Many members of the Blair community headed home for rest and relaxation during the School’s winter long weekend, but about two dozen students took advantage of the break to travel with faculty members to two exciting destinations. The first group headed to the Cayman Islands with science teachers Rod Gerdsen and Marianna Paone, and the second traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, with history teacher Joanne Brandwood and Blair’s registrar Kecia Tillman. While the focus of the trips was different, all of the travelers enjoyed meaningful outside-the-classroom experiences, as well as the camaraderie of fellow students and teachers.
Marine science, community service and daily exploration of the pristine beaches of Grand Cayman were on the itinerary for the annual long winter weekend trip to the Cayman Islands. Mr. Gerdsen and Ms. Paone accompanied 15 freshmen through seniors to this “little piece of paradise,” where everyone enjoyed the warmth of the weather and the Caymanian culture.
The trip included many opportunities for students to get up-close-and-personal with marine life, especially while snorkeling at the beach and at Stingray City and visiting a turtle farm. For the third-consecutive year, the Blair group also volunteered at an island primary school, where they assisted with an after-school program for nearly 50 students.
“The Caymans trip was amazing,” said Kaki Jacobs ’21, who felt that the experience help strengthen her independence and leadership skills. “We had to challenge some of our fears by swimming and even kissing stingrays. The last day of the trip was arguably the best, though, because we spent time helping at the local elementary school. It was an incredible experience to play with these children and learn about the Caymans from a local perspective.”
Corey Downey ’20 cited his top three memories of the trip: spending time with new Blair friends on the beach, eating tasty island food and playing soccer with local kids. “It was great to meet new people from Blair and experience new things together,” he said. “In just a few days, I bonded with friends I’ve known for years and with people I just met. It will be great to continue to see one another on campus!”
This year marks Mr. Gerdsen’s 12th Blair trip to the Caymans, and, as always, he enjoyed introducing students, whether or not they are currently studying marine science, to the islands’ native tropical wildlife and habitats. “I hope students returned to Blair with a healthy respect and love for the marine world of the Caymans and for the culture of this island nation,” he said.
Meanwhile, eight service-minded students traveled with Ms. Tillman and Mrs. Brandwood to Memphis, where they volunteered at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Their mission over the long winter weekend was to brighten the spirits of young patients who are battling life-threatening illness, and the entire Blair group shared smiles and good cheer when making “superhero” capes with children at the hospital. Teachers and students also helped prepare and serve meals for patients and their families at the nearby Ronald McDonald House and had a great time making crafts and playing games.
McKenziee Belton ’16, a long-time St. Jude advocate, organized Blair’s first service trip to the world-renowned research hospital in 2015, and she and her mother, Lori Belton, joined the Blair contingent again this year. Mrs. Brandwood and Ms. Tillman found the experience of interacting with young patients and their parents especially moving, and they were proud of the Blair volunteers’ efforts.
“Our students dove right in to any task at hand, from preparing food for a meal, cleaning up or taking out trash to playing with patients or talking to their families,” Mrs. Brandwood said. Ms. Tillman described how, during one crafting session at the hospital, Blair students started singing Disney and pop tunes, and the patients they were working with chimed right in. “You could see students’ joy in sharing with the kids at St. Jude,” she said. “It was a beautiful moment—we didn’t want to leave!”
Ashton Martini ’20, an aspiring nurse, jumped at the chance to join Blair’s annual St. Jude trip this year, and her experience was unforgettable. “I met the most amazing kids and families and became quite close with a couple of young girls at Ronald McDonald House,” she said. “We had karaoke sessions, played with slime, built two xylophones and had a mini rock band that filled the room with out-of-tune music, and shared a lot of laughs. Those girls, among others with whom I spent time, amazed me with their enthusiasm and joy in the face of something so terrifying. Their smiles lit up the room and made mine grow a million times wider. This was probably one of the greatest trips and experiences of my life; definitely one I'll never forget.”
While in Memphis, the Blair volunteers also took some time to explore the city’s rich history during visits to the National Civil Rights Museum, Sun Studio, Graceland and the Blues Hall of Fame, and they thoroughly enjoyed the food and music at B.B. King’s Blues Club. “It was a great trip!” Mrs. Brandwood said enthusiastically, and it’s one Blair students will likely continue to experience in for years to come.