Avia Collinder, Outlook Writer
Stevens with Chalky Hill students in the reading lab.
The United States Peace Corps programme is no longer limited to workers fresh out of college and who have not started careers or families. Sandra Stevens, 70-year-old mental health therapist from Pennsylvania, is glad that a radical policy change by the international organisation enabled her to come to Jamaica and teach students who greatly needed her help.
Her work in improving the reading skills of students of the Chalky Hill All-Age School in St Ann, and refurbishing the library, is appreciated by parents and staff at that school.
Slated to end her two-year tour of duty in December 2008, Stevens told Outlook, I will go home with mixed feelings. I enjoyed being here.
The Peace Corps movement towards enlisting older volunteers is relatively recent. The value of older volunteers, with a lifetime of work/personal experience behind them, has now been recognised, and retirees like Stevens are now enjoying travelling worldwide for a good cause.
Stevens children and grandchildren were excited for her when she was selected.
For me personally, it was a way to do something I always wanted to do, and also extend my working life in a new, creative way, she notes.
STARTED AS CHURCH SCHOOL
Chalky Hill is a rural town in the hills on the north coast of St Ann, overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The Chalky Hill All-Age School was first established in Davis Town by the Presbyterian Church after the abolition of slavery, and started out as a church school.
In 1905, it was relocated to Chalky Hill and later the Government took responsibility for it, constructing a new school at the present site in 1990.
There are 290 students in the school, with eight teachers and the principal. The services of volunteer Sandra Setvens was used by principal Maxwell Ford for capacity building.
But first, Sandra Stevens had to be trained.
The Peace Corps put us through extensive cultural training from teachers at the University of the West Indies, she explains.
Placed in charge of the library at Chalky Hill All-Age, Stevens also volunteered at the St Ann parish library in order to learn the system. On the opening of the school year in September 2007, the volunteer was told by school principal Ford that reading was what he wanted her to focus on.
Stevens administered the Ministry of Education reading tests and began tutoring small groups according to their needs. It seems to have done some good, she quips. The students reading levels have jumped several grade levels in many cases.
The problem is that the (regular) classes are large. The teachers are overworked with too many students in a classroom. I have come to admire what they do under very difficult conditions. I gave the students the personal attention they needed.
The reading programme has also been enhanced with the use of computers, donated through the Teens for Technology programme of Cable and Wireless. With the help of Tropicool Samuels Hardware and a grant from the Peace Corps programme itself, a multimedia projector and other library needs were addressed.
Principal Ford points out that although the mental health therapist has not been able to utilise all her training because of the language barrier (students speak a deep patois), she has been doing parenting classes with the Parent-Teacher Association at Chalky Hill All-Age.
Stevens difficulty with the local language has not prevented her from excelling in teaching reading. I tell them they need to speak standard English in order to get on in the world.
So far, she has been able to convince them to speak and read the language with increasing competence.
Sandra Stevens also started a Pen Pal programme between Chalky Hill students and students in Portland, Oregon, using the Internet. She is also working with Ford to introduce computer classes for grades seven to nine.
We just need the furniture, Ford explains.
Stevens was also instrumental in producing the schools first yearbook, involving the wider Chalky Hill community as well.
Chalky Hill is a working-class community in which many persons are employed in the tourist industry. When the tourism business is not doing well, Chalky Hill and other communities are directly affected. Migration in the area has increased in recent years, as people from more populated areas go to seek work in Ocho Rios. This has led to many new people in nearby communities, living with relatives or capturing land and building small houses.
The things that we have done have increased the self-esteem of the people in the community, says Stevens. They like being involved.
Stevens is also attempting to get the Mural Arts Programme of Philadelphia to send artists into the community to beautify it. The initiative will be integrated with the schools community literacy drive.
The school is also planning to offer Internet access for the wider community at a very small fee. Within the school itself, the Peace Corps volunteer notes that white boards are needed to replace the 100-year-old blackboards in the classroom. These, she said, are old and pitted. Further, she said, We also need tables and chairs for reading.
The United States Peace Corps has been in Jamaica for 45 years. For many years, the volunteers focused their efforts in Kingston and populated areas but, recently, the push has been to go into rural schools to help, especially with literacy. Their programmes include youth, the environment, and health (water/sanitation).
According to Stevens, her experience at Chalky Hill has helped her to be creative in ways she never experienced before. Being here has been a stretch for me, as Ive learned how to do things I never thought I could. That is very satisfying.
I enjoyed being here, Stevens notes, but I do have children, grandchildren and my mother to go home to!p
Sandra Stevens with Kedoya Reid, student at Chalky Hill All-Age School in St Ann. - photos by Roger Robinson/Freelance Photographer