They talked the talk, they walked the walk.
Roughly 50 supporters of Helping Hands Jamaica Foundation (HHJF), including team members from the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB), participated in a 5 km “Jam-Walk” fundraiser on Sunday (Sept. 26) in support of educational initiatives for young people in Jamaica.
Blessed with perfect weather, the upbeat event, which required attendees to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination upon entry, involved walking from the waterfront Courtyard Patio of Palais Royale on Lake Shore Blvd. to the Humber Bay Arch Bridge and back.
To participate, individuals raised money to support HHJF’s goal of building its 24th school in Port Antonio, Jamaica, which will be in memoriam of Denise Jones, a former founding HHJF board member who sadly passed.
Supported by the theme “ONE LOVE,” HHJF is now preparing to build its 25th school and launch new initiatives aimed at improving Jamaica’s literacy and graduation rates, as well as the country’s education system through a program called Path to Education.
“It’s all for the youth in Jamaica,” said Karl Hale, founder and chairman of HHJF. “During these times, people are understanding of the need to give and support people who really need it. Especially in underdeveloped countries, like Jamaica, where they have struggled during the pandemic.”
Sunday’s walkathon marked HHJF’s second Jam-Walk event to be held during the pandemic.
“Our supporters have been really gracious in helping us,” said Hale, who was born in Falmouth, Jamaica and lived in the country until he was 10 years old.
Hale started HHJF in 2005 to tackle the economic disparity he saw in his native Jamaica and to help kids “who don’t have the means to make a better life,” he said.
As part of a range of new projects, HHJF will offer local scholarships to graduates leaving primary school and entering high school, hire remedial teachers to support kids with learning challenges, supply tablets to students and implement and reinforce food programs.
The foundation will also support young Jamaican athletes with high school tuition, books, transportation, sports training and mentorship.
As well, it plans to inspire a new generation of supporters through its Youth Ambassador Leadership Program, which will bring Jamaican and Canadian youth together at a leadership conference in July next year.
HHJF, notably, holds volunteer school builds in Jamaica every year.
And despite the pandemic, the foundation still managed to launch three builds over the past year, said Natasha Borota, president and CEO of The It Factor Ltd., which manages the projects.
Newcomers who sign up for builds are usually visiting Jamaica for the first time and instantly “feel the love from the country,” Borota said.
Many volunteers go on to participate in more than one build and will often return to the country for vacations, she added.
“[Jamaica] almost becomes people’s second home,” Borota said.
It also helps when the travel industry gets involved.
“Having partnerships with tour operators really helps us,” she said. “Especially if we are able to provide discounts to get people to go down there.”
“A very safe bubble for guests”
“This is an organization we’re passionate about because it speaks to the children of Jamaica,” said Angella Bennett, regional director for Canada at the JTB, which was a sponsor at Sunday’s walk.
HHJF’s newly-constructed school in Port Antonio will begin welcoming students this November when Jamaica returns to in-person learning.
“We are thrilled that this team has continued to push through the pandemic,” Bennett said, noting how the builds provide jobs for locals as well.
Bennett, who recently visited Jamaica, said local life in the Caribbean country is still “really challenging” due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“We’re really trying to control the positivity rate and mitigate the impact of the pandemic,” she said.
During her last visit, Bennett had an opportunity to see Jamaica’s Resilient Corridors – designated sections for tourists that has been designed to encourage safe tourism practices – in action.
The Resilient Corridors consist of a Northern segment stretching from Negril in Westmoreland across the northern coastline to Port Antonio in Portland, as well as a South Coast section from Milk River in Clarendon westward to Negril in Westmoreland.
“It remains a very safe bubble for guests,” Bennett told PAX.
Earlier this month, the Jamaican government announced a Tourism Vaccination Task Force as part of a goal to vaccinate all tourism workers in the country.
Under the leadership of Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, the Hon. Edmund Bartlett, the team has already organized vaccination blitzes across the country and has several more planned.
“It’s a very challenging process,” Bennett said. “But I do believe, in time, we will get there and have as many of our nationals vaccinated as possible.”
“It is needed for the life of our industry, for tourism, and for people to feel comfortable when they come to Jamaica,” she added. “This is something that is at the top of the list for us.”
Preparing for Jamaica’s “recovery years”
As for the upcoming fall and winter season, Jamaica is “pacing very well,” Bennett added.
“We’re already seeing a good base business on the books,” she said. “We have all of our partners on board with us. They’re really committed to the destination.”
Air Canada and WestJet already fly to Jamaica, while Sunwing, Transat and Swoop will launch service in the coming weeks.
“This will definitely bring us some numbers for winter,” she said.
Looking ahead, Bennett views 2022 and 2023 as the “recovery years” for Jamaica tourism.
“We’re putting everything behind it to get our business back,” she said.
HHJF has two school builds coming up next summer in June and July, Borota said, and spots will be assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Travel advisors who are interested in supporting HHJF, or volunteering at a future build, can go to HelpingHandsJamaica.com for more info.