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Students, professor teach San Salvadorans to conquer their fear of water and respect local marine life

At least 80 percent of Bahamians don’t know how to swim—a harsh reality considering many rely on fishing as an occupation and are subject to the wrath of hurricanes. However, Sea Camp—facilitated most summers by a Georgia College student and Dr. Melanie DeVore, professor of biological and environmental sciences—makes it possible for San Salvadorans to not panic while in the water. At the same time, they learn how to preserve endangered marine life.

A Sea Camp participant identifies various creatures as GC students (pictured right)
look on.

For several years, DeVore and various GC students assist with Sea Camp, a Georgia College partnership with the Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation (BREEF). It serves 38 children—ages eight to 13—on the island in the hope they take the newly-learned information about swim safety and preservation home and teach it to their parents.

Sea Camp’s creator Sandy Voegeli, has assisted DeVore with her Bahamas study abroad for 10 years. Voegeli got the idea for a camp when she learned a local fisherman drowned. His boat ran out of fuel. When his body was recovered, he was wearing high top tennis shoes and jeans and had no life-saving devices on.  

“That should’ve never happened,” said Voegeli. “In Sea Camp, we teach the older kids to make floats with their pants. An empty gallon milk jug with a cap will hold up a 200-pound person in water. Although most fishermen don’t have life jackets in their boat, they have access to milk jugs.”

In addition to water safety, students enrolled in Sea Camp envision themselves as guardian angels over a marine plant or animal. They draw themselves as angels alongside marine creatures. Then, they acknowledge to the class that they are guardians of their chosen creature, and each student comes up with a way to help save it.

DeVore also supplies a book to each student to read and take home to their parents. The book coordinates with the annual Sea Camp theme. Some themes focused on bans, like harvesting turtles and sharks.

“The Bahamas Education Ministries require us to have a ratio of four students to one facilitator,” said Voegeli. “And, that’s really tough to get because most Bahamians don’t swim, and if they do swim, they’re not comfortable being with a child in the water.”

That’s where Georgia College students come in. DeVore has been taking Georgia College students to the Bahamas every summer for 19 years. During this time, she and Voegeli pick students who are personable with good swimming skills to be Sea Camp facilitators. 

GC students show Sea Camp members soldier crabs or what Americans consider
hermit crabs.

For two weeks in May, sophomore Hannah Draper traveled to San Salvador, as part of Georgia College’s study abroad trip. She conducted research to see if the content taught in Sea Camp transferred from students to their parents. 

“The thing I enjoyed the most about interviewing the residents was to see how motivated they were about protecting their land,” said Draper. “On the island, everyone knows each other and are somehow related. So, it is a lot to ask someone to report on another who is illegally harvesting. However, most of the people I talked to were willing to do so, because they know they won’t have any natural resources left if they don’t stop harvesting sea creatures before they are fully developed.”

Skills she acquired at Georgia College have given Draper the confidence to speak with San Salvadorans.

“As a business major, I have gained a lot of the skills necessary to get people not just to talk to me but to be interested in what I have to say,” she said. “I am also involved with my sorority Alpha Gamma Delta and my fraternity Delta Sigma Pi, which helped give me the confidence to travel across an ocean and use my research project to make a small difference in this world.”

A majority of the San Salvadorans favor Sea Camp, according to Draper’s survey results. One parent said the camp provides the sole opportunity for local children to spend time in the ocean and make a difference. 

Another parent said, “Sea Camp helped open my son’s eyes to his love for the water. He’s now a diver.”

Draper feels a sense of closeness to the San Salvadorans, after her experience interacting with them.  

“My hopes for San Salvadorans have changed in the last couple of weeks, due to Hurricane Dorian. The last time a hurricane blew through San Salvador, it meant residents had no school buildings and kids had to attend school at church,” she said. “My hope for them is to be resilient and to keep fighting.”  

GC sophomore Hannah Draper

Draper applies the confidence and experience she’s gained from studying abroad in the Bahamas to her life as a college student. It’s something she hopes to carry forward as a professional, as well.

“This research project will be an experience I will never forget,” said Draper. “Going to San Salvador taught me so much that I could have never learned sitting in a classroom. It opened my eyes as to what the world is like outside our first-world country.”

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