Students and faculty from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga will travel back to San Salvador Island this summer, a small island in the Bahamas overflowing with history and biodiversity.
The 63-square-mile island is home to 824 inhabitants. Coral reefs surround the island and are often only a stone’s throw from the road. The reefs are home to all sorts of marine life, making the island an ideal place to study marine biology.
San Salvador is also thought to be the first place Christopher Columbus landed in the New World. The island has offered students from all over the globe a place to study biology, archeology, botany and natural history. These students stay at the Gerace Research Center (GRC), which has hosted a variety of conferences and symposiums since 1982.
Dr. Dawn Ford, assistant professor in the Master of Public Health program at UTC, will lead the trip in June. She has led trips to GRC for many years, but until recently her focus had been marine biology.
In the past five years, she has started bringing public health students to the island. Ford said she hopes that she can give back to the island that has given so much to so many students.
Ford and a group of MPH students have been awarded a grant for their upcoming trip and continued expansion of the enrichment program. She applied for the Center for Social Change Grant from Walden University, where she received a Ph.D. Her grant proposal titled, “The San Salvador Bahamas Community Garden Enrichment Program: A transdisciplinary approach to healthy living for social change,” was awarded $9,988.
The funds pay for two students’ travel expenses and materials to host an educational summer camp for children on the island.
The camp will be centered on health but will also educate campers about the unique ecosystem in their own backyard.
“The kids will learn about marine ecosystems and their importance in terms of fisheries and how that relates to nutrition, so it’s all coming back to health,” said Ford.
The children will learn about these ecosystems in a hands-on manner. A portion of the funds will go to provide kid-sized snorkel equipment. However, the kids won’t use the equipment until after swimming lessons because many children on the island don’t know how to swim despite their aquatic surroundings.
The camp also aims to address some of the unique health problems on the island.
“They don’t grow their own food, generally,” Ford said. “Food is shipped from Florida, so it’s mostly processed. There are a lot of chronic diseases like hypertension and obesity.”
The camp will build on the work done on the island by previous MPH students. Last winter break, students raised their own funds to build a community garden at the GRC for residents of the island.
At the camp, children will learn about healthy living and eating through the community garden. The funds also provide students with gardening materials to take home.
“We are going to be buying pots, soil and seeds for the kids to take home so they can start their own gardens,” she said.
Ford will be accompanied by MPH students Ashley Ellis and Laura Baker—as well as her two sons, saying she has been bringing her sons to the island since her oldest was three months old.
Baker first came to San Salvador last spring break.
“It was a whirlwind trip. I’ve traveled a lot. It was easily one of the best trips I’ve ever been on. The island was incredible. The culture was great, Bahamians are so nice, and the food is so good,” said Baker.
Asked what her favorite part of the trip was, she replied, “Definitely working with the kids because that’s what we went there for.”
Baker said the island’s economic situation has worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID had a big impact on the community. A lot of local businesses just couldn’t reopen, and a lot of people left to go to Nassau to work.”
Baker said their group wants to repay the communities that have served them well.
“College students have gotten a lot out of the island,” she said. “So many school groups come through and use the GRC and use the community for studying geology, biology and archeology. But no one ever gives back to the community. That’s what we want to do.”