When he left Canada in 1986 for a volunteer placement in St. Vincent and the Grenadines with Crossroads International, 21-year-old theatre student Sean Kelly didn’t know he was about to live an experience that would change his career path. With another Crossroader, Heather Stewart, and Vincentian community worker and activist, Nelcia Robinson, he worked at a local preschool – the Glebe Hill Preschool – in the rural community of Barrouallie. Together, they helped develop curriculum and train local staff. Sean had worked as a preschool teacher in Nova Scotia, and Heather was a school teacher from Manitoba.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Sean recalls more than 30 years later. In addition to working for the preschool, he also volunteered with a community group in the capital of Kingstown and taught photography to young men who wanted to create a photo co-op.
Sean stayed in St. Vincent for eight months and this experience solidified his interest in international development. “I was involved in social issues before I went but certainly, when I was overseas, that got me very interested in community development and development issues. When I came back from St. Vincent, I switched my major from Theatre to International Development.”
Sean had found his calling. He volunteered with international solidarity groups and worked for almost two decades for Cuso International, another volunteer cooperation agency. He is now Director of Energy Programs for an environmental NGO in Nova Scotia.
Sean has fond memories from his time with Crossroads in St. Vincent. “Crossroads was a critical first step for me and my career in international development. I know I got more from the experience than I could ever have given. I am very grateful for that.”
During his posting, Sean documented his experience by taking pictures of the people in Barrouallie, capturing kids’ smiles amidst the everyday life. He always wanted to go back to St. Vincent to see the people he knew, and also thought it would be fascinating to take photos decades later. In 2017, 31 years after he first went to St. Vincent, Sean went back with his teen-aged son (and a hockey bag filled with books, toys and games for the preschool.)
They stayed with the family of one of his former students, Kenisha Patrick, with whom he had reconnected a few years before through social media. She’s now an entrepreneur, community stalwart and computer software teacher at the local vocational school. He met with former students that were now grown-up, as well as some kids of kids from back then. A few people remembered him. “I don’t want to overestimate my impact in any way. It was nice to hear some people say that the fact that they had Canadian volunteers who would talk a bit about all the possibilities for these kids… it sunk in a little it so that was very nice to hear.”
The Glebe Hill Preschool is still going, now larger with more students. The preschool is considered one of the better preschools in the country and at one time was used by the government as a model for other preschools.
Glebe Hill Preschool kids then and now
With the pictures he took during his two trips to St. Vincent, Sean mounted a ‘then and now’ photo exhibit in Halifax, NS. He also included some pictures from countries he visited for work including Jamaica, Ghana and Cameroon. “I’m deeply grateful for my time in those countries,’ he says, “especially those moments where I got to walk around with camera in hand, learning the wisdom behind famous Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange’s saying that ‘a camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.’”
Visit Sean’s website to see more pictures and learn more about his experience.