Editor’s note: The following is an interview conducted by eTurbo News writer Linda Hohnholz with Sandals Resort International CEO Adam Stewart on the genesis on the group’s philanthropic arm, The Sandals Foundation, which he founded in 2009.
What you find inside a Sandals resort is very much outside, too. Beauty. Optimism. Gratitude. But there’s so much more “out there.”
Adam Stewart launched the Sandals Foundation 10 years ago because he grew up seeing it all, inside and out, from angles no one else has ever seen. Until now.
Maybe this isn’t the best time to enter Adam Stewart’s office. The deputy chairman of Sandals Resorts International and founder of the Sandals Foundation has just finished a marathon meeting, which was only slightly longer than the half marathon he’ll be running this weekend.
It’s 4 pm, putting us midway between Adam’s partial lunch and a late dinner. Adam sips on some water to hold him over.
“Are you sure you want to do this now?” you ask.
Adam cannot deny that he’d rather be on the other side of his office door. It’s why he has reminders of “out there” in here. There’s a globe seemingly stopped mid-spin so the Caribbean islands face toward his desk. There are pictures of stunning Sandals swimming pools and golf courses and … hey, that’s Richard Branson!
But positioned closest to Adam is a row of framed 8×10 photos with a singular theme: Family. Adam’s wife and three children sit and stand in various poses a few inches away from him, all day long.
“My family adds fuel to my desire to help our island communities,” he says.
When you ask if he’s ready for this conversation, Adam’s eyes are as convincing as his voice. “Absolutely.” He takes two more sips of water while you start saying, “The 10th anniversary of the Sandals Foundation …”
Adam takes it from there.
They planted the seeds for the foundation when I was growing up here in Jamaica. But they did it very differently.
Dad (Sandals Founder and Chairman Gordon “Butch” Stewart) thought he needed to build a successful business in order to give. Remember, the all-inclusive industry was very young when he started in 1981 — the same year I was born. He believed if the Sandals experience surpassed expectations of guests, then more guests would come. And more guests meant he could create more jobs and meet more needs in our challenged communities. Dad thought of those people as family. That’s why he worked 20 hours a day.
Mom, on the other hand, thought you don’t need much to help people. She had the time to build houses for the poor and make nice clothing for those who couldn’t afford it. In fact, I asked her if she could watch our kids during the marathon this weekend, but she’s working for a charity called Back on the Rack in Kingston, so she can’t.
Me? I’m a hybrid of the two of them.
Both of my parents came from a generation that says, “When you do good things, do them quietly.”
For example, Dad would block off certain days at a Beaches Resort and bring busloads of kids from underserved areas to enjoy a little vacation and learn about tourism — he still does that. He gave any fees he earned for serving as president of hotel association to fishermen. He’d only hire independent drivers for airport shuttles so the resorts would be providing jobs rather than taking them away. Only recently have people known that 96 per cent of the produce in the restaurants comes from local farmers. Those are the types of business decisions he’s always made to support people who need it.
I could go on and on, but Dad wouldn’t want me to.
The idea was to do what we’ve always done, but in an organised manner as “the Sandals Foundation.” For several years I’d imagined how much more we could do if we engaged several groups around our efforts:
Ten years later we’re implementing over 120 programmes and projects annually. It shows that when we work together, there is no limit to the amazing things we can do.
What we’re doing would not work anywhere else. Not in Asia. Not in Europe. We live here, in the Caribbean. Our parents and grandparents lived here. These are our friends and families. We have never had to convince someone who works at Sandals to be a part of the foundation’s efforts, from the wait staff to the general managers. Not once.
We’re all part of the tapestry of the islands. And the resorts and our customers become part of the tapestry as well.
Our resort guests are in a unique situation.
Ultimately, we want people to come and enjoy the beautiful places we’re so proud to call home. Touch the sand and the mountains and the ocean. But also recognise among the beauty, inside the resorts and outside, is the need for a helping hand. We invite guests to go out with our community ambassadors to experience it for themselves.
Think of the bartender who’s pouring your drink.
A US$25 donation might help provide a meaningful education for her children at their local school upgraded by the foundation’s efforts. A US$50 donation helps to purchase life-saving equipment at a local clinic which serves our team member, community and visitors. US$75 donation can help make the ocean more vibrant and resilient, improving the livelihoods of local fishermen. Our mantra is, “We don’t need a lot from a little. We need a little from a lot.” These seemingly small acts are literally transforming communities. I’ve seen it.
… is healthcare for children. Sadly, without proper technology in the Caribbean, children with blood disorders and juvenile cancers are oftentimes misdiagnosed. So guest donations have allowed us to partner with SickKids. They’re now connecting highly regarded doctors in North America with doctors on the islands through telemedicine. It’s literally saving lives.
I think about the life of a 13-year-old girl in Ocho Rios.
She was at a centre for pregnant girls, which often means they’re going to be expelled from school. We’re partnering with a place that comes alongside girls to provide tutoring and parenting classes. A situation like hers cannot be the end of that girl’s journey, her dreams. She’s only 13.
Honestly, I didn’t really understand when I was younger.
Mom would pick me up from school and stop on the way home to make clothing for people. As a kid, I’d be thinking, “This is taking three hours.” But it was leaving an impression. When I went to boarding school in Boca Raton, Florida, I started to realise how much I really love the Caribbean. The food. The friendly people. The breezes blowing through homes without air conditioning. The natural beauty. But I also realised the stark contrast between privileges and the great needs in the Caribbean communities.
Mom and Dad were both right.
Mom has helped people on the front lines for decades. Dad wanted to be an honourable businessman. He stayed in Jamaica to start a business at a time when people were leaving for places where they could make more money, more quickly. He earned trust and integrity. That’s why people in even the most rural communities know Sandals not just as a resort, but as people who passionately want to do good. I think that’s why the foundation has been able to do so much in these first 10 years.
My son was born shortly after we started the foundation
It changed my perspective. And then my daughters were born, and that changed me even more. Before having kids, I could have talked with you about the purpose of the foundation. But my children have given me a clear vision for why we’re doing this. I mean, what if my children were in the shoes of those in need?
That thought motivates me every day.
Picks up a picture of his kids.
Look how young they are here. I probably should update these pictures, but I guess it’s hard to let go.
“Every dollar donated to the Sandals Foundation goes directly to a cause. Not 50 percent or 90 percent. It’s always 100 percent. A $150 donation might help build a bathroom at a school or provide air conditioning in a hospital. A $75 donation might help local artisans or a family farm. One gift touches people in ways you cannot imagine. Because a single act of generosity reminds them that someone out there truly cares.”
To put a few dollars to work right away, go to SandalsFoundation.org and click on the “Donate Now” button. The people in our Caribbean communities say, “Thank you for providing hope and opportunities.”