it's Saturday morning on the lush Caribbean island of Grenada and there's a steady stream of children heading for a hurricane-proof hall in the tranquil mountain village of Mt Airy.
Elsewhere around the world similar aged children are probably meeting at malls, planning trips to the movies or thinking about McDonald's (there isn't one on Grenada, thank goodness).
This bright and eager faced lot of 5- to 16-year-olds are gathering, completely of their own accord and in their precious weekend time, to improve their literacy skills at the Mt Airy Young Readers' Programme.
They come clutching tattered and dog-eared books – eager to read them under the eyes of a voluntary group of cruising sailors with varied backgrounds.
There's definitely a teacher or two in our bunch (they're the organised ones) and a handful like us, full of enthusiasm with limited skills and resources but delighted to put something back into the local community.
We often feel sad that many of the children we see in our travels don't have the educational opportunities our own children had, which in New Zealand we take for granted. So we're happy to give up a Saturday morning in the hope of improving these young Grenadians' future.
The literacy rate on the island is 96 per cent, which sounds high, but a truer picture is probably gained by the fact that the average school leaving age here (including university) is 15 for males and 16 for females. In New Zealand the ages are 19 and 20 respectively.
There is a highly regarded university on the island – The University of St George's – but most of its students are from the United States and the United Kingdom.
For some students living in small and remote villages on Grenada, educational opportunities may be limited and this was recognised by programme founders Jeanne and Everest Chantal, who noticed children slipping between the cracks. The crunch came one day when Everest realised their cleaner couldn't read or write.
"We noticed because after dusting she would put books upside down," he says.
Determined to help, Everest began tutoring the woman and was delighted at her progress.
The project spurred him on and he began tutoring other interested locals in his home. Word got out and today up to 40 children walk, run, bike, or bus to the hall where classes are now held.
Cruising sailors visiting the island heard about the programme and now, every week, a busload of volunteers heads for the hills to spend four hours helping out.
As 10am approaches the solid concrete hall is unlocked, shutters opened and desks and chairs set out. Children are put into groups according to their age and ability and allocated to volunteers.
Resources are limited so luckily we've come armed with our trusty Atlas and a couple of books on New Zealand. The first surprise I have is what competent readers both my 11-year-old students are.
They have no trouble pronouncing New Zealand names and ask intelligent questions – "don't the sheep get cold once the wool is taken off?"
"How long will it take you to sail there?"
They've never seen herds of dairy cows, flocks of sheep, irrigation machines (it rains most days here) or snow and eagerly pump me for more information.
My young girl is astonished to see a photo of a helicopter mustering cattle on a high-country station – the only helicopter she's ever seen is one that brings the rich and famous to exclusive resorts in south Grenada.
David's 10-year-old boys are less skilled but equally eager to learn. They produce Dr Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham to read, which we feel is a bit below their age group, but they're interested in New Zealand and pore over the photographs in the book. A game of Scrabble keeps them focussed and tests David's knowledge of Rastafarian lingo. The session moves on to mass times tables and ends with a spelling bee in which all children get a chance to stand and spell a word.
Then there is a half-hour free time when drinks and sandwiches are handed out and the children mix with the cruisers.
"A lot of it is simply about learning how to interact with people from different cultures," a regular volunteer says. "Some of these children don't move very far from home so for them to come and mingle with cruisers from all around the world, hold conversations with them and read to them is a huge step for their confidence levels."
The day before we'd taken a trip around Grenada and were surprised at the apparent poverty. The popular anchorages in the south are surrounded by fabulous multimillion-dollar, fully staffed homes with views to die for but travel inland and many houses are tiny, ramshackle and crowded.
Unemployment runs at 12.5 per cent with most jobs in agriculture or tourism.
We'd have loved to have become regular volunteers at the programme but time is moving on and we need to get some more ocean miles under our belt before hurricane season arrives in the Caribbean. We're heading west towards more poor countries so hope there are more opportunities to help.
- The Marlborough Express