Children at Dunnottar School
Where to begin? A great flight from Gatwick with Virgin, wonderful views of the island on our approach (especially the iconic Pitons) and an exciting journey to the hotel on a very comfortable air-conditioned bus – for anyone visiting St Lucia for the first time this was an great introduction to a very beautiful tropical island.
For me it was fantastic, my first visit after 44 years. During my twenties I had worked in St Lucia for three years, so I had been looking forward to this return visit for a long time.
Our hotel, Bel Jou, was situated on the slopes above the capital Castries, with superb views of the town, harbour, and surrounding countryside. It had an immediate 'home-from-home' feel and it proved to be just that. The accommodation, food, entertainment, staff and a really super Saga representative were just great - it really could not have been better.
I immediately met up with three other volunteers who have become good friends and we all admitted to some trepidation at embarking on this month-long placement. Meeting up and getting on so well with each other proved to be a very major part of our enjoyment of the whole experience.
My placement was in Dunnottar School, a special school for children with varying disabilities, and a Vocational Centre formed to develop the students’ vocational and life skills. The age range is 5 to 25 – an interesting concept, which worked amazingly well.
The school is a real one-off - a school, social club, home from home, sports’ centre and playground, as well as providing a workshop/occupational therapy and life skills training. I felt it was a magical place for severely handicapped and deprived children to be.
I was asked by the Headteacher, Mrs Carolyn Archibald, if I would like to work with Class B, with two other qualified teachers, and it was the very best possible place for me to be for the first few weeks. My own teaching experience had been in a secondary school, so as the children in my class were aged 11,12 or 13 it was the perfect class for me.
The teachers were really helpful, wanting me to find my own role in the classroom whilst at the same time guiding me, as this was the very first time I had been involved with children with more serious disabilities.
It was a huge learning curve for me, but one that I found very fulfilling, rewarding and humbling. The pupils stole my heart – they were delightful, naughty and at times quite difficult to handle, but always warm and loving, and usually anxious to achieve, even though their level of ability was very low.
The school day is divided into four sections. It started with two lessons, then a break, another two lessons, lunch and finally two to four lessons depending on the day – sometimes it was sports or music for a longer period, or other activities.
Music is an important part of St Lucian life, and the school is no exception. It has an excellent steel band, which performs regularly at the Bel Jou hotel and other locations, and all the children seem to love their music lessons.
While I was there, Creole Day was celebrated. The children and staff dressed in colourful Creole outfits, some very interesting national foods were served and dancing seemed to be going on all day. During the morning there was a very special ceremony dedicated to the opening of a new playground at the school, donated by the Japanese government and attended by His Excellency the Japanese Ambassador.
The St Lucian government pays the wages for all the school staff, but the rest of the finance to run the school has to be raised, hence the much valued support by Saga Charitable Trust and Saga Volunteer Travel. Future hopes are for a new school to be built, which will be accessible to all students with disabilities, providing them with a safe, secure and stimulating environment.
We were able to take several trips during our stay in St Lucia - the rainforest, the beach, catamaran trips along the coast, a distillery, local workshops, and Castries and its markets, all of which were very interesting and enjoyable. I was also lucky enough to make contact with an old friend on the island, and so had a great day out visiting various places that held special memories for me.
When the day for leaving arrived, I think we were all very sad to be going, but looking forward to seeing our friends and families again, especially with Christmas not far ahead. For myself, I am sure a return visit will happen.
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