The American Medical Student Association pre-med chapter from the University of Michigan sent 11 members into the heart of the beautiful country of St. Lucia for a week of Alternative Spring Break. Although we were all coming from the same school and of the same organization, we stepped onto St. Lucian soil as complete strangers, but left the island (what we would all soon grow dear to) inseparable.
Arriving in the late afternoon to Hewanorra International Airport, we faced an hour and a half journey through the heart of the island to the capital of Castries. On our journey, we were exposed to the country’s raw beauty, the culture of the jungle and the fact that 11 people plus luggage is bound to break the bus on the bumpy island roads. We arrived at the Pastoral Centre a while later, seeing what we would call home for the next week for the first time. We met with Onica as soon as we walked into the house, learning everyone’s name and talking about the week ahead. As we had arrived on a Saturday, tomorrow would be a fun-filled cruise day going up the coast of the island, visiting the town of Soufrière and soaking up the sun.
I woke up Monday morning to the wild roosters as my alarm clock. With time to spare before having to leave for the day, I wandered out of the house to the porch where I sat in awe as I watched the sunrise (something I would make a habit of for the rest of the week). We arrived at the Canon Laurie Anglican Primary School, where we began assessing the projects we were going to tackle for the week. We decided on painting many walls inside the school, adding murals and adding a vegetable garden that the teachers were emphasizing for nutritional classes. Our first project was painting the picnic tables the students sit on in the courtyard for snack and lunch. Like all elementary school kids, they were very curious about who we were and what we were doing but were shy and did not approach us right away. The first part of the day was long; we were all getting used to the hot climate. Lunch was the game changer. The eleven of us were huddled into a corner of shade eating our meal with kids starting to surround us. We didn’t know what to do… Do we play with them? What do we say to them? Finally, Onica encouraged us to get up and play with them. Immediately, the kids lit up with excitement and I remember learning 10 new games of freeze tag that day. The rest of the day at the school flew by. After school let out, we walked across the street to the crisis center where we were greeted with open arms by the director. We then began to assess the work that needed to be done at the center. The laminate floor was peeling and the walls were really banged up. We decided to give the centre a face-lift and set to work on ripping up the floors and making plans to paint the walls. After a long and sweaty day, we were all excited to hop into the shower and have dinner. As a group, we sat around the table during dinner and had a stellar conversation about the day. Mostly, we talked about the kids and how amazing they all are.
Tuesday and Wednesday bled into each other. All of us were so focused on pounding out our projects. I was really impressed at the amount of focus and dedication each person in our group brought each day. Yes, every day we were tired; yes, it was hot; but that didn’t waver the motivation to finish our projects. By the end of Wednesday, we had painted the rock wall of the school yard, and painted and planted the tires that are being used as planters for the vegetable garden. The picnic tables were painted, the upper corridor and stairwell of the school were painted and murals were drawn. In the crisis center, the walls were painted, the floor was torn up and murals were painted as well.
On Wednesday, we started our day at the crisis center instead of the school and then walked over to the school for lunch. The excitement the kids had when they saw us walk in was overwhelming. Some of the girls that had started playing with me each day were actually mad we weren’t at the school that day!
The kids we shared our week with are absolutely amazing. Every day, their faces lit up when we walked into the courtyard. They are curious, intelligent and kind. I would be thanked at least 10 times a day for the work we were doing. The kids love their school and loved that we were there to help make it better. They wanted to be involved in the work; some kids even stayed after school and watched us plant the vegetables or paint a part of the crisis center. After school on Wednesday, we began finishing up the garden. The last project was to label the different plants with paint sticks. A few of us were grouped around a few paint cans beginning to try and write the names on the sticks. Two girls in the third grade who had been in my “posse” for the last few days came by and just started watching us. They kept asking questions about the plants and how much they need to be watered, etc. Soon, we had them painting their own labeling sticks and pushing them in the planters. They decorated them with smiley faces and stars. To me, this was what we came to do. Having these two girls so excited about being involved in their school garden was such a great feeling to have and a memory I will forever hold.
On Friday, we were given the opportunity to tour the Victoria Albert Hospital and Castries Health Centre. Being a pre-med club, we were all really excited to see what the medical system is like compared ‘to the States. The entire tour took 25 minutes; we could barely glimpse into the different wards. However, what I saw was astonishing. I had some sort of expected notion of the conditions we would encounter but until I was actually seeing the conditions with my own eyes, you never really know. I saw issues with sterility; disease could easily spread in a matter of hours from the closeness of each patient’s bed. In order to get patients into the main hospital, paramedics and nurses have to push the gurneys up an almost 90 degree incline. There are no elevators in the hospital; patients are carried into the ORs. There is one functioning X-ray machine for the entire hospital. The other had been broken for years with no means to fix it. Needless to say, the medical system has room to grow. Even though a new hospital has been built and they are actually in the process of transferring over, it will be a private institution and very costly to the families that have to resort to treatment there.
We take medical care in the States for granted. Our system (even with its flaws) is more developed in terms of hospital and clinical care. Seeing the St. Lucian medical system has really opened my eyes to the limited health care most of the global population has. I hope to dedicate my life to becoming a health care professional with the means to lead medical missions to countries like St. Lucia to bring able-bodied individuals who have the means to fix broken X-ray machines and give knowledge to the doctors and nurses to better the health care system.
Just a week ago, the eleven of us were trying to figure out how to fit into a too-small bus without touching each other or getting in the way of each other’s personal space. Now, as we load our luggage out of the Pastoral Centre, we happily climb over one another, having our seating system down to a natural science. On our hour and a half drive through the heart of the island, I look at the scenery in such a different light, because of all the things I have learned, all the people I have met and all the memories I have made. Only a week ago, the eleven of us were complete strangers. Now I regard all of them as family. A week ago I was coming into a foreign country. Now I feel as if I am leaving a part of myself behind with the kids of St. Lucia. It is amazing to me that in one week I can feel so differently about my life in the States, and it almost sounds silly, but I truly feel differently about myself and what I want my life to be about.
Thanks to International Children’s Outreach, I had the opportunity to come to the beautiful country of St. Lucia and have a one-of-a-kind experience with the culture and people. Like all Alternative Spring Break trips, we hope that our work at the Canon Laurie Anglican Primary School and Castries Crisis Centre is lasting. However, I can honestly say that the kids at the school and the center have made more of an impact on me than I could ever dream to make on them.
Alex Wagner ,University of Michigan AMSA
2016 Advisor, Saint Lucia