster is an Antigua and Barbuda staple. As we are waiting for our meals, some of us steal to the beach for a quick feel of the Caribbean waters. We take off our shoes and mosey into blue-turquoise waters as clear and cool as a gentle breeze on a hot summer day. I look to the horizon and think, somewhere out there is an island called Barbuda with kids who went through Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
After lunch, we shuttle to a gorgeous hotel overlooking the Caribbean ocean. The pool area is on a deck on the side of a hill. It has unparalleled views of the sun setting. Before heading to bed, I enjoy a glass of wine with fellow Champions to get to know each other better.
Day 2 Arrival Into Barbuda
It’s an early day today.
I wake up at 3 am to get ready. I pack my bags and head to the lobby to wait for the other Champions to arrive. I am the first one here. I grab a few photos of the sunrise from this hilltop vantage point. When everyone stumbles to the lobby, drowsy with sleep, we take a shuttle to a small boat at St. John’s bay called the Barbuda Express. It is a ferry that’ll take us to the island of Barbuda.
Down the Rabbit Hole
It is at this point when I truly feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. My group and I stand on the dock waiting for the ferry unbeknownst of the adventure we are about to embark upon. I didn’t have a clue as to what to expect in Barbuda. It seemed like one of those adventure stories you hear about from blogs or National Geographic magazines: people who go to these far off places with exotic names and pictures in front of jungle-covered temples. I quickly learn that this adventure is something I haven’t prepared for. Here I am wearing Bose Sunglasses, Fossil watch, designer outfit; a handcrafted leather journal and expensive Picasso Fountain Pen ready to record my chronicles. I am just showing off like some weird peacock strutting through this desert of an ocean. Do I really look like someone who’s about to go see children in a hurricane-destroyed area?
The little derelict boat boasts through swells and troughs. To the experienced islander, this is as flat as its ever been. To me, however, it’s the rough seas from The Old Man and the Sea and Moby Dick. Up and down, side to side, the boat rocks, and rows, drops and mows. I am sitting in the back of the craft wishing I had accepted the Dramamine offered to me by a UNICEF leader. This isn’t a luxury Cruise line, I know. But a luxury cruise line is the only experience I have of the high seas! This ferry is an insignificant speck on the infinite waters of the ocean. I keep looking over the bow of our little tug hoping that land fast approaches. Nope. The seas surround us in what seems like an eternity in every direction. There goes someone throwing up. I turn away so I don’t fall victim to the same fate. Welcome to Barbuda.
We land at a dock crowded with people. They surround the entrance to the ferry either waiting for their turn to board for the return trek to Antigua or to meet someone who’s disembarking. I look around at the dock and that sensation of surreality the boat ride didn’t dispel now hits full force. There isn’t a reception party. No one is carrying signs saying “Welcome UNICEF!” There isn’t an arrival terminal with officials to check our passports or harass our bags. We disembark from the ferry without fanfare. No one cares that we are with UNICEF. No one cares about our UNICEF shirts. No one shouts praise or welcomes to the arriving heroes.
We are nobodies.
When I shove my way past the crowd surrounding the small ferry, someone hands me a Styrofoam box. It has ‘UNICEF” written on the lid with a marker. I open it to find a meager breakfast banana, cold fried egg, dry bacon, and a muffin. I do not know who made this or where it came from, but I eat it anyway. I keep my mouth shut and don’t ask questions. My mind sort of flips a switch at this moment. This isn’t an excursion preplanned with tour guides and fancy accommodations, a delightful cultural trip. This an educational experience to learn how people can rebuild. I am here on their island. I am here interrupting their lives. I am here watching them at their lowest.
Some Unwelcoming News
We board an unlabeled taxi and drive into the heart of Barbuda. We bump our heads against the windows and ceiling of the van as the driver makes his mad dash around broken dirt roads, roaming donkeys and goats, and piles of rubble and construction. During our ride through the island, our UNICEF manager responsible for the logistics of this trip spills some uncomfortable news. She says, “there aren’t hotel accommodations in Barbuda.” Barbuda is an extremely small island. Tourism hasn’t really reached it yet. So, to make up for the lack of hotel provisions, our UNICEF leader says, “we need you to lean into the discomfort.” My fellow Champions and I look at each other ominously wondering what’s about to be thrown at us. “We will all be sharing beds. Yay!” She says with as much sarcastic cheer as I’ve ever seen someone act out. “We already have partners made up.” To the weathered traveler used to hostels and community bunks, sharing a bed comes as easy news. However, I have been spoiled by my job to have my own hotel room and my own bed. Here, in Barbuda, I will be sharing a bed with another Champion I had just met two days ago. He and I will also share a house without gas, running water, or internet. And I come to find out there is only one towel in the bathroom.
I hear a ringing in my ears as that good ole friend, Anxiety, lightens up my day. I can imagine the conversation between my bed partner and myself. Hello, stranger, who’s to be sleeping right beside me. I hope you and I get along. I hope you like to fall asleep in a super cold room. I hope you don’t mind my restless legs. I hope you don’t mind me staying up late to read, and waking up early to write. Please don’t murder me in my sleep, bed-mate-stranger.
I barely hear our UNICEF leader, “We make do with what we have. Much like the people on this island.” Which basically means we will have to rough it for two days.
Road through destruction
As I am digesting this news, our driver passes buildings left in decay. I see homes invaded by bush and vines. I see make-shift tents dotting the landscape. These tents were used for shelter right after the storms destroyed homes. Most are still in use today as people still rebuild. There is an incredible amount of trash and debris piled up. I see children playing amongst piles of wreckage where homes used to be.
I remind myself that I am here to learn about UNICEF and how this organization works after a disaster. I’m having a hard time accepting our accommodations, but looking outside and seeing the living conditions many people have had to endure for years, brings me back to reality. I accept having to rough it for only two days. If the Barbudans can live in a tent for 2 years, I can share a bed for 2 days. We drop off our bags in our guest house before heading to our first school to visit.
Holy Trinity School
Holy Trinity Primary School, grades kindergarten thru 6th, is a small school with only six or seven buildings rebuilt with what seems to be plywood. I don’t see a playground in sight, not even a grass field. I see one field of rocks and dirt surrounded by island bush and shrub, and the bay a few hundred feet away. As we stand around listening to the principal talk about her school and the damaged done by both hurricanes, a classroom window bangs open and out pops four boys with unruly, mischievous grins. “Who you be?” They interrupt the principle. My fellow champions and I turn to the boys. For me, it’s like looking through the window into a zoo. I wanted to say, Hello, young students, you’re the mythological leprechaun I’ve been looking for. How has UNICEF and Change for Good helped you? But I don’t.
We no longer pay attention to the principal, even though she chastises the boys to return to their lessons. Her smile seems hardly strict. She tries a few times to call us and the students to order, but her attempts are thwarted as the boys continue to ask us questions, then follow up with some jokes.
The principal leads us to the first building. This is the Kindergarten classroom. As we enter, little boys and girls stand up. The kindergarten teacher says, “Let’s give a big welcome to the Champions!” The kids scream with happiness. They run and give us big hugs. I kneel down to a little boy’s level, “Hi, I’m Johnny. What’s your name?” The child talks willingly enough. His accent is thick, though, and I have a hard time understanding. “In my country, we shake hands like this—” I hold out my right hand and shake the little boy’s hand—“when we meet someone new.” There is an awkward moment of silence. He looks at me like I’m an alien. Good going, Johnny, way to make the kid uncomfortable. I don’t know what else to ask him, so I blurt out, “What are you learning in class?” But, go figure, he has lost interest. He goes off to one of the prettier Champions, who are swarmed by a bunch of kids playing with their blonde hair.
These kids are not shy. Not one bit. The Champions and I pull out cells phones and take selfies. I kneel down in front of a group of boys. I say, “Selfie time!” They surround me. We take a lot of funny-face photos.
We continue the tour of Holy Trinity. As we are walking in and out of classrooms, a teacher tells us about the days leading up to the Hurricanes. She says the children evacuated, the storms came, the waters rose, the wind blew, and the school destroyed. The school is actually a few feet from a bay so the school felt the full force of the surge and wind. One building was completely demolished. We are told the havoc was devastating. “You see that empty area over there?” The principal points towards the entrance of the school, a derelict field of crumbling bricks and broken fences. “The playground used to be there.”
The school is back up and running after two years have gone by. There is now a precedent to prepare for the next hurricane. The new buildings sit on stilts so water can flow underneath. The roofs are specially designed to withstand hurricane-force winds. To save on electricity costs, in place of air conditioning, many of the buildings have large windows with fans blowing in cooler air. There isn’t a cafeteria, but a handful of village women pull carts or wagons and set up under a tree to hand out meals to the kids during lunch time. These meals are cooked at home and cost less than an American dollar.
I stand near the far edge of the school gazing at the ocean when a little girl asks me what I’m staring at. I kneel down in front of her, “The view of the ocean from your school is beautiful.” She sort of smiles and cringes at the same time. Isn’t it weird how a child can do that? She responds, “I am afraid of the ocean.” She walks off without further explanation. I brush it off and figure she just doesn’t know how to swim. But a teacher explains that the little girl and many of the students are afraid of the seas. “The ocean destroyed everything they know. How would you feel?”
When we finish touring the school a select group of 6th graders takes us on a tour of a tower of historical importance and caves carved out by the ocean.
We drive the school’s only bus through town. I climb between two quiet and shy island girls. I ask their names and they mumble something I can’t understand. In an effort to create rapport I pull out my leather-bound journal and ask if they can spell their names. They smile and take my pen willingly. I have a fountain pen. This is the first time they have ever seen a fountain pen. They look at it as if its an alien stick, holding it up to their fellow friends and touching the fine point at the end. “How work?” They ask. When they first put the pen to the page and begin to write ink doesn’t come out. I try to communicate with her that I’m going to guide her hand. She nods encouragingly. I gently guide her to put pressure on the downward stroke and light pressure on the upward stroke. It takes us a few tries, but she finally gets the hang of it. As they are writing their names as neatly as they can, someone from the front of the bus shouts, “How about some songs?” The kids in the row behind me start clapping out a beat. The girls beside me pause their writing and start swaying their heads to the beat. Then, out of nowhere, a choir of children begins singing songs about their island of Barbuda. “Barbuda, my pride, my island!” The emotion and power behind their words, the pride, and hope they vocalize gives me chills. There is nothing more enthralling and profound than these children singing. I am instantly brought to tears and glad I wore sunglasses. These kids can still sing and smile even after all that’s happened to their home and school. It leaves me to believe one thing about them: they are resilient!
A Presentation by the Minister of Education
We return to Holy Trinity School after our short tour. Then the Minister of Education gives a presentation about the partnership between Barbuda and Antigua Governments and UNICEF. He says it was tough coordinating with the Barbuda Council, the Antigua government and UNICEF. There is definitely prejudice between the two islands. He gives us a brief history lesson. Back when the Caribbean Sea was still a slave trading route, there was a slave owner who had used Barbuda as an island to breed slaves. Barbuda was a slave-breeding island! Slaves were sent to Antigua to be auctioned. After slavery ended, and Barbudans gave their freedom, Barbudans stayed on the island and left to their own. They developed a philosophy that this is “our island.” It was a collective agreement that everyone watched out for each other and the island itself. Antiguans, on the other hand, looked down on Barbudans because Barbudans were the product of slave breeding. They were viewed as a lesser people.
He continues with the presentation. UNICEF’s primary goal was to protect the children. After providing emergency aid, UNICEF looked to getting the school back up and running as fast as possible. UNICEF provided desks, chairs, and school supplies. They mediated between Barbudan and Antiguan governments to initiate programs like Return to Happiness and Child Safe Schools. These focused on a child’s psychological and emotional stress during and after the Hurricanes.
The Prime Minister tells us Barbuda was NOT prepared for Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Barbuda didn’t have evacuation plans in place. In fact, Barbudans viewed the coming hurricane as just another passing storm. When the first hurricane hit, it destroyed many buildings and homes. When the second hurricane approached, Antigua had to step in and ordered the evacuation of the entire island. All 1600 people were forced to leave. But where to, the Minister of Education asked. “There wasn’t an evacuation route. There wasn’t a preplanned meeting point. There wasn’t a registry to keep track of people, families, and children.” An estimated 500 children evacuated, but only 300 returned. What happened to the others? Did they stay in Antigua? Did they go to another country? The Minister smiled, “We needed a better way to keep track of people during a natural disaster.” UNICEF made it a goal to provide adequate evacuation planning so the island can be better prepared next time.
Another priority was to make sure that children had safe spaces. The children of Barbuda evacuated to Antigua and were shuffled around Antiguan schools. They were in a place they had never seen before with people they had never met. They were terrified. Then when the children returned to Barbuda their school was completely destroyed. UNICEF met this challenge. They began by rebuilding safe spaces. The Minister of Education says, “They returned to Holy Trinity and saw their school damaged. They didn’t understand what was going on. The school wasn’t the same as when they left.” UNICEF developed a program called Return to Happiness, which helped the children deal with this emotional trauma. Returning to happiness meant training teachers to be mentors. It meant providing a sense of security for the child. Getting the school back up and running was the best way to provide that security. The children would be around protective adults. The children would be fed. The children would be distracted from the calamity around them. This was as close to normal an environment as a child can get. And it worked.
When the presentation about UNICEF’s involvement with Holy Trinity school ends, we leave with a sense of accomplishment. I had no clue money from donations gets used in this manner. I had always assumed the money went towards food, water, and shelter. Never have I thought the donated money helped initiate programs designed to empower a child’s right to happiness. I’m am left awed as we shake hands with the Minister before we leave Holy Trinity School. With one last look around, I marvel, again, at the children leaning out of the classrooms. They are waving and smiling. It’s humbling to think that they still smile and laugh.
Next on the agenda after breaking for lunch is participating in one of the after-school programs that UNICEF helped initiate at Holy Trinity. UNICEF saw that more was needed to be done for the kids. “Class starts at 9 and ends at 1 pm. I’m sure we all know idle kids get in trouble.” UNICEF helped promote after-school programs allowing parents to focus on rebuilding, and, more importantly, gave the kids something to do.
We are introduced to the photography teacher. He explains, “I’m going to place you in a group with a few kids. You are going to go explore the village. You are to take photos of things from this list,” he points to the chalkboard. The list of things to search for and photograph include animals, a door, a favorite place, a scary place, and a group selfie. We feel excitement as we pair up with our group.
I introduce myself to my teammates, “Hello, I’m Johnny. I’m from Los Angeles.” One asks. “Do you know any celebrities?” “I met Harrison Ford, once.” They don’t know him. “I also met Rihana on a plane.” The two girls scream excitedly.
As soon as the girls have the camera in hand they run off! I watch the girls turn down random streets snapping pictures of anything and everything. Eventually, they want to see their work. They are trying to work the buttons on the camera, “How see pictures?” They ask. They have to repeat it a few times before I understand what they’re asking. They hand me the camera and I push a few buttons. Most of the photos are blurs and absurd photos of shoes and trash cans. I give the camera back to the girls and, again, they speed away giggling like the little school girls they are.
We return to the school. We review the photos and congratulate each other on a good day. We say our goodbyes, take quick selfies with the students and leave in good spirits.
We enjoy “family” dinner and talk about our experiences with the children. In flight attendant lingo, we call this the “Debrief.” We sit around with a few glasses of beer and wine and just reflect about the day.
Cody Kelly Pre-School
Morning comes quickly, bright and early. When our taxi picks us up, we head to Cody Kelly Pre-School. “We are going to see UNICEF’s work in early childhood development.” I enter the classroom and find the children rambunctious. They stare up at us from their A-B-C carpet. They are anxious to get close and touch us. “Class, let’s welcome the Champions.” “Welcome, Champions!” They yell with their high pitches, misty voices. The principal says, “Ok, class, who wants to work with the Champions?” The kids shoot their hands into the air. “They are going to teach you about Gravity and Inertia!”
My fellow Champions and I look at each other and laugh. “We’re going to teach what?” I hear someone whisper next to me. A few of us try to hold in chuckles. It’s rather comical to see my fellow Champions and I, educated adults, squirm at the idea of teaching Gravity and Inertia. They’re kidding, right? The principal tells us, “We try to keep the kids excited about science and math.” Sure, let these Flight Attendants demonstrate gravity and inertia. If you really want a kick, let us have some alcohol and we will teach these kids anything you want. Well, here we are, staring at this pendulum thing getting a crash course on basic physics. “Uh, what?” Here come the kids. They surround my partner and I. I kneel on the floor, eye-level with the kids, and swing the pendulum. “Who knows what gravity is?” They stare blankly back at me as if I’m a talking rock. “Gravity keeps us from floating away from the Earth!” They aren’t even looking at me anymore. “Yay, gravity,” I say to empty air. The kids, instead, are paying attention to the group behind me. Those UNICEF volunteers took out their cell phones completely disregarding the lesson. The bastards. “What is gravity?” I ask for the umpteenth time, thinking that repetition will get me somewhere. They don’t respond. I answer my own question, again, “Gravity keeps us on the earth and not floating up into space.” “Ooh! Ahh!” I say aloud, adding my own sound effects. The kids ask, “Can we play with your phone?” Eventually, I cave in. We snap a few photos off and make a small video of the pendulum. They sure aren’t shy around electronics, that’s for sure. But Gravity and inertia? Sure, the most attentive little kids ever. Did you see my eyes roll?
McChesney George High School
We make way to McChesney George Secondary School, the island’s High School. We are greeted by the Principal. He smiles admiringly at us. “Welcome, Champions!” He begins a tour of the school grounds. He points out certain features around the school. “ See this bush with thorns? It is known as poor-man’s-barbed-wire. We use it as a natural fencing. We had a long row of them from this end to the other end of the school. But the hurricane wiped them all out. This bush is newly planted.” We move a few feet. He points to the new roofing system. “See the pipes that connect the rain gutters to the ground? The rainwater run-off is connected to a tank a few hundred yards away.” He points to a structure. “That’s a 60,000gallon tank. That’s for when we have a drought.” We move through the campus and walk through a tunnel of a bush. On one side is a wall, on the other is a large hedge. “Notice a temperature change?” We do. It is noticeably cooler. “We can create microclimates using bushes and trees. When the wind blows, the cool air from this microclimate enters the classroom through the windows. Saves electricity.”
An uncomfortable truth about Global Warming
“You guys are Americans, right?” He stares at us. There is a hint of frustration and anger in his carefully controlled voice that we haven’t noticed before. “I have read that some of your leaders don’t believe climate change is real?” Now there is no masking his annoyance. “Here, on Barbuda, we are living it.” This reverberates through us. “We are teaching the students to adapt to climate change. The sea levels have steadily risen.”
Adapting to Climate Change
“That means saltwater seeps into the ground making it almost impossible to grow food. We are one of the first people to develop Hydroponics” The principal enters a classroom. It is the hydroponics lab. “This is a self-sustaining tank that’s been here for years! But the Hurricane destroyed most of it. We’ve had to start over.” He steps up to the window and points behind the school. “But this has allowed us to not only develop new techniques but try out new ones.” There used to be a large tree growing behind the school. The hurricane ripped out that tree leaving behind a large hole in the ground. The students are using this to their advantage. They have begun to build a larger, vertical hydroponics plant where the tree once stood. “We are at the forefront of hydroponics technology. We will be able to support the island with sustainable fish and vegetables in a few years.” The students are breeding fish in the hydroponics classroom lab, then eventually placing them into the new vertical hydroponics plant. Their goal is to create a sustainable culture. “We are adapting to climate change.” I am amazed! “We are teaching the students to be self-sufficient.”
He lead us into a classroom filled with quiet high schoolers.
We sit in front of the class. “Students, let’s give a big welcome to the UNICEF Champions!” The high schooler’s greet us with polite applause. “Champions, can one of you tell us what you do?” A fellow Champion describes what we do on the plane as American Airline Flight Attendant Champions. “We collect donations so that when places like Barbuda get hit with a terrible natural disaster, UNICEF can help get you back on your feet.” The students applause as she finished. “We would like to open up to the floor. Does anyone have any questions for the Champions? Like what’s it like to be a flight attendant, or what countries they’ve been to, or some of their exciting traveling adventures?”
After the Q and A session, we pile into the shuttle and break for lunch.
My acting debut
We return to the high school to participate in a once-a-week after-school program that UNICEF also helped initiate. We team up with a clapper, a camera operator, three actors, and a director to act out a skit the students created the previous week. Our director didn’t foresee having to add three extra adults to his scenario. “My story is about conflict resolution,” he says. My fellow UNICEF champions and I listen as he describes his project. It is a drama regarding misinterpretation. A girl is talking to her cousin. Her boyfriend sees her chatting with another guy and gets jealous. We spend an hour on the assignment. Our director weaves us into the dialogue like a real Hollywood director. “Ready, set, action!” It’s actually pretty fun interacting with these students in their film-making enterprise. But someone calls us to return to the classroom in what seems like no time at all. We wish we could see the final product, but the students will continue their assignment next week when they learn film-editing. Our director promises to share his masterpiece with us later in the month.
We say our goodbyes to the students and exchange Instagrams. Our taxis show up, we grab our bags, then we head to the ferry for the return trip to Antigua.
Back to Antigua
The roll and sway of the boat is hypnotic. Everyone in our group falls asleep within minutes. Upon arrival in Antigua, we drive back to the hotel and have a few hours to freshen up before we head to dinner at a beautiful restaurant.
To Dream or Not to Dream?
Tonight’s dinner is unique because it’s our chance to share thoughts and feelings about spending time in a disaster area. I think this dinner is an important point in my chronicle. I am a realist, pure and simple. I look back on the high school tour and how practical and realistic they are when it comes to the future. I turn to our Eastern Caribbean Manager, Alma, and ask, “why do you spend money on programs like photography or film-making instead of teaching the children more practical things like how to become better fishermen or grow better crops? Why teach them the arts as opposed to something that’s going to put food on the table? Something that’s practical.”
At first, my question seems reasonable. But as I will learn later, it is also definitely callous. I am basically asking why do you let these kids have their heads in the clouds with far-fetched dreams like a photographer or movie director instead of preparing for the inevitable climate change and surviving future hurricane destruction? My question is definitely arrogant, and it definitely calls into question the UNICEF leaders motive for giving these kids the right to dream bigger than setting their sights on being something like a fisherman. (As I am writing this, I cringe at how heartless this question is. It’s almost as if I forgot that I used to have dreams too).
After a few moments reflecting, she answers my question calmly, “I understand your question. But don’t you remember growing up and not wanting to be something you were supposed to be?” She smiles. “Oh, you know, escaping that path you were ‘meant’ to follow? I’m sure your family never thought you were going to become a world traveler, am I right?” I notice how she doesn’t say Flight Attendant. She says World Traveler. The answer gives me pause. She brings her point home, “These kids don’t know what it means to see the world. Why would you ever deny a kid the chance to do something bigger than their small little island?”
I will come back to this dilemma later when I understand the point she is making in a breathtaking moment. When we retreat to the hotel and call it a night, I take a long hot shower, lay in my own hotel bed in my own room. I connect to that glorious Wi-Fi. I may have been gone for two days, but I feel like I’ve been in the “wild” for months.
It is now Thursday. I have been away from home for 4 days. I am amazed that 4 days have gone by and I wake up with an urge to go home. I guess this is what people mean by getting home-sick. Well, today is the last day visiting schools so I head to the hotel balcony to grab breakfast with a few other Champions. I can tell the other Champions are longing for home too, they’re quiet and breakfast isn’t as chatty as it’s been before.
S.R. Olivia Primary School
Our first school to visit in Antigua is the S.R. Olivida David primary school, kindergarten thru 6th. The principal tells us about the Safe School program. He is my age and very well-spoken. He takes the time to answer questions, formulating thoughts before he speaks. He is quick to smile as he gives us a tour of his school. He beams with reserved pride as he says, “Our school took in many Barbudan kids during the evacuation.” As we pass through the open gates and an on-duty security guard, who hands us visitor badges, we walk the school grounds and see inspirational quotes and pictures.
In fact, the principal explains these charming quotes and mottos adorning almost every wall on the campus, “we are here to strengthen our kids. We are all about empowering the kids.” He tells us that the children—all of them, those that evacuated and those that watched the strange kids arrive—have been coping with the stress and debilitating effects of a natural disaster. “We had kids crying all the time. Almost all of them asked when will they return to their school and to their own home.” The Champions and I feel a pang in our guts imagining this kind of sadness. “This safe school gave kids that safe space they needed.” He says the teachers were a phenomenal help to the children. “We trained our teachers to be the mentors that these kids needed.”
An Impromptu Drill
When we reach the end of the courtyard, he says to us, “Remember how I said we try to focus on empowering the kids? Well, I am going to show you an impromptu earthquake drill. The kids have no clue it’s going to happen. I want you to notice a few things about the drill, too.” We stand off to the side and wait. The principal takes out his phone and opens the timer. “Let’s see how fast they are.” The alarm goes off. I see through doorways the children looking at each other for confirmation. “Is this really an earthquake”, “Is this really happening?” Then we hear the chaotic sounds of chairs scraping against the linoleum as the students dive under their desks and place hands over their heads. The alarm is a shrill wail. Next, students pour out of the classrooms like a stampede of beasts chased by predators. They are running every which way, a flood of miniature humanity, to assemble in the courtyard. To us, the process looks like chaos. Kids are naturally chaotic, right? But many of the children are holding hands, and a few stragglers wait outside classroom doors. “We have trained some of the students to wait for the last child to leave the class.”
The kindergartners, however, walk from their classroom not with the rowdy raucous we had just witnessed with the older children, which is amazing if you think about it. They are all holding onto a rope that is lead by two of the tallest kids in the kindergarten class. As they make their way to the assembly grounds the principal asks, “Do you know how hard it was to get young children to pay attention and listen to instructions?” The mothers in our Champion group nod.“We just had to control the little ones. So we came up with the idea of holding on to the rope. It’s sort of a game to them.” We smile. “Notice how many of the students are holding hands?” We nod. “Everyone is responsible for looking after each other.” He points to a small hill in the distance. “If this were a tsunami drill our sixth graders are trained to surround the kindergartners, much like how some animal species protect the young by making a barrier around them. They are to escort the children past that gate and up that hill. We practice drills often. We train our sixth graders to be responsible for protecting the young ones.” There is a fatherly gleam in his eye. “Do you notice the silence?” We notice. The silence is eery. We watch as teachers take roll amongst the students. “We also train the kids to be silent after a drill so we can hear for cries for help.” The entire drill is impressive. “Teaching the children to watch out for each other empowers them to learn to work together. It also makes them confident in themselves. They are responsible for being strong for their fellow students.”
The principle concludes, “We are responsible for providing the tools for these children to make the right choices. The murals on the walls and having them look after each other empowers the children to make those right choices.”
We leave the school amazed at what a Safe School means to the principal. He leaves us also feeling empowered too. I want to fly more international flights to collect more money so that UNICEF can help kids like these be better than us.
J.T.Ambrose Primary School
It is a 40-minute drive before we reach J.T. Ambrose primary school. Here we receive a lesson about a child’s education and protection in this Child-Friendly School. UNICEF and Antiguan leaders wanted to create an environment where a child feels cared for, respected, and physically and emotionally safe. We sit in the principal’s office and have a brief discussion about what we are going to do. “You’re each going to go to your own classroom and talk.” There is immediate excitement. “About what?” Someone asks. The principal smiles, “Anything you want!” With that, we leave the principal’s office. I am directed to stand in front of Mrs.—- classroom. About 20 students stare up at me, “Hello, Johnny!”
I stare at the teacher seeking guidance. She asks the class, “Who knows what Johnny does?” The students look from her to me. They don’t know. So, that’s where I begin. “Hello, my name is Johnny and I am a flight attendant for American Airlines. That means I get to travel the entire world!” Their eyes light up. There’s something magical happening. I gain my footing. “Has anyone ever been outside Antigua?” “I’ve been to South Carolina!” “I’ve been to Jamaica!” “I’ve been to Miami!” They ring off names from countries and states they’ve visited. Oh boy, the excitement is flowing. I ask, “I’ve been at Antigua for a few days now and your island is beautiful! Your lobster is so amazing!” The kids laugh. A girl asks, “Have you had salt fish?” “What’s that?” The teacher answers, “It’s cod that’s in salt.” Someone says, “I don’t like it.” “Its so gross!” I capitalize on the moment, “If you think that’s gross, has anyone had Escargot?” I get the exact response I want, “What’s that?”They ask. I pause dramatically. “I visited Paris, France a few years ago and just had to try this dish. It is snails!” “Eww!! So disgusting!” I laugh, “that’s not that bad. When I was in Narita, Japan I got to try this. Guess what it is?” They shout off animals, “worms! Bugs! Snakes!” I shout, “what about fish heads?” “You ate fish heads!?” “I sure did!” “Have you ever been to Africa?!” Someone asks. “I haven’t been there yet, but I do watch a lot of documentaries. I recently found out that hurricanes form because of sandstorms in the African Saharan desert. The storms fly over the Atlantic Ocean and, because of the rotation of the earth, turn into hurricanes! Sand! Sand starts hurricanes!” I don’t know how accurate I am, but, needless to say, the children are amazed. “Where are you from, Johnny?” “I am from Los Angeles, California!” “Do you know any celebrities?” “I’ve met Cindy Crawford. I’ve seen Jennifer Lopez, Rihana, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise and so much more!” “What’s it like to visit Paris?” “Chocolate Croissants! Bagettes! The Eiffel Tower! Notre Dame!” “How about Japan?!” “Sushi, ramen, Pokémon!” “Mexico?!” “Tacos, salsas, pan dulce!” “Whats your favorite place?” “Nothing beats the crystal clear waters of Antigua of course!” It’s my turn to ask them, “Who wants to be a flight attendant now?!” Their little hands raise high into the sky.
And it is here, this moment, this very moment where something clicks. That question I had asked Alma the other night comes ringing back like an echo. Inspiring these kids to dream bigger than their little island. Who would I be if I didn’t have the dream to travel around the world? Where would I be if I hadn’t applied for my job at American Airlines? What would I be doing if I had listened to my dad and became something I didn’t want to become?
After this incredible opportunity to speak in front of the kids, our UNICEF group participates in a Q and A session with the school’s student council. Sitting before us is a group of 9 to 12-year-olds. Their lead teacher introduces us as the Champions from American Airlines. Then she steps back and hands the floor over to the kids. Immediately a girl stands up. She is poised. Her face is calm. If she is nervous, none of us notice. She speaks with a strong, clear voice, “I am the student council president. I am an elected official. My fellow council and I welcome you to our school and to this meeting.” There is a moment of stunned silence. I am literally blown away. The little girl does not miss a beat. She points to another girl to continue the introductions. This little girl with a bun is a bit more reserved and is at first nervous to speak in front of us. But she finds her footing, “I am vice-president. I welcome you to my school.” The children go around the table introducing themselves. These kids are phenomenal.
UNICEF advocates for students to be more involved in school management. The student’s devotion to their school is evident with this student council. The school president stands up again, her pink bowties and pigtails reminding me that she is still just a child, “We govern this school. We come up with some programs to help make this school clean and safe. One way we do that is by a reward and punishment system.” The other UNICEF champions and I looked at each other. This little girl exudes power. “For instance, we have monitors in the school. If a monitor catches kids playing in the restrooms or littering, we fine them.” One of our UNICEF champions asks, “Do you warn them first?” The president replies, “Yes, we give them 2 warnings before we fine them $2.” A Champion asks, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The children start at one corner of the table and work their way around. They tell us they want to be Neurosurgeons, Veterinarians, dancers, and singers. When it’s the president’s turn, she stands up and looks at us boldly, “I will be the first female Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda.” I have half-a-mind to start addressing her by her future title, “Madam President.”
I leave this school inspired. Not only that, I, again, feel motivated to do more.
We return to the hotel. A few of us take advantage of the free time to walk less than a mile downhill to a gorgeous beach. We bring beers and enjoy a moment to ourselves. We return to the hotel to freshen up before heading to a dinner.
Dinner tonight is special not only because of place where we are going to which is a historical restaurant that used to be a docking port for huge ship brigades needing mast and hull repairs back when Tall-Mast ships, like those in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, commanded the Caribbean ocean. But, it’s important because this is our last night together. We dress in our evening best. We have dress pants and button-down shirts. We gather around a huge table complete with fine white linen, crystal glasses, and a picturesque view of the harbor that is filled with yachts docked for the night. A few of us celebrate with a few bottles of wine and champagne. We go around the table speaking about our thoughts and emotions on the week-long trip. A few of us, including myself, get emotional and break down in tears. When it’s my turn to share, I say, “I never thought I would have been able to stand in front of a group of students and really feel excited for them to apply for a job like a flight attendant. I got to tell them about all the places I’ve been to and all the amazing food I’ve eaten! I got to share what it means to really be living the dream.” I get emotional and choke up. “These kids really have taught me humility.”
Two weeks later, after I have returned home and processed what I’ve been through, I still get emotional every time I think about those kids and my experience with UNICEF. I get even more emotional now when I go through the airplane cabin accepting donations from passengers. Yesterday, someone donated a hundred dollars into the UNICEF collection pouch, and I lost it. I started bawling in the middle of the aisle because I now know that money is benefiting some kid somewhere.
I don’t know the exact amount of each dollar that gets donated to children or how much goes into administrative purposes. Quite frankly, I don’t care. All I care about is that I AM DOING SOMETHING THAT HAS A POSITIVE IMPACT ON KIDS. That”s the reason I entered the UNICEF Antigua Barbuda field trip contest. I now understand where that money goes and who it benefits. Some of that money goes to fund places like Antigua and Barbuda during, and well after, a natural disaster crisis. Yes, a lot of support went to emergency aid like clean drinking water, medical attention, and emergency shelters. But that money also gets used for things that make a difference. Things that will have a long-lasting effect, like after-school programs, Safe Schools, and Child-Friendly schools. UNICEF also uses donations to work with government officials to focus on children who are at risk of violence, abuse, exploitation, and discrimination. UNICEF creates programs to foster lifelong learning, provides justice and safety for children, and monitors the rights of a child.
The hurricanes brought much upheaval, terror, and showed how an unprepared island can make a bad situation worse. However, UNICEF was able to implement programs like Return to Happiness, which helped those children emotionally traumatized because of the evacuation. UNICEF’s efforts to bring normalcy back to the island has taken almost two years. There is much more to do.
When I first started collecting donations for UNICEF two years ago I had no clue what I was doing. To put it plainly, I was doing something that just made me feel good. I played a video in-flight, walked down the aisle, collected money and deposited it into a safe. I had no clue where that money went or what it did. The week spent in Antigua and Barbuda with my fellow UNICEF Change for Good Champions turned my attitude upside down. To tell you the truth, I don’t like kids. However, after interacting with these powerful children I am forced to change my worldview about them. They are strong. They are adaptive. They are resilient.