Donna Shands-Island c/o Donna Shands-Island
The 2009 Olivia Caribbean Halloween Cruise features "OliviaSisters" created by Olivia Vacations and Donna Shands-Island to encourage women of color to attend the women only vacations. The lovely Donna Shands-Island was kind enough to agree to an interview on how she got involved with Olivia and on OliviaSisters.
Jolie du Pre: What is your role with Olivia and how did you become part of the team?
Donna Shands-Island: My role with Olivia is to coordinate the diversity program, "OliviaSisters." About 6 years ago, the management of Olivia contacted me because they were troubled by the lack of diversity on their vacations. They explained that Olivia Vacations was created to provide a safe, free place for all lesbians. Unfortunately there were very few minorities taking advantage of what Olivia had to offer, and they wanted to change that.
I started by reaching out to African American lesbian organizations in forming partnerships with them. Olivia would donate a vacation that they could raffle or auction to raise money. I would go to the event and promote Olivia, giving a small discount to anyone who wanted to go as a part of our partnership.
This was hugely successful for everyone. Our donations raise an average of $3500 for each organization, and they show their appreciation by promoting our program. Today, we work with a wide variety of lesbian organizations that cater to a minority market - Asian, Latina, African American, etc. The vacations reflect the change; there is a rainbow of faces on every trip.
JDP: Please explain the OliviaSisters program.
DSI: After a year of promoting Olivia, we decided to select and promote one cruise a year as a “Sisters at Sea” cruise. The program was so successful that we added it to some of the resorts, calling them “Sisters at Play” vacations. Later, the name was simplified to OliviaSisters.
We create special programming for these trips, like African dance classes, spoken word, and even hip-hop tea dances! We recently had a summit with the leaders of several African American Lesbian organizations to talk about what else Olivia could do to reach out to the community.
The most important thing to know about the OliviaSisters program is that it is totally inclusive, not exclusive. Everyone is welcome to participate. One of the most memorable moments for me was watching an 80 year old Caucasian woman in a wheel chair dancing and smiling with a 28 year old African American woman to music by Jay Z!
One amazing story is from a cruise about a year ago. There were two African American women who were dressed alike. We thought it was pretty funny. They kept to themselves and did not mingle. I harassed them until they agreed to come to the Sisters events. Eventually they did, and they slowly opened themselves up to the group. On the last day of the cruise, we always have a Sisters farewell mixer. One of the women stood up and addressed the group. She told the story of how she and her partner are in law enforcement in a city that is very “unfriendly” to gays and lesbians. They were so used to living an isolated life, that they did not feel that they could socialize. She broke down, crying as she told us how Olivia and the Sisters program changed their lives forever. They never felt accepted or welcomed prior to the trip.
JDP: Why is diversity important for a lesbian cruise?
DSI: Diversity is important to everyone at Olivia - moreso than just for the cruises. We know that we offer something with our trips that can change lives and it is critical that everyone who comes into our “home” feel welcomed. It is also important that every women knows that we want the Olivia Nation to reflect society. We want all women to feel free.
JDP: What makes an Olivia Cruise different than other lesbian cruise lines?
DSI: Olivia has been providing lesbian travel opportunities for over 25 years! We offer much more than just cruises. We have resort vacations, like our upcoming Vallarta Palace 5-star resort and our Palm Springs. We also offer Ultimate Escapes - like our Greek Isles cruise and our African Safari. We charter the ENTIRE cruise ship or resort. There are no other guests but Olivians.
Olivia strives to make sure that every moment of your vacation is positive, full of love, and welcoming. Many of us have to live at least part of our lives in the closet; be it at work, with our families, with some friends. From the minute you walk into what we call “The Nation”, all of that anxiety is gone. We prep the staff of the ships and resorts, so they know to provide exceptional service. We bring our own staff and performers, to ensure that everything is up to our standards. We provide daily activities - if you are a sporty girl or a couch potato, we have something that you will enjoy.
Above all else, what sets Olivia apart is the heart. I personally cried after my first Olivia trip because it was so amazing. Our founder Judy Dlugacz puts her heart on the line every time an Olivia vacation goes off. It is her passion to make sure that “her ladies” have the best time possible. She really and truly cares about the experience of each and every guest, and this passion is shared by every member of the Olivia staff. We get to know our guests personally and love spending the time with them - from the guests who have been on 30+ Olivia trips to the 1st time “Olivia Virgins”, every single woman is important to us.
JDP: Are lesbian vacations good places to meet other lesbians?
DSI: Definitely!! I met my wife on one of our cruises!! We have a great Solos program for women travelling alone; it doesn’t matter if they are single or their partner couldn’t make the trip. We make sure that there are activities for everyone to enjoy.
As of this writing, there is still room on Olivia's Caribbean Halloween Cruise. If you are a woman of color, this is an opportunity for you to enjoy the OliviaSisters program featured on the Caribbean Halloween cruise.
(Be sure to visit again on November 2, 3 and 4 when I post parts 4, 5 and 6 - a report of my actual experience on the 2009 Olivia Caribbean Halloween Cruise.)