At Lakefield College School, a boarding school in rural Ontario, there are students enrolled from nearly 40 countries. Rhea Simmons is the only one from Bequia or, for that matter, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Most haven’t heard of either. “Everyone wants to know what it’s like,” she says. “Occasionally someone will know where it is. Usually I have to explain to them where it is before I can tell them what it’s like.”
Even then, it’s a world away. Bequia has been described in Conde Nast Traveler as the Caribbean’s best kept secret, noted for its unfussy charm. The island’s history is one of colonization, first French, then British. James Hamilton, father of Alexander, was granted property here. Henry Morgan spend some time here, too, as did Sir Frances Drake, who stayed long enough to plan his attacks on the Spanish Admiralty. If you care to believe it—and frankly, who wouldn’t—Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, made the island his base. His treasure may still be buried here, or at least some like to think that it is.
Rhea has lived a life behind the unfussy charm and quaint facades that occupy the tourist gaze. “It’s just a really tiny island,” she says. “It’s a little too small sometimes.” The main industry is tourism, and while the signs of wealth are many—luxury yachts crowd the harbour well into the shoulder seasons—the lived experience of the local population can be a bit more complicated, and one that most visitors don’t see or care to contemplate. Because the business is seasonal, a portion of the population is unemployed for half of the year. Quality education can too easily be regarded as non-essential. The island has its share of social problems, including high rates of teen pregnancy and drug abuse.
Rhea was different, even from an early age. Quiet, yes, but clearly full of ideas and interests, even if she didn’t always express them. She regularly attended The Learning Centre, an afterschool program run by volunteers and funded through the Bequia Mission, a local charitable organization. Many students attend the centre in order to gain a footing in the basics of literacy and numeracy. Some are hoping to improve their chances on the national matriculation exams and a shot at enrollment in one of the better schools on St. Vincent, an hour ferry ride away. Still others, such as Rhea, aren’t attracted to the lessons so much—she would have done fine on her own—as they are the culture of care that the environment of the centre represents. Run by Ray and Dawn Goodwin, an American couple, for Rhea it was also a point of stability at a time when her life was changing.
“Being in such a small place,” Rhea says, “there aren’t that many options of what you can do when you’re older. And if you want to do something different, you have to go away.” While she’s reluctant to admit it, through her academic ability, curiosity, and desire to grow, she fairly quickly began to bump up against the boundaries of her world. Before she was aware of it, she was thinking beyond, wanting to do something different.
Founded in 1970, the Bequia Mission, now the Grenadines Initiative, has long supported access to education. The work of the mission supported Bequia schools and helped deserving students travel to St. Vincent for secondary programs. A renewed vision—and thanks to a donation from a family foundation with ties to the island—created new opportunities. One of those opportunities was, ultimately, the force that landed Rhea at Lakefield in 2016. “I’d never been this far away from home by myself before,” she said recently. “It was a little scary at first. I was just picking up and leaving home.”
It was a change, and in some ways an abrupt one, but she soon began to see the school less for all the things it wasn’t—home, familiar—and more for all the things it was. At Lakefield she entered an expansive environment. It included a student population that was academically oriented, globally minded, and full of possibility. “The school is a really big family and I got used to the people really quickly, and made friends,” she says. “In Grade 9 you’re coming in an everyone doesn’t’ really know each other, so everything just kind of sticks together.”
At 17, Rhea’s experienced more of the world than many of her peers, and certainly few can imagine the arc of her life. At the end of her second year at Lakefield, she accepted an academic award recognizing her achievement that year. She describes her interest as lying “somewhere between art and science.” Her self-portrait was displayed outside the art room. All are evidence that, within a relatively short time, she’s made her mark.
It hasn’t been easy, and while she’s quiet, it’s clear that she is thinking in the longer term. She’s notes that Ontario isn’t her home. She plans to return to Bequia, and return to her life there. She’ll be changed, though that’s something she hopes to take back with her as well: change. No doubt, one way or another, she’ll do exactly that.
In a number of ways, Rhea is the tip of an iceberg, and the most visible aspect of the work of the Bequia Mission. The goal throughout has been to contribute to a culture of empowerment. It begins early, in programs such as the Learning Centre. When they walk through the doors, they enter an environment of care. It’s an amalgam of lessons, people, and experiences that communicate one thing: this is your world, come find your place within it. And they do.