Torrey Pines High alumna Tara Mullally is spending eight weeks in Jamaica this summer. The 19-year-old isn't only working on an island tan, she is spending her time at the Marigold Orphanage in Kingston; an orphanage full of children and need.
Tara arrived on the island on May 23 and she will continue her work until July 18, alongside her Vanderbilt University classmate Elin Bunch.
"I just love all these children so much," said Tara, 19, via cell phone after a tiring day last Thursday.
This summer, the orphanage will get some much-needed repairs to its caved-in and leaking roof, just as hurricane season sets in. Tara will also help make updates to the facility. She plans to give the walls fresh paint and help reorganize the administrative offices.
When they're finished, Tara hopes Marigold will be a lot safer and more colorful. "It'll be a better environment for them to be in," Tara said.
Tara and Elin, sophomores at Vanderbilt in Tennessee, are Ingram Scholars, a scholarship for students who are committed to social change. As part of the Ingram program, Tara planned the eight-week Jamaica project her entire freshman year, applying through a grant process the way a nonprofit would.
Additionally, the Ingram scholars have to complete 20 hours of community service a month but, by the end of the year, Tara was doing about 40 to 50 hours of community service per month. She mainly works with the homeless and helps fight poverty through a program that donates extra food from the campus dining halls.
"It's hard to explain the passion I have for service. It's such an integral part of my life," Tara said. "I hate that word 'service.' To me it's not service, it's just spending time together in friendship."
Tara spent the first nine years of her life in Jamaica. Her mother MaryKay is from the country and her father Rob is a native of Ireland.
Tara remembers Jamaica from her childhood as being very different than Jamaica today.
"It has been so very, very eye-opening," said Tara, who arrived in Kingston at the beginning of violent battles between police and drug cartels that left at least 73 people dead. "I'm still trying to understand a lot of it."
Tara said Marigold is a "place of safety" for the children. She said 90 percent of them have relatives in Jamaica but, for different reasons, have become wards of the state. The other 10 percent have been abandoned.
"Some of the babies are just born," Tara said. "There are children who are 6 or 7 who (have lived in the orphanage all their lives)."
At the orphanage, Tara and Elin help feed the babies, change diapers and give baths. During school time, they help out the teachers. There are two teachers for 20 children ages 2 to 7.
The girls work on motor skills with the 2-year-olds, and with the older children they make crafts such as tie-dye shirts, friendship bracelets, paper-mache solar systems and decorated tambourines. They helped create a bright and cheerful collage for one of the walls, made up of handprints and photos of the children, connected together by string.
"You know you're going to get attached to these children but you don't know how deep," Tara said. "When you walk in the room, their faces light up and they run to you."
By July 1, the children will all be transferred out of the Marigold Orphanage as the repairs begin. Tara said she tried to soak up as much time with the children as possible, knowing she will not see them again.
Until July 18, Tara and Elin will continue on their busy schedule — up at 6 a.m., home by 2:30 p.m. exhausted.
"We feel like grandmas," Tara said, as they usually collapse into bed by 9 p.m.
They make the most of their free time, going for runs, taking yoga classes and eating sushi dinners. Last week they saw "Toy Story 3" and were surprised by a Jamaican tradition of having a 20-minute intermission in the middle of the movie, just like a play.
The work has been hard and they have seen things that are very difficult to witness. Because of a shortage of diapers, the children aren't allowed much water. Elin and Tara have to see the children so thirsty that they drink mud or dip mango cores into puddles to drink.
Tara and Elin have written to all the major diaper companies for donations.
They have also seen so much good, especially when the children get adopted.
"Today, this beautiful couple came in and met their son for the first time," said Tara. "He was so happy. He was glowing and he latched onto them. It's moments like those that keep me going."
Tara is hoping to raise money for Marigold for new playground equipment, a refrigerator and art supplies. So far she has raised $700 and hopes to find support back home. To learn more, visit