Pannell Scholar takes research to Jamaica

Allison McLamb has always wanted to work in special education. After gaining some experience in American classrooms, the sophomore was able to explore her career goals abroad this winter, thanks to Sweet Briar’s Anne Gary Pannell Merit Scholarship.

Allison McLamb feeds a resident of West Haven Children's Home.
Allison McLamb feeds a resident of West Haven Children’s Home.

Through Projects-Abroad, McLamb traveled to Montego Bay, Jamaica, where she volunteered at a home for disabled children and adults. During the two weeks, the lacrosse and field hockey player kept a daily blog about her experiences at West Haven Children’s Home, which houses about 80 children and adults between the ages of 4 and 35.

In addition to bathing, clothing and feeding several of the home’s residents each day, McLamb also had a chance to assist in the classroom.

“Volunteering in the school was the most rewarding part of the trip,” she says. “I was able to observe how different the education is, while also helping to teach the children. The teacher allowed me to lead some of the class activities, which was very exciting!”

Even more exciting — though of the scary kind — were her daily trips across town to West Haven by way of $1 route taxis, which she quickly decided were simply “not safe.” Public transportation aside, McLamb enjoyed getting to know Jamaica’s “non-touristy” side and experiencing daily life (almost) as a local would.

The school at West Haven
The school at West Haven

Working mornings, she spent afternoons on the beach, a quiet place except for Wednesdays, when the larger cruise ships arrived. Because she stayed with a Montego Bay family, traditional dinners of chicken, rice and plantains — or salt fish, a Caribbean specialty — were common, and the Maryland native seized every opportunity to try something exotic.

But it’s not the food or the beaches or the bumpy taxi rides that have stuck with her the most. It’s the children and adults she cared for. More broadly, it’s the state of special education in a country that relies almost exclusively on donations to run such programs, she says.

“My trip to Jamaica has been very eye-opening,” McLamb says. “I was so happy to see that all of the children were happy. But at the same time, it made me very sad because they don’t know how different their lives could be with a higher level of care.”

McLamb with Derrick, one of the home's youngest residents
McLamb with Derrick, one of the home’s youngest residents

Limited staff at the home meant that the more severely disabled spent all day in bed, and instead of being taught how to do things, had everything done for them. In the school, everyone learned together in one room, repeating the same material over and over, so that the more advanced students were rarely challenged, McLamb says. It’s in stark contrast to what she’s experienced in the U.S., but that only reinforces her desire to work in the field.

“Volunteering at West Haven has made me sure that I have chosen the right career path,” she says.

“It would be amazing to travel and teach special education in different countries, but I would be happy anywhere I could make a difference. Whatever I do, I know that I want to be making a positive influence on children’s lives.”

The Pannell Scholarship provides first-years of exceptional ability with the opportunity to explore an area of interest more fully during their sophomore year. Projects may be scholarly in scope or involve a creative endeavor, travel for academic purposes, or service. They can be broadly imagined, in a specific academic discipline, or interdisciplinary, possibly service-oriented. Students have used the scholarship to explore a future career interest, or simply to satisfy an intellectual curiosity that might fall outside of their coursework. Click here for more information.