On the Road: A Transformative Vacation with the Sandals Foundation

Streams of sunshine sneak through palm fronds, casting glory onto Sandals Grande Antigua. It lights up the footprint-free beach and warms the aroma of Blue Mountain Coffee. Could the ocean be a little more gorgeous than ever? Are there more colors on the day’s first tropical fruit tray at Bayside Restaurant?

Could the promise of today possibly be better than the instant memories of yesterday?

This is a Thursday, and a dozen Sandals guests are about to find out.

They carry bags through the open-air lobby that makes them feel as if they’re floating on a Caribbean breeze as they pass through it. A van awaits on the other side of the lobby. But the guests are too optimistic to be leaving for the airport. Today, the van and the breeze will take them on an eight-minute ride past brightly painted homes to a spot where they will make stories come to life.

Pictured Here: The island of Antigua

“My favorite day of the week,” says Anne Jackson.

Her bag is packed with markers, calculators, and three books: Lola Plants a Garden, Gardening for Kids, and Because of an Acorn.

She’s giving all of it, and a sliver of her vacation time, to the children at Villa Primary School as part of Sandals Foundation’s Reading Road Trip. She will assist the teacher in helping the kids understand how nature provides food that makes us feel our best, and what could be better than growing food on this luscious island of theirs? At this very moment, guests of Sandals Resorts and Beaches Resorts are teaching similar lessons in The Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Grenada, Barbados, and Curaçao.

Pictured Here: A Reading Road Trip volunteer teaches primary school children about healhy food choices.

“I don’t see it as ‘giving,” Anne says. “I learn as much from the children as they learn from me. It’s the most unforgettable two hours of my Sandals vacation, every time.”

The First Seeds

Believe Anne. Believe me, too. A few years ago, I was lost in a tropical dad-and-daughter vacation at Beaches Ocho Rios. To this day, Noelle and I make each other happy by mentioning the strawberry smoothies we sipped at the swim-up bar and the chocolate dessert table we foraged by the beach. We even brought shirts home that perfectly described the trip: “Live Funner.”

Pictured Here: Beaches Ocho Rios in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

Every morning, Noelle would write thank you notes to whoever was making our beds look so perfect. I could tell she was filled with a mix of curiosity about the island's culture and gratitude for its people. During one pass through the lobby, she stopped to look at pictures of Jamaican boys and girls her age. They were wearing school uniforms and smiles as bright as flowers. She thought about those pictures when we kayaked later along the seashore.

“Do those kids live over there?” she asked. “Where do they go to school?”

Pictured Here: Two primary school students overflow with love for one another.

The dad, who seemed to have an answer to every question, could only say, “Um …”

This happened to be a Wednesday. The information at the Island Routes desk in the lobby said the next day would be a Reading Road Trip.

“We can go to school tomorrow,” I said, “and give up the waterpark and ice cream for a little while.”

When Noelle nodded, I swear there were tiny stars twinkling in her eyes.

The next morning, we stepped into a van and rode to Ocho Rios Primary School. A teacher invited us into her classroom, where 30 children swallowed us up with a song. When the kids asked us to read to them, the room turned so quiet you could hear the pages turn. That’s right. Those high-energy 3rd graders looked into our eyes and asked us to read to them as if it were bedtime.

We read a book about acorns growing into trees and another one about life in a pond — twice. They told us about life within walking distance of the ocean and their favorite music. And then we all crowded together for a group photo in Usain Bolt’s “from Jamaica to the world” pose.

As Noelle and I were walking back to the van, a group of kids ran over to pass out more hugs. One little girl handed Noelle the last three friendship bracelets in her bag.

My daughter, who is now in college, still talks about the fluffy robe she wore in our beachside suite at Beaches, the coconuts she found in the sand, and our swim at Dunn’s River Falls. To this day, she says it was the time of her life. But the short trip to school, with books she originally brought to read in bed, stands apart.

“It changed my life.”

We thought we’d spread some goodwill and instead, we were smothered with joy. I can still see the eyes of 30 children fixed on every word we read to them and I can still hear the voices of 30 children singing until the walls almost shook. And I can also hear my little girl sniffling in the van: “They made me so happy.”

Pictured Here: A student and volunteer play a classic game of rock, paper, scissors.

Nourishing Minds, Hearts and Now, Tummies

My vacations to Sandals and Beaches are different now. They’re richer and more personal, and while they always include a Thursday — Reading Road Trip day — they have expanded into something even better.

Sandals Resorts and Beaches Resorts have introduced an extension of the Reading Road Trip experience to include a focus on nutrition and food security. This universal lesson is now being shared during Reading Road Trips through a new selection of recently donated books and the establishment and tending of gardens at local primary schools.

“In the Caribbean islands and in many places in the world, farming and agriculture practices play an integral role in ensuring the sustainable presence of fresh foods for a and nutritious diet. We want to teach our youth how to not just eat a balanced meal, but also how to grow one,” says the Sandals Foundation's Executive Director, Heidi Clarke.

Pictured Here: Primary school children and a Beaches Resorts volunteer plant a food bearing tree.

At Sandals Royal Bahamian, a van took our group on a 10-minute ride to Garvin Tynes Primary School, where teachers wore Dr. Seuss hats and taught in front of walls full of cute but pointed reminders:

“Today, you are you,
That is truer than true,
There is no one alive
That is You-er than You!”

One of the teachers, Mrs. Taylor, said the Reading Road Trips had helped elevate her students’ interest in books and in nutrition. “When a person can read, it gives them self-confidence. Couple that with an understanding of where their food comes from, and it helps them make healthier choices that lead to a happier and healthier life."

You never know where the Reading Road Trip might lead.

Pictured Here: A proud student shows his work after a Reading Road Trip visit.

At Sandals South Coast, the van took us uphill to Culloden Early Childhood School, where kids cheered our arrival at their doorway: “Sandals! Sandals!” After helping the teacher with a lesson from “Dirt: The Scoop on Soil,” everyone rushed outside — little people and big people — to chase a soccer ball around, tend to the school garden and observe fruit trees thriving in a patch of compost.

“We used to teach in the basement of a building,” said teacher Lorna Bernard. “Guests from Sandals brought us supplies and saw the space. The Foundation built this school from the ground up, including the garden. The Reading Road Trips have changed everything.

And now, from Sandals Grande Antigua, we’re taking the 8-minute road trip to Villa Primary School with a distant view of the ocean. Girls in new outfits and boys in stately shirts running stop around a basketball court when they see the van. The same chant I’ve heard in Jamaica and Nassau begins.

Pictured Here: Sandals Grande Antigua

“Sandals! Sandals!”

A library window is open to nature. Inside, children sit at their desks and read to themselves. I begin to wonder if our job is done before it’s begun.

“The Sandals Foundation has been my right hand from the time I came here,” says Sandra Felix, the school’s principal since 2013. “I can have a dream or a vision, but it remains on paper without help.”

Sandra shares a quick story of her own. A few years ago, two Sandals guests came on a Reading Road Trip and asked, “What can we do to help?” She told them that kids might stop coming to school because they have no shoes and sometimes no food. A few weeks later, the couple returned. This time, they brought shoes and laptops. It was a Thursday, so of course, they brought books.

Pictured Here: An excited child prepares to learn on her new school computer.

“Of all the things that Sandals guests bring to schools like ours,” Sandra said, “nothing is more powerful than their time.”

The children seem to know it, because wherever the Reading Road Trip van leads, they stop everything to give something more valuable back: their attention and their love.

To learn more about the Sandals Foundation’s Reading Road Trips and how you can join in, listen to Episode 92 of the Sandals Palmcast: Giving Back with the Sandals Foundation’s Reading Road Trip.

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Robert Stephens

About Robert Stephens

A husband for 20+ years & father of daughters, Robert's priorities of family, community & brief stints as a butler, beach groomer, & crepe "chef" at Sandals shape his traveling & writing perspective.