Heidi Clarke: Force of nature at Sandals Foundation

by Mar 31, 2022People

Heidi Clarke is a big deal. Not because she’s been the driving force behind an entity that has touched the lives of more than 1.1 million people over the last 13 years, but because she still wants to do so much more.

Clarke is executive director of the Sandals Foundation, an NGO that so far has pumped more than US$79 million into well-deserved projects and programmes across the Caribbean. That already impressive number — about $12 billion — is expected to skyrocket with this year’s ‘40 for 40 Initiative’ that will see a range of projects implemented in eight Caribbean destinations. The ‘40 for 40 Initiative’ is part of Sandals Resorts International’s (SRI) 40th anniversary celebrations. The foundation is SRI’s philanthropic arm.

Some of the awards the Sandals Foundation has received over the years are proudly displayed on the walls of Executive Director Heidi Clarke’s office. She stresses that she does not do it alone but has a wonderful team around her.

Clarke was there from the very beginning, tapped by SRI’s Adam Stewart to be coordinator of the NGO he launched in 2009. Her title is more impressive today — a reflection of how her role has grown to match the needs of the foundation. Determined to leave a legacy she can be proud of, she’s thrilled that her job nurtures her yearning to do good deeds.

LetsTravelCaribbean.com took a little time out of Clarke’s very packed schedule to learn a bit more about this woman in charge.

LetsTravelCaribbean.com (LTC): The Sandals Foundation turned 13 years old on March 18 but Sandals had been doing “good” long before then. What is that one moment that stands out most for you, from the work done over the last 40 years, and why has it left such a mark?
Heidi Clarke (HC): Wow, there are so many moments that stand out for me: a young scholarship student from Jamaica realising her dreams of becoming a doctor and then starting her own community-based foundation; a team member’s baby in Antigua being saved by paediatric equipment that was donated by the foundation; children moving from a dangerous broken down church, where they were being educated, into a new school building; an elderly couple smiling at each other for the first time after receiving dentures through our partner dental programme.  For me, it is the moments when you see renewed sense of hope in people that comes out of a project you have worked on, those are the moments that make it all worth it.

Sandals Foundation Executive Director Heidi Clarke loves to get up close and personal with the people whose lives are positively impacted by work the foundation does.

LTC: How did you end up working with the foundation? What was the thing that most influenced your decision? 
HC: I had the privilege to grow up in a house where both my father and mother ensured that my brothers and I knew that we had a role to play to help other people in this life. They did that by involving us in volunteer activities from a very young age.

At university I studied education and child psychology as I felt these were two fields that played an important role in helping others and in guiding a more positive future — not to mention being extremely rewarding.  

As you mentioned earlier, Sandals is a company that has been working in communities since the early 80s, 40 years ago. That is when Gordon “Butch” Stewart bought his first hotel in Montego Bay and, very significantly, the year when the company began its relationship with the Flanker community. This was long before corporate social responsibility became a buzzword. The company’s track record of commitment to community development since then has only continued to grow, which really resonated with me. When Adam Stewart came to me and said he had this idea to formalise the company’s giving through a foundation, which would enable getting more people involved and having greater impact, I thought what an incredible opportunity. I haven’t looked back since.

LTC: What has changed, over the years, in terms of the role you play at the foundation? What has remained the same? What is something you no longer get to do that you miss doing? 
HC: In 2009, when the foundation launched, I was the project coordinator. I don’t think we realised how big the foundation would grow. As we expanded into new regions, and delved into what was having an impact, we really realised the full potential. I kind of went from managing very small projects and coordinating smaller projects to moving into a space where I was now bringing together partners and looking at ways — having all the stakeholders at the table — how we could grow our impact, and how things could get better.

Sandals Foundation Executive Director Heidi Clarke during a fun moment with a group of ice cream eating children.

What has not changed, over the years is the need in this region. And that really is looking at educational opportunities, ways to engage our young people, ways to grow our economy by investing in local SMEs, local producers and, of course, the natural resources and our connection to that. So those needs in the region remain, and our focus needs to remain in that space.

I’m happy to say that we’re growing our impact, and we’re able to fill these gaps as we work with all these great partners and stakeholders at the table — government, grass roots operations within communities, our team members, our corporate partners internationally, and our guests.

For me, what has changed? I guess the pace. I don’t get to sit down any longer — as long as I like to. So downtime has changed over the years. But what hasn’t changed, and what has to remain for me, always, is that I am in contact with all the projects and the beneficiaries. I have my eyes and ears on the ground. Because if I don’t know who we’re working with, and who we’re working for, and why we’re doing what we do, then it doesn’t resonate. So to have that contact has been constant. And I continue to make that a major priority.

Sandals Foundation Executive Director Heidi Clarke handing out care packages to the needy, part of the Foundation’s COVID-19 response efforts.

LTC: It is often said that women are nurturers. In your view, does your gender enhance your ability to do your job with the foundation? 
HC: I do believe that women are great nurturers who have compassion and I do think that helps me greatly in my role. Is it because I am a woman, a mother, or the values instilled in me from a young age? I think it is a combination. I do also believe that men can be just as compassionate and nurturing and that has been shown by the immeasurable work around the world in this field by men as well.

LTC: What do you want your legacy to be and how does your job tie into this? 
HC: I would like my legacy to be that I made a difference in the lives of other people — not just professionally, but also personally. I want to also be an example of how you can live a good life while serving others — not just to my children, but to people around me. I really think the foundation has given me that opportunity. It’s been a great vehicle for serving other people. I work alongside my incredible team to implement projects and programmes that have an impact, not just for the lives we’re touching today, but for the generations that will follow.

I feel very honoured to have the job I do. It gives me the ability to help others. But I feel very strongly about the fact that we all have the ability to give others a hand up, whether we work for a foundation or not. Our world is a fast-paced, ever-changing, and challenging landscape where everyone is trying in his own way to get ahead. Amongst all the chaos, if we each just took time to do very small gestures for one another the ripple effect could be very positive.


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