‘The staff are our eyes and ears,” says Lyndsay Isaacs while sitting in the bustling, but laid back hotel lobby of Sandals Ochi Beach resort on the north coast of Jamaica.But it’s not a fractious, demanding, guest or an urgent repair needing done that the men and women working at the five-star, all-inclusive popular holiday destination in Ocho Rios, report to Isaacs, the company’s regional PR manager.
Rather, it is vital information about which local children or vulnerable adults are in need and exactly what item, paid for by the Sandals Foundation – the philanthropic arm of Sandals Resorts International – would make an immediate and tremendous difference to their lives.Isaacs, who is preparing to take a small group of guests, including myself, on a Reading Road Trip to a nearby local primary school near where Bob Marley was born, has worked for the family-owned Sandals, based at Montego Bay, for 34 years.
She is also one of the mainstays of the Sandals Foundation, which this year is celebrating its 10th anniversary.The Reading Road Trip, a two-hour $20 visit to a school, offered with Island Routes alongside other attractions from the resort such as a Dunn’s River catamaran cruise, ziplining, deep sea sport fishing or cycling in the Blue Mountains, is part of the global voluntourism movement. It gets guests out of the “bubble” of all-inclusives and into the heart of local communities, in this instance, bringing along story books to read to the pupils and donate to the school library, and hopefully providing pencils and crayons too.While a request for a pair of shoes or help with school lunches can be organised easily, the reach of the Sandals Foundation is exceptional.Over the past decade it has stepped up to the mark and helped almost a million people and supported over 120 projects across Jamaica, Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, Grenada, St Lucia and Turks and Caicos.
Making sure they dovetail with local agencies to get everything spot on, the Foundation has three main focuses – education, community and environment. This translates into a host of initiatives such as donating computers for schools; building schools; football and basketball programmes; coding workshops; funding mammograms for women in remote, rural communities; setting up Jabez House, which is a safe haven for female sex workers to help them transform their lives; linen and equipment for old people’s homes; training young people in agriculture; scholarships; music lessons; skills training courses; “floating classroom” environmental trips; establishing coral nurseries; and finding ways of tacking invasive lionfish. And that’s not to mention helping with reconstruction after hurricanes such as Matthew in 2016, Irma and Maria in 2017, and Dorian which in August this year wreaked havoc on towns and villages.
Every penny donated by the public goes to fund the initiatives, with all administrative costs covered by Sandals Resorts International.Indeed, the latest edition of the hipster travel bible, The Rough Guide To Jamaica, gives the Foundation a glowing report. In a section on the impact of all-inclusives on Jamaica, it notes that while large travel companies have privatised access to big sections of the island’s beaches, tourism has become one of the nation’s main employers.
The Rough Guide concludes: “Perhaps because of their reputation, some all-inclusives have started foundations that aim to contribute in positive ways to the local communities in which they operate.
“Most notable is the Sandals Foundation, which has done some incredible work across the islands in the areas of sports, education and health.”Adam Stewart, the Foundation’s president, looking ahead to the work to be done in the next decade, says: “By maintaining a ‘be present’ mentality we know anything is possible.”The pupils at the Exchange All-Age primary school our Reading Road Trip visited attend a well-run school with a highly motivated headteacher and enthusiastic staff. The youngsters in their smart school uniforms are warm and welcoming to visitors, whose appearance signals a break from lessons and lots of fun.I took along The Goat Café by Francesca Simon, illustrated by Leo Broadley, and Wanted! Ralfy Rabbit, Book Burglar by Emily MacKenzie – as both are hilarious, brilliant reads. As well as enjoying the story, the pupils asked lots of questions about Scotland and a discussion on the Loch Ness Monster resulted in the question “could the monster sail to Jamaica?”However, the school has its pressures, with pupils attending on a shift system, either 7am-12 noon or noon until 5pm, due to lack of space. The aim is to expand facilities to get all the pupils learning together.The Sandals Foundation has helped the school in a number of ways, including setting up a computer lab and a remedial teaching unit.
The last word must surely go to Dwain Hargis, 49, from Kentucky, a US army veteran who served in Iraq, and a regular guest at Sandals’ Montego Bay resort, who has been taking part in the Reading Road Trips with his wife Lorie for a number of years.
“We’ve looked after 30 kids at home, have five adopted children, and they are the same to us as our two biological children. I saw the Reading Road Trip advertised in the hotel lobby and said to Lorie “that’s something I want to do”.
“I just let the kids at the school go crazy. At home I tell the young ones we foster ‘your job in my house is to be a kid’. It’s the same at the school.”
Seven nights at Sandals Ochi Beach in Jamaica from £1,935pp.Seven nights in Jamaica with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled Virgin Atlantic flights from Glasgow Airport, via London Gatwick, to Montego Bay Jamaica Airport, all-inclusive accommodation at Sandals Ochi Beach, airport transfers included.Price per person based on 2 adults travelling and sharing a Riviera Bamboo Grove Premium Room. Includes all applicable taxes subject to change.Price based on departure on 22 September, 2020.To book: www.virginholidays.co.uk, 0344 557 3859, visit concession stores located in Debenhams and Next or standalone V Room stores nationwide. Visit www.sandals.co.uk