The Block Island Times

Islander extends a helping hand in St. Lucia

Mimi Leveille focuses on health and nutrition
By Judy Tierney | Mar 28, 2013
Courtesy of: Mimi Leveille Mimi Leveille with a St. Lucian artist who drew a portrait of President Barack Obama.

There is something about Block Island that inspires the need to give back to the world.

One so inspired is Mimi Leveille, a native Rhode Islander who has lived on Block Island in winter and summer for more than 20 years. A former registered nurse and hospital supervisor, Leveille (pronounced Leverly, with one of those surprising Rhode Island r’s in the middle), has supported herself here by offering home care to the aged and infirm, waiting tables at Finn’s Restaurant, cleaning houses and caring for the pets of vacationing owners.

It would be difficult to find someone on this island who doesn’t know or recognize this tiny woman with intense blue eyes and a long black braid that she frequently slings over her shoulder for emphasis while speaking.

Like many other island arrivals who fell in love with Block Island in mid-life and made the permanent move here, she subsists happily on minimal income and spends much of her time offering help to others. She plays a major role in the organization Helping Hands, which supplies food to islanders in need, is active with the Block Island Prevention Task Force, a group that offers education on drugs and alcohol to the school population, and served as President of the Block Island Ecumenical Choir for several years.

But she also extends her reach to needy people in far off places like Nicaragua, Africa, Haiti, and most recently, the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, through the non-profit group Global Volunteers. Leveille funds these volunteer trips by saving her pennies and with the help of donations. The St. Lucia trip was a gift from a family with whom she bonded while caring for a loved one. These are not vacations in which Leveille lies on a beach or rocks in a hammock; during this last trip she worked a 40-hour week, utilizing the skills she learned as a nurse.

Often, her accommodations are rustic, such as in earthquake-ravished and impoverished Haiti. But on St. Lucia, Leveille was astonished to find herself housed in a three star resort, with a comfortable room and delicious food. Though not lavish, the accommodations were more than she expected; a better way to attract volunteers.

Having recently visited Haiti, the poverty of St. Lucia, though extensive, seemed not as pervasive. Flipping through her slides, Leveille stopped at one with village huts, most of weathered wood and some painted in typical island pastels, and mentioned how much better they were than what she had seen in Haiti. None, however, had indoor plumbing or sanitation, a characteristic of many small towns in the Caribbean Sea’s islands. Instead, in the center of town, was a well from which residents drew their water to carry it home in pails.

Leveille’s primary volunteer task was to teach hand washing skills to children and young mothers. “I think I have done hand washing everywhere I’ve gone with the children,” Leveille said. Elaborating on the techniques she taught, she sang the ABCs, as she had with the children, because “singing the whole alphabet takes 20 seconds” and that is how long they are supposed to wash. The children are taught that they should wash between their fingers and under their nails, and to use soap because that is how to get rid of the majority of the bacteria.

Her group visited local schools to work with the children and checked school lavatories to make sure soap dispensers were full. “If a kid pushes and there is no soap several times, they’ll stop,” she said. Volunteers worked with teachers and principals to underscore the importance of assigning someone to refill the dispensers.

Nutrition education was also on Leveille’s plate. A major export for St. Lucia was bananas, but the market for the fruit has shrunk. The island’s topsoil has been depleted from decades of growing that fruit, and so Global Volunteers supplies growing units, called Earthboxes, to families. These plastic containers come with fertilized soil and seed packets for vegetables like kale, celery, tomatoes, peppers and bok choy. Though not huge in size, each box can grow a robust crop of vegetables thanks to the hot, sunny climate there. “They had just started planting in January and were harvesting when I was there [in February],” Leveille said. The volunteers visited to see if the plants were being well cared for.

There was also an educational component to Leveille’s St. Lucia work, which was to reduce and eventually eliminate corporal punishment in the schools. Volunteers, retired teachers among them, worked with students who might be labeled attention deficit disorder in the U.S. and helped teachers learn skills to work with them without resorting to corporal punishment.

The ultimate goal of these nutritional and health efforts is to raise the national I.Q. of St. Lucia. Each nation, Leveille explained, has a national median I.Q. and St Lucia’s is one of the lowest in the world, and the lowest in the northern hemisphere, at 62.  The United States, in comparison, has a national IQ of 98; Japan’s is 105.

Global Volunteers is working with a local university in St. Lucia to test their efforts. “The university will do the research,” Leveille said. “Children from ages five through nine will be tested this year. Next year a new group from five to nine will be tested to see if the new IQs increase over the old, for the next ten years.”

Her experience with Global Volunteers was a good one and Leveille hopes to go to Montana with the group in June to work in the Blackfeet Indian nation. Like her, many of the volunteers with Global Volunteers return for further service after their first commitment, Leveille said. The organization has work sites around the world, and though participants pay their own way and room and board, the fees are tax deductible.

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