Hard to believe it’s been ten years since the Sandals Foundation launched its first official project in the Flanker community. Even harder to believe what happens there now on a typical Tuesday afternoon.
By van, a tight two-mile ribbon of road connects the flagship Sandals Resort on the beach of Montego Bay to the community of Flanker. It takes all of five minutes. There was a time, however, when very few vans or cars or moving objects of any kind dared to follow the ribbon from end to end. Flanker was known as that kind of place.
“It had a reputation for violence,” says Sandals Regional Public Relations Manager Ian Spencer. “People were advised to avoid going there.”
On this day, Ian does not sound the least bit concerned, even as he makes a final turn, scales a short hill, and parks us in front of a two-story building … right in the heart of Flanker. Before I can ask the first knee-jerk question that comes to mind (“Are the doors locked?”), Ian is out of the van. His status with the community has everything to do with the the logo on his shirt: Sandals Foundation.
I’m not wearing the logo. And so the safest place to be at this point is next to Ian’s sleeve. The two of us walk right through a gate that’s been left wide open.
“It’s always open,” Ian says.
Look around. There are no locks or cameras or security officers. Just a well-worn path at the threshold of Flanker Resource Center. Here at the entrance, you can already see that the two most important materials for building a safe haven are cinder blocks and trust. Stay long enough and you might even see a few dreams in progress.
When Sandals Founder and Chairman Gordon “Butch” Stewart was imagining the concept for a luxury all-inclusive experience in the early 1980s, even he was urged to keep his distance from Flanker. But as a proud Jamaican and maverick, Stewart saw opportunity where others saw only caution signs. He would hire people from the community to help develop his resort in Montego Bay. He’d throw Christmas parties for their families. He built impossible bridges so that by 2009, when the Sandals Foundation was officially launched, its inaugural project was an easy choice: Flanker Resource Center.
Ten years later, on a Tuesday afternoon, we’re about to find out what really goes on at a resource center in Flanker. Ian and I stroll up the steps of a building that’s vibrant with fresh paint and the chubby cheeks of a five-year-old girl eating a bowl of homemade soup. At the top we hear the voice of Alecia Spence, Director of the Resource Center.
How simply perfect is that? If a single word can change the mood and esteem of an entire community, that one has to be it: Welcome.
The center actually opened in a church in 2002 as a mediation center for conflicts like family issues or a neighbor’s broken fence. Small differences had a tendency to boil over, especially when families were already sweating the pressures of high unemployment and feeding the kids. It only fed Flanker’s reputation.
“The people wanted a place where an impartial mediator would listen and resolve issues peacefully,” says Alecia. “Then the Sandals Foundation came and took us to the next level.”
With the help of gifts and donations from Sandals guests, the center quickly became known as “the Sandals Foundation’s first baby.” In other words, it grew. Children with nowhere to go after school were invited in for tutoring and something to eat — because no one can learn on an empty stomach. They were given books to read and a quiet library where the imagination could run free. They were offered direction before they might be led into … something else.
Today, more than 30 percent of the Flanker’s 10,000 people use the center. Children feel so welcome and safe that they’ll come on days when there’s no school. The gate is even open to students who have been suspended from school. Butch Stewart made it clear more than 30 years ago: Everyone and every dream needs a chance.
“The Sandals Foundation means a lot in this community,” says Alecia. “For children, it means freedom. For everyone, it means opportunities instead of judgment.”
Alecia is a case in point — or, more accurately, she’s a wide-awake dream. She started working at the center when she was 17, with aspirations of being an accountant. But when Alecia saw first-hand the transformation taking place in Flanker, from the resource center out, her dream changed. She wanted to earn a degree in social work. Somehow. Some way.
“It seemed a bit unrealistic,” she says, “but the Sandals Foundation provided a scholarship for my education.”
Alecia, now 31, tells the story while leading the way to a room in back which the Foundation funded and that neighbors call “our social enterprise center.” Here, behind another open door, is a machine that packages fruit juice. The purpose?
“To challenge youngsters and adults to dream up a business from it,” Alecia says. “It’s still early, but perhaps we can create jobs.”
Try to understand what the stigma of a hometown can do to its people. Ten years ago, if you told a potential employer in the Montego Bay region you were from Flanker you might as well have worn a hat with the words, “Please don’t hire me.”
“It’s changing,” says Alecia. And you’d be foolish to accuse her of hyperbole when she says, “You can move mountains with education.”
Flanker has something else once thought to be unattainable: Community pride. The Foundation helped purchase musical instruments and stipends for instructors so children would have artistic and emotional outlets, an idea that morphed into a marching band that now entertains on the streets and sometimes at the resort.
Oh, and those first kids who came to the resource center looking for a refuge after school? At least two are lawyers. Several are schoolteachers. There’s no telling how many have careers as tour guides, culinary experts, and managers at another haven at the other end of the two-mile ribbon of road: Sandals Montego Bay.
School is out. As Ian leads the way back to the van, my instinct is to close the gate behind me. But in that moment I hear humming. A 10-year-old girl, with a backpack and fancy braids, is skipping up the sidewalk. With dreams to chase and mountains to move, she walks through the wide-open gate. A dozen more kids are right behind her.
Before your next trip to the Caribbean, go to PackForAPurpose.org and see a list of items you can bring for a community in need.
To put a few dollars to work right away, go to SandalsFoundation.org and click on the “Donate Now” button. One-hundred percent of every donation goes into the communities.
As the foundation’s Executive Director, Heidi Clarke, says, “What might seem like a small gift will make a big difference.”