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Dominican Republic: Working in Schools and Orphanages

Posted by on Wednesday, October 26, 2011 in Summer Programs.

I spent eight weeks in the Dominican Republic, working with Kids Alive, a humanitarian organization that builds schools and orphanages around the world for at-risk children. I began my work in the village of Constanza, a city high in the mountains of the Dominican Republic that has some wealth and some great poverty.  There is a lot of agriculture, a little bit of tourism, and some fairly developed sections; however, there are also many poor neighborhoods where families live in tin shacks that are about twice the size of my dorm room.

After 1 1/2 weeks, I moved to Caraballo, a small village located about three miles down a very bumpy dirt road from the nearest town, Montellano, that consists mostly of a housing project.  This village is surrounded by sugar cane fields where people used to harvest cane for a sugar refinery in Montellano that shut down a year after it was opened… The village is best described in three parts.  The biggest part is a housing project, which consists of about 200 homes, about a third the size of a trailer home, for those who could not afford rent and for Haitian refugees.  I could be mistaken, but I think the idea was that the poor could come to Caraballo, harvest sugar cane, get back on their feet, and move to a better place—but then the refinery shut down.  The second largest part, a Batey, is where the company that built the sugar refinery built many rooms for Haitian men to come work sugar cane fields and send money back to their families.  But, now that there is no work, these men have brought their whole families over to live in rooms the size of a car.  The third largest part is the richest one, which consists almost exclusively of Dominicans who live in houses about the size of a trailer home.  Most of them have jobs and, compared to the rest of the village, they have a great standard of living.

I worked in the Kids Alive School in Caraballo, which takes in a little over 200 of the estimated 600 school age kids in the village.  The school has 1st-8th grade classes, and during the summer we taught the students the Bible, African Geography, and Math.  The school has a cafeteria, a kitchen, about seven classrooms, an office, a basketball court, a playground, and a large field for the kids to play in at recess.  The children who come to class are given at least one meal each school day.  I helped two of the teachers with a 4th grade class in the morning and a 7th grade class in the afternoon, mostly handing out supplies and acting as entertainment—though I did teach a little bit of math some days.  Two other girl teaching interns and I stayed in a house in the richer part of the village, so after school on some days we would try to play with the kids around us or visit with neighbors.  This experience was very difficult and stretching at times; but, looking back on it, I am glad I went and I hope I was able to help the children there in some way.

Of the myriad of options available, why did this particular experience appeal to you? When I was first looking for opportunities to use my scholarship, I decided that I would like to do some sort of volunteer work to help people in need somewhere around the globe.  A friend at school told me that she had a great time interning with Kids Alive the summer before, so I looked into their program.  Kids Alive runs schools and orphanages around the globe to help at risk children, and their internship offered me the chance to work with these kids firsthand for the summer.  I used to work at a daycare, and I like to think I do pretty well with kids; plus I really like to play pick up sports, which is about all that the kids in the Dominican Republic did.  I also took three years of Spanish in high school and figured I would be able to quickly pick up enough Spanish to communicate on a basic level with those I met.  As a Christian, it is my responsibility to help others, and I saw this experience as a great way to do that.  Plus, I have only traveled other places around the world for a week or so at the time and I felt that this longer trip would give me a better view of a different culture, and thus the entire world.

What do you know about yourself now that you didn’t know prior to this experience? To put it into as few words as possible: I’m human.  Of course I knew I was human before I went on this trip, but this trip definitely reminded me that I need rest and I need to be encouraged—especially in a rough setting like the one I lived and worked in for the summer.  There were SO many kids that needed help in Caraballo, I could only speak a little bit of Spanish, the culture was much more laid back than ours, some kids just wanted to be around us all the time, it was HOT, the nearest good food was a 15 minute drive away, it was only me and two girls living in a house in a village, there were lots of animals everywhere, classrooms turned to chaos, sometimes we didn’t have water, and the power could go out at any time.  I don’t say these things to complain; honestly, most of them weren’t that big a deal and it was an adventure—sometimes even fun—to make it through them.  But when just enough things lined up in just the right way, it was hard to keep pushing through and see what my purpose was in the Dominican Republic.

I am very results driven, and I want my time and life to be used very effectively; but in this setting this wasn’t always possible.  This resulted in me feeling that I didn’t have much of a purpose in being in the Dominican Republic with these kids.  A very applicable quote came to mind many times: “Love is never efficient, but always effective.”  I realized, and am in some ways still realizing, that part of my purpose was just to show love to these kids that never get it at home, even if it meant simply playing a game of cards or just showing up to school to hand out their papers…

What impact will this experience have on the short-term (class selection, major, minor) and long-term choices you will make regarding your education? For the short-term, I am still going to be studying mechanical engineering and that will probably not change; however, I am definitely still processing through my experience and won’t rule anything out.  If I find that I have credit hours to spare, I might take a class on world poverty to better understand the issue or at least to see what academia has to say about it.  World poverty is a huge issue that I wish was eradicated, but it is a very complex and detrimental problem and I would like to know more about solving it.  I might also consider taking a class on human organization or communications.

I saw first-hand how important good communication is by watching Kids Alive employees communicating goals and ideas between each other and across languages.  It was especially difficult for these goals and ideas to be communicated clearly when they had to be translated to Spanish from the director of the Dominican Republic operations to the director of the school in Caraballo and then passed down to Dominican teachers who, though they understood the words, may not have understand the ideas or goals behind them.  I realize that these were especially difficult circumstances; however, what I observed points to the high level of importance of communications and organization in other life situations.

How have your career/graduate study plans been affected by this experience? I am still considering attaining a PhD in Mechanical Engineering after getting a Masters, and I am not sure at this point how this trip has affected or will affect this decision.  I don’t feel too inclined to spend all of my years researching a topic that simply increases luxury when there are so many people around the world that are missing their basic needs.  However, I do feel somewhat called to be a donor to organizations like Kids Alive that work around the world and at home to protect and help those in need…  That’s not to say I wouldn’t really enjoy using my skills to directly help those in need though.  I could create systems that increase sanitation or provide clean water, or I could work on cheap prosthetics to give to the poor around the world who cannot afford or don’t have access to prosthetics.  I could design more secure housing structures for the poor living in flood or earthquake zones, or I could help develop better, more efficient, sustainable agricultural systems.  These are just a few good examples; but, whatever I do, I want to be effective in helping those around me and around the world—whether that is directly related to my work or not.

What are the key questions being addressed by the research/organization for which you worked and why are they important? Kids Alive, the organization that I interned for, isn’t necessarily addressing a question, but more of a problem.  The organization is trying to give hope and a future to at risk kids around the globe by addressing some of the main problems faced by these children in a broken world.  These problems include hunger, lack of clean water, unsanitary conditions, lack of shelter, lack of education, abuse, neglect, and evil.  These clearly need to be dealt with because any single one of them can easily kill a child, or destroy their life.  In most of the locations that Kids Alive works, every single one of these problems is at play in children’s lives.

It is important to note that Kids Alive not only addresses the physical needs of children, but also the intellectual and spiritual needs.  In the Dominican Republic, Kids Alive is working to improve upon the very poor education that children get in public schools.  And in the case of Haitian immigrants, they are providing them the opportunity for education in the first place.  Education is not necessary for life, but lack of it can lead to a bleak outlook and a continuing, worsening cycle of poverty.  Kids Alive is an organization that holds a Christian worldview, and they believe that it is very important to instill Christian faith in the children they work with because Jesus saves them from evil and gives them a true hope for their lives.  Even if Kids Alive did not hold a spiritual worldview, instilling morality into the children they work with is a very useful and effective way to end the cycle of violence and neglect that is present in many impoverished places and replace it with a cycle of care and support.

More about my experience: Christino is the “chief” of Caraballo, which basically means he is a spokesperson for all the Dominicans there and makes decisions for the village (the Haitians are left out of the picture); so he wasn’t too bad of a neighbor to have.  Yorki is Christino’s grandson (his dad also lived with Christino, but he was driving motorcycle taxis for most of the day), and he was probably the person we got to know the most in Caraballo.  Yorki was there the second we got home from school each day for the first week and a half, and he had to be literally told to get out or else he would stay until Christino yelled at him.  Needless to say, even after laying down some ground rules for kids coming into our house, we still couldn’t get enough of little Yorki.  Christino liked American Baseball, and being the chief of the village, of course he had satellite and an inverter to keep the power going.  I watched way more American baseball in the Dominican Republic than I do here.  We played a whole lot of card games with Yorki and his friends at night, and Yorki would act as our guide on hikes up to the mountains.  I could probably write a small book just about these two people, the adventures we had, the crazy things they did, how they got on our nerves, how they were very hospitable, and how my summer could have been completely different had I not lived next to them.  I think the best thing to point out here is how much we were a part of each other’s lives even though we come from completely different cultures and could barely communicate.

On the last day of school, about half of the classes did a presentation for the whole school based on something they learned about Africa or the Bible during the summer.  There were some hilarious skits put on by a bunch of hams.  I don’t really have a particular story to tell here, but these are some good pictures of a lot of the kids together.  Sometimes these kids were a pain in the neck, and without speaking their language it was pretty hard to discipline them or convey an idea to them that they didn’t want to hear in the first place.  Then sometimes they would say or do something, or not do something, that made me see that their lives are being changed for the better.  They are very similar to the kids I used to work with in an after school center back home.  Some are nice all the time, some love sports, some love to read, some are always smiling, some are angry, some don’t get along well with others, and some have a lot of trouble learning.  They are normal kids who have a purpose for their lives and need the same things kids here need.  Many of them have dreams of working in important jobs like we did as kids.  It was amazing to see how much many these kids deal with while maintaining such enthusiasm and positivity; but, it was so sad to think about and actually see the effects of abuse and neglect on some of the children…

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