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When you think of Sandals Resorts, I’m sure the first thing that comes to mind is 90 plus degree weather in the Caribbean, vivid turquoise oceans, soft sand, and maybe two to three Mai-Tai cocktails under a gazebo – and oh! destination weddings! But did you know, beyond being the creme de la creme of luxurious vacation stays that Sandals is actually a leader in philanthropy? A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet the CEO of Sandals Resorts, Adam Stewart, and The Director of Programs of the Sandals Foundation, Heidi Clarke, aboard their luxury yacht at The Chelsea Piers in New York City. On the beautiful yacht, I was introduced to the mission of the Sandals Foundation, which:

“seeks to help fulfill the promise of the Caribbean community through investments in sustainable projects in education, environment, ad community.”

Just a little data crunching: when talking facts and figures, the Sandals Foundation has over 10,500 volunteers, who impact roughly 162,357 people via community programs and health initiatives. Because of the foundation, 62,000 people were able to gain access to dental and eye care. In addition, they have awarded 136 scholarships, adopted 26 schools, and built 63 computer labs. Let’s not forget from an environmental perspective, The Sandals Foundation has assisted 6,844 people with marine awareness and training and they collected 8,800 pounds of waste. Wow. With all of these amazing projects and achievements, I was delighted to chat over lunch with Heidi Clarke on the The Lady Sandals about their future projects, Dwyane Wade being a key alliance, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated’s involvement with the Sandals Foundation.

Take a peek at my wonderful discussion with Heidi:

Konnect:  Let’s talk about the Sandals Foundation, how did you get involved, how long have you been doing it, and why is it a passion of yours to focus on education and community?

Heidi Clarke: The Sandals Foundation was officially launched in 2009, and really it was a way of taking the work that Sandals has been doing in the communities for 30 years and formalizing it. And also I think the CEO and Chairman realized that our partners and our guests wanted to get more involved in making a difference in Caribbean communities. We’ve been celebrating 5 years this year. We’ve accomplished quite a bit in that space of time. It’s my passion -because I know the need in the Caribbean. Everyone looks at the Caribbean as a fantastic region, its beautiful, the beaches, but there is a lot that goes on behind hotel doors – out there in the communities that people really don’t see, unless they get out there. Education has been a major focus, because we feel it’s the one way to empower people and it’s the one way to provide opportunities to Caribbean people.  I have to say people have been very receptive – people in the communities partnering with us, because we never go in and say – this is what we think will work here. It’s about us going out and forming partnerships in the community and saying tell us what you need.

Konnect: How many programs are there? 

Heidi Clarke: Over the last five years we have implemented over 300 initiatives, projects and programs. Every island is different. Education is at the forefront, but you know there are different needs – whether it’s environmental, or in schools, because some schools in various islands have more accessibility through various things through their government programs, whereas other islands don’t.

Konnect: Let’s talk about the word ‘voluntourism’ and what does that mean to the traveler. Get into why that’s important.

Heidi Clarke: Volunteering your time from people dedicated to working in the community is huge. Because you always find that everybody is working and time is something that is essential. We don’t think about the fact that if you go out and talk to a young student or read to a young student that you are actually helping to inspire them – verses just dropping a book off. Our team members – there are 13,000 of them in the Caribbean – its an ethos in our company that we really try to get our team members involved in our projects. At the professional level, having dentists, doctors, veterinarians and teachers come to the Caribbean and have them go out and work in the communities, offering free support and services. Offering our teachers training – that’s a big thing for us. We do that from September to October every year, with an amazing partner called Great Shape. And then we have incentive groups, so business groups come down and they want to get involved in the community – whether it’s for a day or for an afternoon, they are all donating dollars towards this, and then of course our guests. For us it’s not just about coming out, and going to visit one little place quickly and looking at all the children and putting a little paint on a building – we do a lot of research on the ground, because we are in the communities. Our team is on the ground and we know the needs that are there. So we are really partnering the volunteers with something that is going to be impactful. One of our greatest things – our volunteer programs is our weekly programs of our Reading Road Trip, that’s not just offered to Sandals and Beaches guests, that’s offered to any guest in the region vacationing, because it’s done through Island Routes, which is a tour company. It’s once a week on a Thursday morning when school is in session and we go out and work with slower readers and the guests bring books and school supplies – they work with a structured program. Kids are getting so excited and their grades are benefiting. We have some of our schools winning competitions now, because their reading has improved so much. And beyond that – it’s about the connection they make. We’ve had children come on the Reading Road Trip and go back to Canada and the States and say – “I don’t want to get any presents this year, I want everybody to donate money so that I can buy something for this particular school that they visited.” We’ve had a child build a classroom in Jamaica. We’ve had another child donate a TV and a DVD player – so the kids there could have a TV in their school for something new and exciting.  The connection is really a huge step for us. Every year we add to our Reading Road Trip new material, because the guests donate.

Konnect: What new initiatives are you launching this year?

Heidi Clarke: Exciting new stuff. It’s all about partnerships. We are thrilled to have  some new partners on board this year. Game Changers is a program that we are looking at for all the islands in the Caribbean and our partner is Dwayne Wade. It’s always great for kids to have a celebrity involved. Game Changers is about offering an on-going program in the afternoon for kids. Through sports they will have a coach and a mentor as well. Also we never leave out the life skills. Really it’s about engaging youth after school. Another great program we have in the Bahamas is called P.A.C.E and this is for pregnant teenage girls. Unfortunately, in most of the Caribbean islands, if you are pregnant in high school, you have to leave, and so this is Providing Access to the Continued Education. These girls will continue on the curriculum, so when they have their baby – they can get right back into the program, so they haven’t lost anytime. Our partner for that is Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. We are thrilled to be able to access 350,000 women across the world and their ability to help us. This is a beginning for us with P.A.C.E, but there are so many women issues in the Caribbean that we would really like to focus on over the next couple of years. We are very excited about all of the partnerships this year.

 Photo Credits: Feature Image: Boscobel Primary School in Saint Mary Parish in Jamaica Additional images: Photos taken by director Gil Green behind-the-scenes of PSA shoot on location in Jamaica.

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