Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Week Three: Construction, Upton Gardens, Dunnottar and More...

We started our week off with another successful writing workshop pertaining to our papers on Liberation Theology! After the writing workshop, the Gapsters parted into two groups. Eight of us spent the week building a home with the Good News Project, while the others ventured to Upton Gardens--a rehabilitation center for girls--and Dunnottar--a school for children with special needs.

Painting sure is fun!
Monday, one group was introduced to the experienced volunteer build-crew leaders, Pat and Maureen. After a brief safety lesson, Pat and Mo (for short) began molding us into a well oiled machine. We worked together as an efficient team in the backyard of where we are staying. Monday, as well as Tuesday, consisted of cutting and painting all types of lumber. That implies power tools! Pat and Mo gave us all a chance to use power drills and hand saws to prepare the materials for assembly. We ended the day with piles of brightly painted blue and white boards that soon would be hauled to the build site and assembled into a house.When Wednesday came around, it was time to start construction. We loaded up a truck with supplies and started our journey with another long-standing volunteer of the Good News Project named Reggie. As a local and skilled driver, he expertly navigated through the twists and turns of Saint Lucia's roller coaster of roads. When we arrived to our build site (after an hour in the van), all we saw were 8 concrete pillars on a steep hill. As a group we were a little nervous, but once Pat, Moe, and Reggie gave us some directions, we got the floor and three walls put up within one work day! The biggest struggle during the construction process was that the wood was extremely hard and the nails were very soft; so as we hammered, the nails would constantly bend, rendering them quite difficult to use. Besides that, each of us felt competent on the work-site, and we were pleasantly surprised when we were welcomed by local passers-by. One man even brought us some breadfruit--a local fruit that grows on trees here and tastes like potatoes after you cook it! We made the mistake of cutting open the breadfruit and attempted to eat it raw, until Reggie told us it was better cooked, so we made a small fire on the side of the road and cooked it, all the while still building the house! For a construction site, there sure were a lot of fruit trees near by. During our work breaks, we had the opportunity to try golden apples and coconuts!
Build Crew hard at work on the roof of the house
Thursday and Friday were our final days of building. Thursday we raised the final wall, and then put the roof on. That day we also had the opportunity to meet Michelle, the woman who will be living there. She stayed to chat for a bit and told us how she loves the color of the house and can't wait to see it finished. We learned that Michelle has several children who will be living in the house with her. As the day grew to an end, we threw on some music and danced in the dirt road for a bit to celebrate the building process. All the while, Reggie sang to us while he hammered the final nails into the sheet-metal-roof. Then Friday came along, which consisted of paint touch ups, installing windows, and hanging the door. After a week of hard work, the final project was complete and there was a new house for Michelle and her kids to live in!

Build Crew, nailing it!

While we began our building careers on Monday, our peers travelled to Upton Gardens Girls School. Upon arrival, they were given a brief overview of the organization and its history. Open for over 30 years now, Upton Gardens was founded by the Saint Lucia National Council of Women. The St. Lucian women's organization formed the school when they recognized that many young girls were being falling through the cracks, so to speak, as the economy shifted from agriculture to the service industry. This economic shift had a powerful effect on the family structure of many St. Lucians. Instead of having the flexibility to balance the demands of raising a family and harvesting bananas, once the economy shifted, mothers were not able to be at home with their children due to the 24-hour demands of the service industry. As the economy rapidly shifted from agriculture to the service industry, many working mothers took up jobs in local hotels and restaurants, which required them to work odd hours, day and night. Upton Gardens was started as an intervention program for girls on the verge of delinquency, due to the change in family structures. The school offers basic education classes, life skills training, and rehabilitation & counseling services to girls ages 12 to 16 who have behavioral issues due to neglect, abuse, or getting into trouble with the law. This organization serves a vital role in the community and is essential for girls who either go through, or are lost to, the court system. It is one of very few places in St. Lucia that offers guidance and support to an all-female student base. It is sad because before Upton Gardens, there was no help for the girls who needed it. Yet there were several long-standing government-funded support organizations for boys in tough situations.

After the briefing about Upton Gardens, the group made their way to go and meet the girls and women (graduated Upton Garden students) they would be working with. This group of Gapsters taught a process of making "up cycled" jewelry. Materials included leather cord and old bottle caps. The bottle caps were stamped with metal letter pieces, which could be used to spell out any word. Then these indented words were filled in with colored markers. Using a hammer and nail, a hole was made to insert the cord. The Gap students taught the Upton Gardens women and girls how to tie off the leather cord with a "slip knot." This type of knot allowed for adjustable necklaces and bracelets to the desired length. This jewelry workshop was designed not only as a fun activity for the current students, but also as a means to make some extra income for those who have graduated. The women quickly took to the notion that this "project" had potential for market value. It was inspiring to see how much creative flare and business savvy some of the women had!

During their first visit to Upton Gardens, the Gap students made comments on how shy the girls were: that they would barely answer questions and would not ask for help on the jewelry. When the group returned on Friday, the girls were much more excited and comfortable with them. Madeline mentioned the great conversations she had with the girls that day. They talked about many topics; ranging from music and piercings to school and their celebrations of Carnival and all of its facets. One of the most interesting details revealed during the chats with the girls was that of transferring schools to be near people they liked (i.e. if a female student likes a boy, she will transfer schools in order to be closer to him and to have a relationship with him). Upon hearing this, the Gap students were all surprised at the fact that this was a common occurrence on the island. This is just another example of difference in culture and how interesting it is to learn from listening to others.

Classroom Crew at Dunnottar School
 with some staff and students

During the middle of the week, the classroom crew travelled to Dunnottar School to build friendships. Upon first arriving, the students were surprised at the wide range of abilities of the children. They also took interest to how the students' behaviors were handled by the teachers. Dunnotar, being a school for the developmentally disabled, presented our peers with another cultural experience that not only opened their eyes to alternative education methods, but also the resources available to people who are typically marginalized. During the three days our peers spent at Dunnotar, they learned and embraced the importance of learning how to be flixible and adapt to different situations that may push them outside of their comfort zones.

Abby accompanying a 
student at Dunnottar School
Jake with a buddy!

While visiting Dunnottar School, the students participated in various activities with the kids, such as coloring, making paper airplanes, playing outside, and chaperoning a field trip to the local swimming center. They were also given the chance to volunteer in the classroom! Each student was assigned a classroom to join, and they assisted the teachers however they could--playing matching games, using shaving cream and dough to exercise fine motor skills, cooking, washing lunch dishes, hanging linens, working in the garden, etc.This classroom time gave the Gap students a chance get to know the students of Dunnottar on a one-on-one basis; thus, building new friendships everyday. As the Gap students learned in class, this act of getting to know and appreciate the unique personalities of each individual is known as accompaniment -- and it is exciting to put our classroom knowledge into action with the experiential component of our Gap Experience semester.
Jack and Matt learning from
the Life Skills class! 

After a week of being separated into two groups, all of us reunited for a day-long catamaran sail. It may have been raining all day, but nothing could keep the Gapster's spirits down. We saw a large pod of dolphins (30+), snorkeled among patches of fire coral, and soaked in the salty sea air. This was a perfect way to celebrate all that we did throughout the week.
Sailing in to the port of Soufriere'

Who could forget the bright colors of the Caribbean houses once you've seen them?!

A tropical paradise for most tourists, yet home for the locals

Look at those exhuberant faces: Kate, Mallory, Autumn, Matt, Jake, Alec, MoJo & Sam

And we can't forget the other side of the boat: Abby, Jack, Madeline, Morgan, Zach, Nicole, Josie, Sydney, Heston and Morgan P.

Autumn, Josie, Abby, Kate, and Morgan M. ready to set sail

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Gapsters Working Through Some Tough Stuff -- Both Mental and Physical Challenges

Petit Piton in the foreground, Gros Piton in the background... We tackled Gros Piton!
It is hard to believe that we are already going on two weeks in this beautiful country of St. Lucia! Though many of us are still making time for the beach, this week has been filled with less time for play and more time spent in class and on visiting more organizations within the community. With that said, it is safe to say that this week has been "Oh so enlightening," to say the least!

The week began on Monday spending several hours in both the morning and afternoon in our meeting space at the Pastoral Center grounds.  The time was spent in a "writing workshop" -- critiquing and discussing the concepts of hegemony and cultural imperialism that we were to have written a paper about for the course we area taking down here. Dr. Fredrickson and MoJo, along with our peers, were gracious enough to give us all individual feedback about our papers. This process was greatly appreciated by all and helped many realize the importance of multiple drafts and taking the time for revisions.

Our first readings of the week had us thinking heavily about what the word privilege meant in the world, and what it meant to us individually.  Our discussions on these readings about privilege had us conclude that everyone has some sort of privilege in their life.  What we came to realize through critical reflection on our assigned readings for class is that we must first recognize the privileges that each of us has, and then the challenge is to accept them for what they are -- simply opportunities that others may not have. But the larger challenge is not to put on a lens of judgement and to move beyond thinking that due to our privilege, that we are someone 'better than' or 'more entitled' to opportunities and resources than others who may not have the same privilege as we. We spent some time discussing how the ego oftentimes creates superficial barriers between one and one's neighbor, which contradicts the idea of 'universal love'.

Wednesday we dove into one of the assigned texts for the course, In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez. In this book, we learned about many important theories and concepts, such as liberation theology -- a fairly radical concept first proposed by Fr.Gutierrez, that challenges us to return to the original message behind Christianity. This message is to carry out universal love for all people. This theory would continue taking shape in our minds throughout the week as we continued to discuss and deeper our understanding of related topics and ideas such as a preferential option for the poor, which in a sense is the action step behind liberation theology. A preferential option for the poor suggests that if we believe in, or at least can support the idea of 'universal love', we must then give preferential opportunities to those living in poverty. Additionally, we also learned about the idea of accompaniment, the act of walking with individuals, figuratively speaking, instead of leading them. We had many in-depth class discussions about these topics and the next step is writing a formal analysis paper regarding the book and terms therein. This week definitely covered some heavy topics but we readied ourselves to take this new found knowledge and apply it to future experiences!   

Heavy thoughts with Jason Joseph
To take a break from our traditional classroom setting at the pastoral center, we were given the opportunity to sit in on a few classes at a the local college! Yes, you heard right, more school! Upon entering Sir. Arthur Lewis Community College, we were in awe over the amount of people there and the vastness of the campus.  As we proceeded to our first class of Adolescent Psychology, we were met by the familiar face of our professor, Jason Joseph (our music/dance instructor from last week, when we visited the Folk Research Centre). The welcome we received by the students in the classroom was immensely comfortable, and we jumped into conversation right away.  As the class began, a number of us recalled various psychology concepts that we ourselves had learned from high school classes back in the states. The class flew by and before we knew it, we were on to our next class--drama. In this class, we were given the chance to observe a play that six girls had been working on, which is scheduled to be shown later in November.  It was a very impressive Trinidadian play called The Ritual that brought attention to several possible situations a pregnant teenager in the Caribbean might face regarding the reaction of family, religion, and others (along with the consequences associated with each).  We were all very impressed and also learned a little about the Rastafari religion which is common to some areas within the Caribbean. We learned that it is a set of beliefs that stems from Africa, and that those who subscribe to Rastafari typically reject the notions of materialism, oppression, and sensual pleasures, suggesting that this is what leads to the larger degeneration of society.

Abby and Christian "trying to cook"
Food equals happiness with Fortuna

What is a true cultural experience without trying some of said culture's traditional food? Not a very good one! That's why Dr. Fredrickson, signed us up for a class in traditional Caribbean cooking at the Folk Research Center! We were met by Fortuna Anthony, a native St. Lucian woman who had been cooking traditional Caribbean meals for many years, along with her son, Nicos, an internationally trained chef. First we were taught how to use the traditional Coal-Pot by placing charcoal (made on the
Fortuna explaining how a coal pot works
island) on the top along with some wood shavings to get the fire started, (pro tip, if you don't have wood shavings you can use candle shavings as a substitute!). The two dishes we made were beef and pork bouillon that many locals traditionally prepared on Fridays, along with the national dish of St.Lucia--salt fish and green bananas. Salt fish is usually cod or blue fish that has been cured in salt for preservation. At the time of preparation, the fish is soaked in water (multiple times) to shed the layers of salt. Both of our instructors cooked with an ingredient that is often lacking in the sterilized American food industries--pride. Fortuna and Nicos were proud in what they served, which made the dishes that much better! The pork tail in the bouillon was so tender it slid off the bone as you slurped it off the spoon, and the savory salt fish complemented the sweet green bananas perfectly. Those two meals were the best we had on the island thus far; and we would wager, they still will be the best upon boarding the plane back to the states! Lastly, Fortuna gave us an original copy of her cook books signed "To the Gap students. Happy Cooking!". Needless to say, Caribbean cuisine is coming back with us to Wisconsin!

Well done Gap-ster crew!

This week was not just classes. We also took on a physical challenge when we took the opportunity to hike up St. Lucia's famous Gros Piton, a volcanic mountain rising just over 2,600 feet above sea level. We all stood in awe at the intensity of this impressive and imposing mountain that rose up in contrast from the soft coastal hills that surrounded it. Upon starting the hike up the steep and bolder-riddled ascent, not all of us were sure if we would make it to the top. Nevertheless, about two hours after first stepping on trail, all of us, including 4 local guides, stood in triumph at the summit. The hike was difficult, but it was well worth it. The view from the top was breathtaking, leaving us void of the little breath we had left! We were left awestruck at the vast enormity of the world and how small we all are in comparison.
Feel like we are on top of the world!
The view half-way up the Gros Piton trail, looking out toward Petit Piton

Stunning views of the Caribbean sea and beyond!
On Friday of this week, we received a shipment of building supplies to help us get started on the two houses that we are going to build with the help of our St. Lucian friends. Hundreds of pounds of materials arrived and was not limited to, plywood, 2 x 4s, 2 x 8s, and corrugated metal. All the Gap students got to work! We organized ourselves expertly. A few of us hopped on the back of the truck to unload supplies, while the rest of us formed an assembly line to take the building supplies further up the lawn where they would be stacked for storage until we need them. The sun was very hot and the work was hard, but thanks to the teamwork, we made short work of all that had to be done!

The Gapsters hard at work getting ready to build
The Gap-sters reach beautiful new heights!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

St. Lucia, More than Just a Tropical Paradise

The entrance to Archbishop Kelvin Felix Archdiocesan Pastoral Center, our home

Greetings from St. Lucia! It has hardly been a week, and we’ve already been completely consumed and engulfed by the culture of this gorgeous, tropical island. Although many of us are still adjusting to the climate and the way of life here, we are excited to learn and to develop more as thriving young individuals. Upon arriving, many of us took full advantage of the neighboring resort's beach made available to us: adventuring to the beach, swimming together, finding strange objects (a trumpet fish, to just name one) that wash up on shore, and joining in on a water aerobics class. It has been a nice change from the cooler weather of the Midwest to feel the warm sun and relax on the beach. Random, passing bouts of rain is an everyday occurrence. Most of the drizzles are welcomed by us because they cool us down; but they put a damper on the day for many of tourists who are here to simply enjoy the sunshine. This week we experienced some severe weather conditions. Torrential rain came down in sheets for an entire day. This downpour left the city of Castries flooded, but thankfully we haven't run into any major issues where we are staying.
Gymnastics at the beach! 
Now, our group hasn't just been basking in the sun this entire time. We have been rigorously developing our critical thinking skills: analyzing what we read, the things we see and our experiences. We even are reflecting on the way we talk to one another--and the words we chose to use (or not use) when we debrief at the end of the day. We are starting to connect what we learn from the course readings to what we see as we navigate our way through various towns and talk with some of the locals about our experiences. 

On Wednesday we went to the town of Rodney Bay to exchange currency and spend some time walking around.Our "assignment" was to critically analyze the ways in which 'cultural imperialism' has affected this small coastal town. We have learned that the theory of 'cultural imperialism' states that Western nations have a very powerful and influential (sometimes negative) effect on developing countries by exposing them to Western views and commonly shared Western values--overwhelmingly, these views and values are spread via media. The effect of cultural imperialism can, in extreme cases, destroy the native culture of an area. While walking around, many of us noticed the ways the American ideal of 'beauty' was portrayed here in St. Lucia -- noticing that most of the mannequins are of light skin, with an hour-glass figure, and unrealistically sized. Similarly, many of the billboards and local advertisements showed lighter skinned models even though many of the locals are of dark complexion. Even the music on the island is American! The local radio stations play a lot of American music, including country music! We learned from this excursion that cultural imperialism has left a mark here in St. Lucia.

On Thursday we had the opportunity to visit The Folk Research Centre. It was a beautiful old building with a wrap around porch. We hung out on and enjoyed the view of the city, Castries, from the porch. Also, we were given permission to pick mangoes from a tree in front of the building. Luckily, Mojo brought her pocketknife, and we got to enjoy some delicious, fresh mango slices before our presentation! Our first presenter was a man named Kennedy 'Boots' Samuel, the former Executive Director of the FRC who has lived in St. Lucia most of his life. Boots told us all about the history of St. Lucia. One of the topics we learned about was the island's native language of Creole, which is a combination of French and African. We also learned about the impact tourism has on the island and how at one point the main source of the countries economy used to be agriculture. Mr. Samuel offered a very provocative critique on the level of power the Mininstry of Tourism has on the country. He subtly encouraged us to think more critically about the driving economic force that is at play on the island, and what effect this has on the remaining indigenous culture of St.Lucia. Most of us took away much to think about from his talk!
Matt and Zach matching in the tropical climate

After listening to what Samuel had to say about St. Lucia's economic switch from agricultrue to tourism, we got to thinking critically. Where did we see the dominence of tourism on the island? During our trip to Rodney Bay, it appeared that most of the town was designed to cater to the American and European tourists. Another "tourism-fuled" experience we had in Rodney Bay, was the pressure put on the shopper by store employees. When visiting stores, the clerks called out in assertive voices, “Come here,” “Take a look,” or “Try it on;” while at the same time, they called us honey, sweetheart, or darling, which is something most of us have never experienced before.

We also learned that The Good News Project -- a Wausau based humanitarian non-profit organization with whom we are partnering here on the island -- built a safe dormitory building several years ago for Upton Gardens Girls Centre. (The mission of Upton Gardens is "to provide a quality day care rehabilitation service in a conducive environment to abused, disadvantaged and neglected young girls through high community involvement, timely and appropriate interventions and effective case management.") This school caters primarily to young women at risk, and for many years they have been a partner of The Good News Project.  Many GNP volunteers have spent countless hours working with this school. Despite the volunteer hours to build this dormitory and the hours spent to get governmental pre-approval to use it as a "residential" building for at-risk girls to stay, we learned from the school's administrator that the building was denied residential zoning based on resistance from the Ministry of Tourism. Because the economy of St. Lucia is dependent on tourism, one could speculate on the growing power of the Ministry of Tourism, and what effect it is having on vulnerable populations within St.Lucia.
 Ready to learn about local culture at the Folk Research Center
Kennedy "Boots" Samuels, a local St. Lucian historian

Another presentation we had at the Folk Research Center was with a man named Jason Joseph, an educator at Sir Arthur Lewis Community College. Jason taught us about the traditional folk music and various folk dances of the country. We were all excited when he told us to stand up and push the chairs out of the way. We spent the next hour laughing and smiling while learning group and partner dances. After learning the various dances from Joseph, he shared his claim to fame, and sang the original Calypso song that earned him the title of "King of Calypso" one year. Calypso is a form of music here that is widely celebrated, and each year there is an annual Calypso festival. Although many of us had no idea, the lyrics of most Calypso songs are often political satire, and are used as a way for the locals to poke fun at local politicians or raise awareness about the other social injustices they see around them. It's safe to say that we all had a great afternoon learning more about our new home away from home!

Doing a traditional St. Lucian dance!
We all enjoyed a free day on Saturday. Many of us went to the Castries Market. To get to the market we had to take a bus, which was just a large minivan. The buses run the same routes all day, and it costs $1.75 EC (or about $0.65 US) to get to Castries. The market was in the middle of town. It was filled with small booths containing shirts, knickknacks, and other items. Many of us were happy with the experience and our purchases -- whether it was a food we've never tried or coconut-husk drinking cups! At the end of our free day, we all met up to have dinner at Key Largo Pizza. The restaurant had an open-air concept, with shades built in the walls that could be closed if necessary. As we were looking at the menus, we weren't too surprised to see yet another example of the pervasive American culture influence in the pizza options: "American Style Pizza." Nevertheless, we all enjoyed different types of delicious pizza and gelato for dessert!

Sunday morning everyone dressed up to go to a traditional Catholic mass at the Cathedral in Castries. This old wooden building was decorated with brightly painted frescos, simple stained glass windows, and intricate architecture. Many of us enjoyed the variations in the music with the children singing along to the upbeat sounds. One man especially caught our attention as he sang a peaceful rendition of, “How Great Thou Art.” Though not all of us are practicing Catholics, we still took away an important lesson from the homily: absolute giving of self and resources--in good and tough times. 
Jack with our adopted cat, 'Leo' or 'Chewy'

After a week in St. Lucia, we are all still adjusting to the occasional cat-calls (and marriage proposals) that the gals are getting from some of the locals. Although we just came from Chicago, not all of us are used to constant honking as we drive somewhere. Believe it or not, St. Lucians honk as a courtesy, rather than Chicago drivers who honk out of rage. People here honk when they see someone that they know, and it appears that Glendon, who has been kind enough to drive us around, is a very popular man on the island! And finally, we are even getting used to our new residential pet, Leo or Chewy depending on whom you ask, a very affectionate cat that is ever-present at meal time. All in all, it has been a busy, fun-filled, and thought-provoking week. We all look forward to many more this month!

Written by Autumn Ash and Morgan Pennings
Edited by Jakob Pekosh
Photos by Jack Primer