Look for the helpers

By Glen Herbert, for The Grenadines Initiative

In the wake of 9/11, Fred Rogers took to the airwaves to talk to children about when something catastrophic happens. Speaking as much to the adults watching as to the kids, he said “always look for the helpers. Because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

You, me, people all around the world are experiencing another inexplicable time. And while the shock has been slower to set in—it seemed like a cold at first, or just another seasonal flu bug—it came and is still coming. We’re not getting past this quite yet. Not this week or the next, or even the one after that. Its economic effect will be lasting and persistent.

I was lucky to get to Bequia this March, this before we really knew what was happening all around us. While there, I met with some helpers. I met with teachers from across the island to hear their thoughts on how we can support what they’re doing with their students. They’d like to grow digital literacies, so we talked about what was needed there. (I’m happy to say that we now have chromebooks at the Lower Bay School, Paget Farm Government, Bequia Anglican Primary, Bequia SDA Primary, Bequia Community High School, and the Learning Center.) They talked, too, about what it means to teach; how, while it’s about ABCs and times tables, it’s also about encouraging aspirations and growing curiosities. I wish you could have heard them, and its sad that we don’t get a chance to see what teachers really do each day. Whether they’re standing at the board, or working one-on-one to read through a difficult passage, or marking a test, they’re making an expression of care. They’re helping.

On the Saturday morning when I was down I met with the junior sailors and talked to the coaches while the kids set off into the harbour to race around the buoys. They’re doing great things, better than you likely are able to imagine. In talking about the program, Rose Kaye said to me, “there’s no point if you’re not changing lives.” And they are. The JSAB, with academic support from the Learning Center, has realized a total of seven Competent Crew and five Day Skippers in the short time since it was inaugurated. For the participants, this realizes a sense of accomplishment—which itself shouldn’t be underestimated—as well as access to a range of employment opportunities. (The program was recently featured in Caribbean Compass magazine.)

Once home I was in touch with Gabby Ollivierre. She’s fine, of course, and as adaptable and resilient as ever. She’s completing her two-year degree online and, prior to the COVID shutdown, had been interning at a prominent restaurant in Calgary. But I was saddened when I received an email this week from the president’s office at SAIT—that’s the college Gabby’s been attending—saying that the graduation ceremony is cancelled. It’s just an event, of course, but it was also a point Gabby’s life. She’s come a long way, and that was going to be her celebration. There would have been a lot of people there with her, in mind at least, though some were also looking forward to making the trip in person. 

It’s not catastrophic. She’s doing well, the sailors are doing well, the teachers are missing the kids, but they’re doing OK too. But we all need something. We need stuff, and food. Right now I’d like grilled fish on a green salad with a side of Hairoun from Mac’s. On my last night before coming back to Canada in a rush, that’s what I ordered. “Why do you always order the same thing?” the server asked, laughing. We talked about where I’m from, the virus, the sense of uncertainty with whatever might happen next. Indeed, the best thing she gave me that night was just that: connection. We all need that, too. 

Truly, it doesn’t take much. Just a smile, a nod, a little joke. Thankfully we don’t need to stand within six feet of each other in order to make an expression of care. We can send a text, make a call, Zoom, wave at each other on Facebook. This is also true: the communities of Bequia will feel this pandemic in ways that the rest of the world won’t, and some will feel it harder and longer than many can imagine. But there will be helpers. At the end of that address in 2001, Fred Rogers said, “Thank you for whatever you do, wherever you are, to bring joy and light and hope and faith and pardon and love to your neighbour and to yourself.” Whatever it is, it’s worth it. Today, tomorrow, next month. We can do this.

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