Volunteer Jamaica by Michelle and Jedd

Jedd and Michelle are originally from Hawaii and Oregon, respectively. They got married in 2008 and have been traveling together ever since. Recently they returned from a stint in the Peace Corps. They are currently finding unconventional ways to support themselves as “digital nomads” long-term. They are constantly active – running, hiking, biking, surfing – and treasure time with their family and friends.

Why did you choose to volunteer abroad?

In 2010, we had been married two years, had steady jobs, and were in the final stages of buying a house. Buying a home, however, meant we would be tied down, and I still wanted to try living abroad together, so we had a bit of a conflict. Although stressful, we came out of it on the same page – committed to living abroad and choosing freedom over security for the time being. We also did a week-long trip to Haiti, which was Jedd’s first experience in a developing country and really helped him become more adventurous about our plans. From there, we started researching different opportunities where we could have an authentic cross-cultural experience and put our skills to good use.

Did you work through a volunteer organization?

There were a number of different organizations we considered but Peace Corps rose to the top of our list.

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How did you find/choose your particular organization?

We attended an information session about Peace Corps at our local library and we really liked the support that they give volunteers. With Peace Corps, we didn’t have to worry about transportation costs, living expenses, or healthcare. We already wanted to live more simply and to challenge ourselves, so giving up amenities was not a problem for us. Peace Corps also does a great job of training Volunteers in the local culture and language before sending people out on their own. Additionally, we appreciated the value placed on building relationships and cross-cultural exchange rather than being purely focused on tangible deliverables.

Where, when and how long did you volunteer?

We were placed in Jamaica for our term of service, which with Peace Corps is always two years plus a few months of in-country training beforehand. Our site was in the southwest part of the island, in a rural community just a short bus ride away from the region’s main “shopping town.” 

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What was your job while volunteering? A typical day?

I (Michelle) served as a literacy tutor at a rural primary school, so I took small groups of students out of class and helped them with very basic reading skills like the alphabet, letter sounds, sight words, and reading simple books. Some side projects I helped with included summer/winter camps, drama club, mural painting, and creating a Jamaica-specific youtube video for learning the alphabet. I also helped with Peace Corps Jamaica’s grant selection committee. Jedd was assigned to a brand new community center in the nearby town. Since they were just starting up, he helped them develop systems to run their new internet cafe, event space rentals, and youth summer camps. He also taught basic computer lessons to a lot of people, especially senior citizens. 

How did you save/raise money to pay for your volunteer expenses?

We did not need to raise money to do Peace Corps. We did have savings, just in case, but because we live simply anyway, we were able to meet all of our needs with the small living allowance we received.

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Do you feel your presence and work made a difference?

In some ways, the tangible achievements of our work were relatively small in comparison to the impact we made by just being a part of the community. There are a lot of needs and the issues affecting positive change are complex, so sometimes our work felt like just a drop in a bucket.

In other ways, I know our work did make a big difference for certain people.

For example, I worked with one boy ever since he showed up for the first day of school in grade one. He was a wild child who became unmanageable for his teacher, but for some reason he and I had a connection. He came into grade one still not knowing all of the alphabet but by the end of the year, his teacher recognized him as Most Improved in his class. The following year, he continued in my tutoring sessions and would often come read books with me during recess or lunch time. He was still a fireball of energy but he started doing his schoolwork because he knew he was capable. When I tested him at the end of the year, I discovered that he was actually reading a grade level ahead of his age! He was so proud. Many of my students made very small steps of progress and few reached their “normal” reading level, but there were a number of kids- like this boy- who really excelled with the extra help.

Would you recommend volunteering abroad? Why or Why not?

I would certainly recommend the Peace Corps but I’d also say that it’s not for everyone. You have to be very open and flexible about what you might end up doing and you have to be willing to endure physical and mental discomfort. It’s also important to realize that it is a government agency- people are sometimes surprised that there is quite a bit of paperwork as well as some restrictions that affect your autonomy, due to liability issues. (For example, you are required to report your whereabouts any time you leave your region and you may have to get permission in advance to visit certain areas.)

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What do you know now that you wish you knew before your volunteer experience started?

I felt pretty prepared for the range of possible situations we might encounter, thanks to the ability to read other Volunteers’ blogs. I don’t think knowing anything else would have made my experience any better. You have to be ready for anything!

Any additional information you would like to share?

We updated our personal blog frequently during our service with thoughts, pictures, and videos about Peace Corps, Jamaican culture, and our projects. Those posts can be found at: http://jeddandmichelle.com/category/peace-corps/.

We are now blogging about our travels at http://intentionaltravelers.comwhere we continue to write about destinations in Jamaica as well as our other journeys.

Do you have a volunteer abroad experience you would like to share? Please email glinda@travelationship.com to be featured.

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