JIS News

A group of international and local volunteers have joined hands to host a summer camp for children in Hagley Gap, Rural St. Thomas with the aim of addressing social issues such as sexual behaviour and violence.
The four-week summer camp, which is being held for the third year, began on July 23 at the Hagley Gap Community Centre in the foot hills of the Blue Mountains. It is organized by the Blue Mountain Project, a non-profit organization seeking to bring about social and behavioural changes in the residents of that West St. Thomas community.
Executive Director of the Project, Denise Cagley-Jefferson tells JIS News that a summer camp concept was chosen for the target group three to 12 years old under the theme ‘Express Yourself’. “We have a lot of idle youth around with nothing to do and we wanted to capture their energy and see how they can help the community, but in a fun way and this year we found, through our health clinic, that there were some issues with incest, violence and domestic abuse so we wanted to create a safe environment to address some of these difficult issues,” she says.
Mrs. Cagley-Jefferson points out that older children up to age 16 who wish to participate, may do so. “So long as they want to participate we allow them we don’t have any restrictions there. If they start to misbehave and cause trouble then we have to ask them to leave,” she adds.
She explains that the Blue Mountain Project runs a free clinic and in December of last year a team of visiting doctors and health professionals from North Western University in the United States treated a few minors there for symptoms of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs).
“So we realised that there were some things that we needed to address and we brought that to a community meeting and the adults responded by asking us to bring resources here to help address these issues because they as parents and community members simply just didn’t know how to respond so we felt like the fun camp was a really safe environment to address these issues and a way for children to understand these things,” she explains.
Workshops are also planned for parents in the evenings, which take some of the pressure off them in dealing with this sensitive topic.
The camp is coached by local and international volunteers. International volunteers include professionals ranging from elementary school teachers, to university lecturers, and social workers, from countries such as Switzerland, Canada, the United States, and Germany.
The camp is two-tiered, with one set of volunteers staying for up to one year under the ‘Ambassador’ programme, while another set have the option of staying from one week up to four months under the ‘Service Learning’ programme.
The volunteers pay a fee to come to Jamaica and reside in Hagley Gap for the duration of the camp. “They live with a host family, eat Jamaican food, experience the culture and know what life is like in rural Jamaica, how to cook Jamaican foods, how to dance Jamaican dances, about farming and about coffee,” she notes.
Mrs. Cagley-Jefferson further explains that the fees that the volunteers pay are re-used for their own support, while they are here. The volunteers under the ‘Ambassador’ programme receive a scholarship to help with their education.
Miranda Johns, a second year volunteer and a teacher from Canada said she got involved with the programme inadvertently. She says one and a half year ago her mother passed away in Hagley Gap and she fell in love with the community during her visit. The Blue Mountain Project it turns, was the perfect opportunity for her to come back to her “roots” she says.
“The relationship connection is strong, the families you get to know and I appreciate their community so it draws me back and I love working with the kids, they have so much spirit and just need an opportunity,” she says.
The Executive Director notes that she expected the youngsters to be more interested in entertainment-based activities, but instead, they chose to do spelling exercises and read books. “I was delighted to support them in making their education stronger so they can build a better future for themselves,” she adds.
A first time volunteer and high school history teacher from Wisconsin, Ryan Hilbert says he found the camp a humbling experience and an enriching one. “They’re very willing to learn which is nice to see, they want to learn, they like to learn and it feels good to see them so engaged with the learning process,” he said. Mr. Hilbert is involved with educational and sporting activities for the older children.
At 2:00 p.m. each day, the volunteers head to the clinic where they debrief on the day’s activities, examine the challenges and highlights, and plan strategies to enhance the programme for the following day.

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