Friday, June 16, 2017

So long, farewell...

        As we complete our final week here in Guyana there is so much to reflect on. Although we had weekly initiative specific meetings and QHO wide education sessions, we had no clue what actually being on initiative would be like until we were here. We appreciate all the teaching and information that our Program Directors and QHO gave us, but no amount of information could have prepared us for what living in another country for 7 weeks would feel like. In Georgetown we share bedrooms with one another and have very little personal space, so we have had to balance not only a change in environment and culture, but also learning how to operate in such close proximity. Obviously there have been ups and downs, but overall I think that we can all agree that we have experienced some personal growth and learning just from being with only three other people for such a long amount of time.
Throughout our time in Guyana, and specifically in Georgetown, we have engaged in non-stop thinking and discussions with each other. Georgetown has become such a comfortable place for all of us. After the first week of learning how to navigate within Georgetown we became much more confident and comfortable making our way to classes, the market and through our every day routine here.
We think that it is really important to acknowledge that we have had many conversations about the implications of our unique positionalities as foreign volunteers, good and bad. For example, for the three white females on our initiative, we have often considered the complexity of our race and gender while in Guyana. Due to these intersecting identities we have been very aware of our position as visible outsiders within the community. As a result of the colonial systems of white supremacy we have undoubtedly experienced the privilege of our race. However our gender has resulted in different interactions while in Georgetown.
Something that we think has been really important to reflect on besides our unique identities has been the complexity of volunteering. According to Audrey Scott’s article, volunteering “involves actions ‘performed with free will, for the benefit of the community, and not primarily for financial gain’ (Leigh et al., 2011). In essence, we give our time and skills to benefit others.” (2017). We would like to make it very clear that QHO is an unpaid volunteer experience and that any traveling done while in the country is done through personal funds. In comparison to our volunteering experience, the term voluntourism is “used to describe short-term volunteering placements of tourists as part of their overall vacation or travels” (Scott 2017). Unlike voluntourism, which is associated with a number of consequences, we have come to Georgetown through a volunteer organization primarily to discuss and share knowledge (ibid.). To ensure that we are not compromising local programs and economic structures we collaborate with the Ministry of Education for the length of our initiative.
We are aware that there are pitfalls to short-term programs; however, we hope to continue working on establishing more community outreach in order to create long-term partnerships. Through these long-term partnerships the hope would be to strive for strengthened relationships with contacts to collaborate on more sustainable changes (Bauer 2017). Although we are involved with QHO in order to share physical, sexual, and mental health knowledge through conversations with people, we do know that volunteering is not a completely altruistic act (ibid.). Throughout our experience we acknowledge that we have benefited, learned, and grown so much from this opportunity, though we also feel that we have transferred needed information. Yes it is true that we are not “helping” by any means, and this is not our goal. An attempt to “help” would result in an assumption that the local community is “helpless” and “vulnerable”, which is absolutely not the case. Our intentions are to be able to establish mutual-learning networks in order for necessary knowledge to be shared, even if we can only share it with a small number of people.
As this is our final week we sadly had to say goodbye to our classrooms and head teachers. We have been so fortunate to have such welcoming and enthusiastic head teachers being able to help coordinate to allow QHO to run its program in their classrooms. The students have been very busy getting ready for final examinations so unfortunately we were unable to have a last lesson with some of the students. However, we hope that through our discussions and question box periods that every student was able to learn something. It has been a bittersweet week having to say difficult goodbyes to head teachers, contacts, and students.
This week we also focused on completing final paperwork and policy reflections in order to continue being a reflexive and growing organization. We hope through the policy reflections and program report that we will be able to continue improving QHO yearly in the hopes of creating a more effective program.
On one of our final nights in Guyana the beautiful women who run and work at our accommodations generously made us dinner. They consistently went out of their way to ensure that we were comfortable and enjoying our stay. We could not imagine our experience in Guyana without talking with them throughout the day. We will truly miss all of the kind and generous people that we have had the honour of meeting along the way.
We have so many thoughts and emotions that we could discuss but it is so hard to put our experience into words. We have each had distinct experiences and thoughts simply based on the fact that we are all different people. Thank you to everyone who checked in on us, we truly appreciate your support. We are all looking forward to seeing our friends and loved ones and seeing what the future holds for us.

A final bittersweet goodbye from yours truly,

Shannon, Haylee, Shannen and Manny

Peace out Georgetown, Guyana

Works Cited
Scott, Audrey. 2017. “Volunteering and Voluntourism: The Good, The Bad, and The Questions You Should Ask.” Uncornered Market. Retrieved June 14, 2017 (

Bauer, Irmgard. 2017. “More harm than good? The questionable ethics of medical volunteering and international student placements.” Tropical Diseases, Travel Medicine and Vaccines 3(5). doi: 10.1186/s40794-017-0048-7.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Week 6 and Time is Flying!

            We spoke too soon in our earlier blog posts; this week showed us what Guyana’s rainy season actually looked like. Pouring rain here is similar to what snowstorms look like in Ontario; the roads are backed up, people are late, and most things get delayed. We normally walk to classes but when the streets are flooding with rain we join the majority of the population in driving to school or work.
            As it is our second last week in the classrooms we have tried to focus our lessons on more serious topics such as substances, substance abuse, healthy relationships and abuse. By doing so we hope to allow the students a final opportunity to ask anonymous question box questions in the last week. We find this very important to do, especially with these topics.
Although we are still in most classrooms for another week, some of our classes have had to end this week because of upcoming exams. We found out from some of our students that they can have up to 14 exams, meaning they need additional class time for revisions. We have been very fortunate to be able to be in as many weekly classrooms as we have been considering the stressful end of year examination period in Guyana.
            This week we continued attending classes, going to Ruimveldt Children’s Aid Centre, and being featured on NTN’s Morning Show. On NTN this week we focused our segments on Puberty and Hygiene. In our Puberty lessons we normally focus on reiterating that there are changes physically and mentally in ALL people as they are developing from children to adults. Even though we acknowledge that most people know proper hygiene, we do like to address it again when discussing puberty because as our bodies are going through changes proper and consistent personal hygiene practices become even more important.
            This weekend we were able to travel to Essequibo again with the Guyana Foundation to be involved in another learning session with some of their skills training participants. We focused our sessions on an introduction to mental health, bullying, peer pressure, healthy relationships and abuse. Even though the participants had completed school, we emphasized that bullying and peer pressure could be experienced at all ages. In these sessions we really try to hear from the participants in order to create a mutual learning environment and learn more culturally relevant information.
We were fortunate enough to be hosted for a night in Essequibo by the Guyana Foundation and some of their generous friends in the community. We had the chance to visit Lake Capoey, a black water lake, the following day. We have been so fortunate to experience such genuine hospitality these last two weekends with the Guyana Foundation. We hope to be able to continue collaborating with this incredible organization in future years, as their focus on training in regions that have higher rates of Suicide is a major focus for QHO.
We are looking forward to seeing what our last week in Georgetown, Guyana has in store for us!
Bye for now,

Shannon, Haylee, Shannen, and Manny

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Sunsets and Sunrises

Fields of yellow-green were separated by a glistening river, and they reached out to meet the skies at the horizon. These skies appeared to be painted in real time, as if the artist added novel beauty with each steady brush – transforming the vast canvas across the spectrum of blues, and introducing strokes of pink and yellow-orange, as the Sun made its way to the horizon. We were mesmerized by the beauty surrounding us.

This is how we began our week. Every day we are surrounded by warmth and generosity from both friends and strangers, beautiful landscapes, and exciting waves of Soca music. We have come to know many youth – intelligent, and eager to learn, while critical of the information shared with them. We have also had the pleasure of getting to know many teachers - passionate for the education and wellbeing of their students, and eager to discuss different health topics and their relevance for the students. The thought of having to leave Guyana in under two weeks is one that reminds us to continue to put full effort and consideration into our lessons and students, and to embrace every opportunity outside of class to spend time with our friends and breathe in the culture of Berbice.

Any educator, anywhere in the world, that discusses mental health with students will be faced with some serious questions and issues from the students, that require prompt, and careful responses. This is no different for us. We are aware that teenage years are a vulnerable time for mental health, and we are happy that we have developed a sense of trust with many of our students. Throughout the past 2 weeks, in our Question Boxes we have received several questions and concerns surrounding depression, suicide, and self-harm – specifically requesting more information on how to cope with depression and suicidal thoughts, how to get better, and how to help a friend. We believe that having a closeness in age to the students, and being a fresh face in the community form a fairly special platform for comfortability in asking questions surrounding such personal and difficult topics. Although we thoroughly cover these topics in our lessons, the questions give us clues to which areas we need to review at the beginning of the next class, and which points we need to re-emphasize in order to help students and their friends who are struggling with these issues. In particular, we would like to help students to feel as confident as possible in their ability to recognize if they are having difficulties with their mental health, and their ability to reach out to others when these challenges arise. Our other major goal is to help students to recognize signs and symptoms in their friends, and to feel comfortable and confident in helping a friend.

A key objective of these lessons is breaking down the stigma and false ideas surrounding different aspects of mental illness and suicide. In order to do so, we share personal experiences that we have had directly and indirectly with mental illness, as well as statistics that help our points resonate with the students. For example, “5 in 5 people have mental health. 1 in 5 people will experience mental illness at some point in their lives.” This statistic serves as an important introduction to mental health. It helps people understand that we all have mental health, and so we all need to learn about it, and understand it - we need to learn how we can improve it, and how to cope with obstacles. We need to know what to do if we are struggling with our mental health, and how to help our friends who are struggling with it. It also helps people understand that mental illness is much more common than generally believed.

Just as each sunset is followed by a sunrise, difficult times in our lives can improve with time, the proper care, and support from our friends and family.

Signing off with peace and love from Berbice, 

Megan B, Megan E, Kate and Robbie.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Diving into Week Five and trying new things!

             Unsurprisingly time continues to fly by much more quickly than we would like. This week started similarly to the past four weeks with visiting classrooms and discussing health topics pertaining to physical, sexual and mental health. After our day of classes on Monday, we were able to go to the GRPA to participate in a mutual learning session regarding gender and sexuality in Guyana. Although some of the topics, such as the difference between gender and sex, were concepts that we had learned in classes at Queen’s University, we were able to learn about them more in the Guyanese context. Our discussion primarily focused on gender roles, specifically the effects of hyper-masculinity on both men and women in Guyana. It was a fantastic opportunity to be able to have these as it provides us with the ability to ensure that our sessions in the classroom can be more culturally relevant.
            While preparing for the classroom sessions we also had the opportunity to be featured on Frederick’s Reality Check segment on NTN Radio for the second time. We discussed STIs and contraceptive options within Guyana. It was great having a positive forum where we could discuss both barrier and hormonal contraceptive methods and have the possibility of reaching a greater population. Although we do acknowledge and teach that abstinence is the only 100% way of preventing unwanted pregnancies and STIs, we also think that it is very important to provide alternative options. We also continued our weekly television appearance on NTN This Morning. For this week we focused our discussion on STIs and HIV/AIDS. We are so fortunate to be featured on Guyanese news outlets as it has allowed us to spread information on a wider platform.
            Our busy week continued on to the weekend as we had the chance to head to the region of Essequibo with the Guyana Foundation. The lovely Susan Isaacs picked us up at 6AM on Saturday morning and with the help of other members of the Guyana Foundation we made our way from Georgetown to the Sunrise Centre. We travelled across the water in a speedboat that is used as a form of public transportation to regions that can only be accessed by the river. We had the chance to run training sessions on sexual anatomy, STIs and HIV/AIDS, puberty, and substances/substance abuse. The participants were members of the Sunrise Centre’s professional training streams, in catering, computer repairs, plumbing and more. It was such an incredible day having the opportunity to do more community focused outreach sessions outside of Georgetown. We even had the chance to make more community connections within the Essequibo region.
            The incredible generosity and hospitality that we had on Saturday continued into Sunday when our friend Sunil welcomed us into his home. Him and his family provided us with an incredible home cooked meal. He also insisted on taking us to a local swimming creek where we were able to swim and make great memories. We have truly been astounded by the genuine kindness that we have been met with in Guyana. We have been so lucky to make such strong friendships.
            We are sad at the fact that we only have TWO weeks left here in beautiful Guyana, time really is flying too quickly.

Have a great week,

Shannon, Manny, Shannen, Haylee


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Cheers to Guyanese Food and Week Four!

Our third week of teaching has come to an end and we have begun the fourth. Last week we focused mostly on suicide and depression lessons, as well as STI and contraceptives lessons. Both are very important topics to discuss with our students, as puberty, maturation, and a changing social environment can give rise to a whole array of new feelings and challenges. At the end of each class we give the students a chance to write anonymous questions which we will then answer and discuss at the beginning of the following class. This has provided us with a very effective and honest way of gauging how the class is feeling, and what areas of the material need to be supplemented with more clarification. We are excited to be receiving a growing number of lesson-related questions and concerns, and we believe this indicates a growing trust and connection with our students. We have had multiple opportunities to discuss optimal solutions to student issues with the Head Teachers of the schools. This has allowed us to develop effective and culturally sensitive responses to student inquiries regarding questions surrounding sexual health, abuse, and suicide. Through conversation with members of the community and school staff we have also learned about more accessible resources for STI testing and contraceptives, and we were able to relay these permanent resources to our students.
On another note, we are proud to announce that we have continued to expand our Guyanese cookbook. We are officially capable of preparing traditional meals and dishes such as plantain fries, pumpkin and roti, and bagan choka. As in any culture, food makes friends. In Guyana, we have been blessed with new friends that have taught us how to prepare some pretty spectacular tasting dishes.

Walking through a typical marketplace in Guyana

This past weekend we ventured to Georgetown to visit the other half of our team and celebrate Independence Day together. This quality time was much needed for reflecting on our initiative experiences so far, and discussing and critically brainstorming how we might be able to improve our lessons over the next 3 weeks, and our role in future years. We enjoyed a change of pace spending the weekend in the city. During our visit we realized how different our experiences, challenges and opportunities have been, between the Georgetown and Berbice initiatives. We found our visit to Georgetown rejuvenating, and we’re ready to dive back into lesson planning and classes for the next three weeks of teaching. 

Part of the QHO Guyana team in Georgetown

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Independence Day Weekend

            Wow, we cannot believe that it is already over half way through our stay in beautiful Guyana. Although it is rainy season we have not seen too much rain and have been able to enjoy the hot weather. This week was shortened in our classrooms as Independence Day, May 26, fell on a Friday this year.
            We started our week off with a mutual learning session with the GRPA (Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association) by leading a conversation on Depression and Suicide. Through our conversations we were fortunate to hear the insights from some Guyanese individuals regarding the struggle to engage in Mental Health conversations in Guyana. We cannot wait for next week to be able to have the GRPA lead a session concerning sexuality and gender in Guyana.
             For the majority of this week we were very busy with classrooms and lesson preparations. Now that we have been with some of our classrooms for 2-4 weeks we are able to start teaching more of the content heavy lessons such as Depression and Suicide, HIV/AIDS, and Healthy Relationships. Although we utilize our teaching manual to create our lessons, we ensure that we are teaching topics that are relevant to particular schools and students. In each classroom we provide the opportunity for students to ask questions through an anonymous forum, our question box, so that we are able to focus our lessons on concerns of the students and answer students’ inquiries.
            On Thursday we again appeared on NTN News for the Morning Show to talk about substances and substance abuse. Although it is sometimes challenging to condense this content into 5-7 minutes per topic we always ensure that we cover the most crucial and relevant topics. We have been incredibly fortunate to be given the opportunity to discuss important topics on a nationally broadcasted morning show so that we have the ability to spread information more efficiently.
            As Thursday was the students’ last day of the week they were naturally more restless and ready for the long weekend. We could definitely relate to the feeling of anticipation and excitement for the upcoming weekend as not only was it Guyana’s 51st Independence Day, but our lovely other half were coming from Berbice to Georgetown for the weekend.
            It was amazing having Kate, Megan, Megan, and Robbie visit us in Georgetown so that we could enjoy each other’s company. During their time in Georgetown we made sure to walk to our favourite restaurants, get some much needed ice cream into their stomachs, and visit the worlds largest single drop waterfall, Kaieteur. While on our two hour adventure we learned from our tour guide Jamal that ‘teur’ actually means falls. This means when referring to it as “Kaieteur Falls” we were actually saying ‘Kaie falls falls’ and have made sure not to make that mistake again. Walking through the rainforest was incredible, and we even had the pleasure of seeing a golden frog, blue morpho butterflies and a more than slightly poisonous snake. Even though this excursion was a personally paid for venture, it was an amazing opportunity that we were able to have by being in Guyana with QHO’s initiative.      
Throughout Berbice’s stay we were actually able to engage in conversations regarding the complexities of volunteering abroad. Although we have enjoyed our experience immensely thus far we continue to ensure that we do not remain ignorant about our position as foreign volunteers. Through these conversations we have been able to synthesize what we have learned from interacting with Guyanese people, our observations, and learning opportunities in classrooms. Despite the fact that not every moment is positive, we have been provided with an incredible learning experience, and one that we hope will allow us to be able to continue strengthening the organization as a whole.
            This was yet another amazing week in Guyana and we cannot wait to continue learning throughout the next three!

Peace and love,

Shannon, Manny, Shannen, Haylee