Down and Dirty in Paradise

Alumni serve others in alternative break trip

Imagine taking a week off from work to share a house on a rugged Caribbean island with 10 virtual strangers. No, this is not Survivor or another "reality TV" show.

In May, I traveled with nine other JMU graduates to the little-known island of Dominica as part of the university's first Alumni Alternative Break trip. According to Break Away, the nonprofit information resource on alternative breaks founded in 1991, it is rare for universities to offer such service trips for alumni.

As soon as we arrived in Dominica, our group went straight to work on beautification projects and helped initiate a trash disposal project.

As a public relations consultant living a comfortable life in Gaithersburg, Md., for me the trip was an opportunity to give something back and to know there was more to life than buying the newest SUV. Other alumni shared my view. "It was the chance to do something completely different, outside of my comfort zone, yet with the security of traveling under the JMU flag," says Karen Hansrote ('77).

The trip was a life-changing experience for all of us. By giving of ourselves, we got back more than we ever imagined. The trip left us feeling connected to a different culture, connected to our travel companions and connected to JMU.

"The experience helped bind me to the school, to the community I served and to the people I touched," says Dan Jackson ('84). "It reminded me of the opportunities and good fortune I have and to set an example for my children."

Arriving in Dominica is like landing in Jurassic Park. The island is a series of volcanic mountains, steep valleys and dramatic cliffs that drop off into the ocean. It's a hiker's dream, but a beach lover's nightmare. Few beaches mean few tourists, leaving Dominica the poorest island in the Caribbean.

All 10 alumni lived in one house in Paix Bouche, a little village in the mountains. Here we met Warren Passin ('98), our Peace Corps liaison, who has been working in Dominica since graduation. He and our group leader, Rich Harris ('77), associate director of JMU's Community Service-Learning program, orchestrated the trip to start a trash disposal system for the village. The island's plunging valleys have long served as convenient and unsanitary dumping sites, particularly since the village had no trash cans or garbage services.

While we worked under the hot tropical sun painting trash cans and planting shrubbery, we took the time to meet our neighbors. Actually, they took the time to meet us. Wherever we went people wanted to stop and talk. A 10-minute walk could easily take twice as long because villagers would stop to ask questions, tell us "thank you" and shake our hands. "I've probably shaken more hands in the last four days than in the last four months," Hansrote remarked one day.

We also quickly learned about "Dominica time," meaning that nothing starts on time except the American TV shows that come in on cable. By the third day, I put my watch in my suitcase. We learned that while Dominicans may be desperately poor by our standards, they are rich in hospitality and generosity. As we worked, people brought us cold drinks and island delicacies like mangoes, coconuts and mountain chicken (frog) to snack on.

On our last day, a steady stream of villagers came by our house to bring us gifts of shells, fruitcake and rum punch.

One of the week's highlights was the day we spent teaching in the village school. We taught the students about the dangers of garbage sites and the importance of keeping their community clean. And we learned a lesson about poverty. When planning games for the children, someone suggested an activity that required cutting paper. We were taken aback when Warren vetoed the idea because not only did the individual students not have scissors, he doubted if every class even owned a pair.

In between the painting, planting and teaching we had time to explore the island. We swam under towering waterfalls, hiked to a boiling lake atop a dormant volcano and went snorkeling along the island's magnificent coral reef.

On our last night in Dominica the villagers had a party in our honor. Under the ritual full moon, the entire village turned out to perform traditional songs and dances. They asked us to form a receiving line and everyone -- men, women and children -- filed by to exchange hugs, handshakes and heartfelt words of gratitude.

"It was such a meaningful experience," says Via Kelly ('92), who participated in JMU's Alternative Spring Break programs as a student. "The next trip may not be to a tropical paradise, but future trips will offer new opportunities to develop relationships, learn about other people and ourselves."

Tracy Ann Rodrigues ('97) agrees, "The alumni service experience is something that you continue to learn from when it's over. These are memories that will last a lifetime."

While we were all honored to be part of the first alumni trip, we all hope it is not the last. "The alumni trips should definitely be continued," adds Rodrigues. "I know many others who have not had this type of experience but who would really be interested in checking it out."

Story by Brian Rubery ('78)
Photos by Rich Harris ('77), Warren Passin ('98)

Publisher: Montpelier Magazine For Information Contact: What's In a Name?