Tales of nurture from the Nature Island of Dominica

written by
Joanne Owen

updated 29.04.2021

Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) is a lesser-visited gem of the Eastern Caribbean, an island loved by travellers seeking truly off-the-beaten-track experiences. Though small in size, Dominica is big on nature, And we mean big. It’s not for nothing that it’s known as the Nature Island. It has the world’s highest concentration of active volcanoes. It's home to countless rivers and waterfalls, and an epic Boiling Lake. And Dominica is big on innovative community projects too, as seen in the work of the female-led organizations whose stories we share below. Both Help for Dominica and the Breadfruit House Dominica Foundation are dedicated to nurturing young lives on the Nature Island.

Dominica's world-renowned Batibou Bay

Batibou Bay, Dominica ©Joanne Owen

Help for Dominica - from tropical storm to transforming communities

Help for Dominica is run by Brenda Vidal, who lives in the UK, and Sandra Watkin in Dominica. Between them they fundraise, ship huge containers, distribute donations, and teach arts and crafts in Dominican schools. Quite something for such a small team.

Their story began in 2015 in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Erika. With communications down, Brenda wasn’t able to contact her Dominica-based daughter, Anita, for days. When Brenda learned of the devastation, she shipped barrels of food, clothes and other supplies for distribution around Anita’s community.

Help for Dominica was formed when Sandra distributed those first emergency barrels. Brenda recalls that mainstream charities sent supplies, but these were not always reaching remote areas due to roads being blocked or broken bridges.” In those early days Sandra worked tirelessly to take the shipped supplies to isolated villagers.

Help for Dominica co-founder, Sandra, with volunteer, Hildreth, in Dominica’s Kalinago Territory

Help for Dominica co-founder, Sandra, with volunteer, Hildreth ©Help for Dominica

Art in action: what Help for Dominica does

After their initial crisis response Help for Dominica focussed on “sending educational supplies, art and craft materials, and books as there is a shortage of these on the island.”

While art and craft activities are critical to children’s development, there’s little or no budget for this kind of material. As a result, Sandra’s craft lessons in local primary schools serve a vital role. From creating volcanoes and rainbows (for which the island is known), to making masks, her lessons truly spark children's imaginations. This is arts education at its most engaging - and fun.

Happy Help for Dominica pupil, Castle Bruce Primary

Happy Help for Dominica pupil, Castle Bruce Primary School, ©Joanne Owen

When Category Five Hurricane Maria struck Dominica in September 2017, the island was all but ruined. "Eden is broken," Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit reported to the UN General Assembly shortly after the storm. 95% of buildings were destroyed, or severely damaged. Virgin rainforests were stripped of their leaves. Rivers flooded. Lethal landslides erupted. Anita and her young family were uncontactable for two weeks. Sandra was cut-off from communications for almost two months. The situation was desperate.

Help for Dominica responded by sending essential items – medical supplies, disability aids, household goods - alongside the schools’ materials. This community-wide approach continues today. Brenda manages mammoth tasks in the UK - coordinating donations, UK volunteers and shipping. Sandra handles the complexities of island distribution, and hosts her legendary lessons.

Donated supplies being distributed in Dominica

Donated supplies being distributed around Dominica ©Help for Dominica

Current climate – progress in a pandemic

Brenda notes that “Covid-19 has brought many challenges”, not least because a container had just been shipped to Dominica when the threat of the pandemic sent the island into lockdown. Consequently, “on arrival it was problematic to get it cleared from the port. It had to be emptied. But with very strict social distancing in Dominica and curfews from evening to early morning, and all weekend, we had lots of hurdles to overcome.”

But, as always with Brenda and Sandra, progress has been made despite the setbacks. “The medical centres and communities were done first, dropping off donations at central points." In addition, "the school items are now sorted and boxed ready for when schools reopen.”

Future aims - raising funds and awareness

It's good news that a cancelled fundraising dinner (organized by the Slough Dominican Association) and family fun day will be rescheduled. However, as Brenda points out, “we need to look at other ways to help with funds, maybe using more online events. We definitely don't want to change the way our project is run, though. Being small has the advantage of being able to control the way things are distributed. Our long-term plans are to continue what we are doing, and to raise awareness of our project.”

Head here to discover how you can lend a helping hand to Help for Dominica.

Help for Dominica co-founder Brenda Vidal on a visit to Dominica

Help for Dominica co-founder Brenda Vidal visiting Dominica ©Help for Dominica

Cooking up creativity – the Breadfruit House Dominica Foundation

The Breadfruit House Dominica Foundation is driven by an ethos that chimes with our own “tell us your story” campaign. In the words of founder Marieke van Asten,“our ‘tell your story' program invites children to tell their story with the help of creativity.”

This stems from Marieke’s belief thatcreative skills could benefit children throughout their lives, helping them to grow as people, face life’s difficulties, and ultimately help make the world around them a much nicer place to live.”

Marieke van Asten, founder of Breadfruit House Dominica Foundation

Breadfruit House Dominica Foundation founder Marieke van Asten ©Marieke van Asten

Hope from a hurricane - the Breadfruit backstory

Originally from the Netherlands, Marieke’s journey to setting up the Foundation began ten years ago. Her experience of volunteering in a rural Costa Rican school in 2010 meant “the idea of working with children creatively was always at the back of my mind.”

In 2017 Marieke settled in Dominica. While working with international organizations who came to support the island in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Marieke “quickly realized that children here have a lot to deal with.”

Studentsmaking cards

Marieke hosts a creative card-making session ©Marieke van Asten

Comfort and creativity: what the Foundation does

With schools focussed on academic learning, Marieke spotted a need for creative activities: “Exploring creativity will help children face adversities throughout their lives, whether it be another natural disaster, or a difficult situation at school or at home. The ability to express themselves creatively provides them with tools to help build up their emotional resilience.”

"I am creating a safe space for 6-12 year-olds with the idea of inspiring each child to feel free to explore their creative abilities through arts and crafts, music, dance, photography, writing and story-telling. I intend it to be a warm, inviting and inspiring environment for children of all levels of creative ability.”

Current climate and future aims: finding a place to call home

Marieke notes that “Dominica is doing very well with regards to Covid”, but that’s not to say there aren’t challenges. With schools closed until 1st September, she observes that “the current situation makes the program even more valid as many children are at home in difficult situations.”

To help this transition, Marieke recently held a lively graduation ceremony. Everyone was given a certificate to create “a sense of accomplishment”. In addition, each child was presented with a ‘happy box’ to personalise and turn to “whenever they feel sad, lonely or even angry”.

And what of the future? Firstly, “besides raising funds, funding a building is my main priority this year,” Marieke explains, with characteristic cheer. Secondly, she dreams of installing “a reading nook, with nice cushions on the floor and a wonderful mural. I have such a clear vision of how it should look.”

Students' artwork

Students' artwork

Lastly, Marieke also hopes to increase the number of participants. “Being seen and heard is very important for every child. We are still very grassroots, I suppose, with big aspirations, of course. Hopefully that will turn into more once I have volunteers, or even staff, to help me.”

Talking of which, to become part of the Breadfruit House story, check-out their volunteer and internship opportunities here. Thanks to its rigorous response to the COVID-19 pandemic (zero active cases at the time of writing, and zero fatalities), Dominica is well-placed to receive visitors when the island re-opens. Non-nationals will be allowed entry from 8th August, with strict measures in place.

Want to share your story?

Head here.

Dominica's stunning Red Rocks

Red Rocks, Dominica ©Joanne Owen

Joanne Owen

written by
Joanne Owen

updated 29.04.2021

Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her @JoanneOwen on Twitter and @joanneowenwrites on Instagram.

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