Hiram College

Humanitarian Trip Makes Difference in Dominican Republic, Teaches Life Lessons

>> For more on the trip, please visit http://walkingwithcaminante.wordpress.com/, a website created by Cristina Marques to share the impact of the trip. The site contains student blog posts and photos.

A group of Hiram students, faculty and staff left for the Dominican Republic early this summer with selfless missions: They wanted to teach, give and make a difference.

Now a month after their return, it’s not just the humanitarian projects they worked on that stand out in their minds. It’s the relationships they built and the lessons they learned that made the trip truly memorable.

“A lot of times when you go on a trip like this, people think you’re giving so much,” said Cristina Marques, research teaching professional in the biology department, a staff member who supervised the trip. “But really it’s a win-win. Sometimes I feel like you get back so much more than you could ever give.”

The 16-day trip, from May 16-June 2, was the first for this particular study abroad program at Hiram, and was originally born out of the desire to help Haitians affected by the earthquake in early 2010. After discussion among faculty members, they decided to partner with an organization called Caminante in Boca Chica, a municipality of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

“It turned out, we really did see the face of (the earthquake’s destruction) quite a bit in the Dominican Republic, because a lot of the children we were helping were Haitian children who had migrated because of the earthquake,” said Rodney Hessinger, associate dean and professor of history, who also went on the trip.

The trip was structured around three different service projects:

  • Nursing students, along with Associate Professor of Nursing Steve Merrill, conducted health assessments and distributed first aid and hygiene kits to children.
  • Students from various science disciplines, along with Marques and Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jody Modarelli, taught science lessons to supplement school work for the children.
  • Economics students, with Bill Filner, economics instructor and co-director of Hiram’s entrepreneurship program, taught lessons in building savings and sustainable resources for families in the area.

“We taught them small things about science – the human body, bugs – but they taught us so much more,” Szanto said.  “We’re so grateful now for everything we have after seeing this immense amount of poverty. They were always happy, and it’s a huge contrast form being here. Some of these kids share better than people my age. We were surprised and overwhelmed.”Rebecca Szanto ’12, a psychology major, worked on the science project during the trip, and said as she taught children about science, she learned important life lessons from them.

She said she knew little Spanish before going on the trip, but still formed a strong bond with the children she worked with.

“We were still somehow able to communicate with these kids through smiling, touch and things of that nature,” Szanto said. “They love to be hugged and kissed, and they love to play. It was a very emotional experience.”

The Hiram group formed a particularly strong bond with a group of “street boys,” most of who were of Haitian descent. In the Dominican Republic, Haitians often face discrimination, and because of this, many of these boys did not have birth certificates. Most were not enrolled in the public school system.

Caminante works with these boys throughout the week, teaching them skilled trades like making coconut jewelry.  The staff then sells their crafts at events and a storefront in the town, returning the profits to the boys. Because these boys would otherwise be on the street, the organization tries to provide as many opportunities as possible to teach the value of them making money off a skilled trade.

“We grew very close to these boys, and wanted them to be children and play for just one day,” said Amelia Shrader ’12, who worked on the nursing project. They did this by playing them in a game of baseball – which the young boys won – and then taking them to the beach.

It was a tough day when Hiram students found out a few of the “street boys” had been arrested simply for having coloring books they had given them. The police assumed the boys had stolen them, deeming them “too poor” to own coloring books. Staff members of Caminante were able to explain the situation to police, and the boys were released.

“This both broke my heart and infuriated me at the same time,” Shrader, a nursing major, said. “It broke my heart that a little eight-year- old boy was told he was ‘too poor’ to own a coloring book, but I was infuriated that I couldn’t do more to help these children.”

Even though many students felt a yearning to do more personally for the children, they agreed the difference they were able to make was tremendous. Hessinger said partnering with an organization like Caminante ensured the group could make the best use of their time and resources, and he envisions Hiram having a longstanding relationship with the organization.

“Caminante has a holistic view of the problems down there,” Hessinger said. “For us, the critical thing was finding a good partner.”

The following is a snapshot of the three service projects Hiram students, faculty and staff worked on:

The Science Education Team
In the Dominican Republic, the school day is only four hours long; some students go to classes in the morning and others go in the afternoon.

“So the children either have the entire morning or afternoon off,” said Marques, who worked with the science education team. “It becomes a problem when they have all this downtime. They’re not getting a full school day. And they have all this free time to be on the street, and they’re largely unsupervised because their parents work the full day.”

This problem led Caminante to create “homework rooms,” which allow students to gain additional hours of instruction each day. Because the public schools barely scratch the surface of what young students need to learn, the homework rooms focus heavily on reading and writing. Hiram students gave these children their first science lessons in the homework rooms.

Students prepared these lessons through courses during the Spring 2011 semester. Lacey Zerner ’13, a biomedical humanities major, said they wrote out and presented the lesson in Spanish, but translators helped as well. They also tried to work in songs and other engaging activities to pique the children’s interest.

“It was really challenging, coming up with the lessons plans,” Zerner said. “Every single lesson had activities to keep the kids engaged and wanting to learn more. When we go there, we had to make a lot of changes due to class sizes.”

The group was expecting to teach about 50 children over the course of three weeks, but that number ended up being close to 300. Students who normally attended the homework rooms brought their brothers, sisters and friends, so they could learn, too.

Many times when children grow up in poverty, their dreams are stifled, Marques said, but that wasn’t the case for the Dominican children.

“We asked, and they said, ‘I want to be a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher,’” Marques said. “…I hope more than anything that we added just a little more fuel to their fire so they can dream.”

The Nursing Team
Caminante also works with a group of children in “youth groups,” with a focus on personal development. Five nursing seniors performed examinations on these children, and along with that, offered them health education materials.  Like the science education group, word spread fast, and the group assessed more than 200 children.

Steve Merrill, associate professor of nursing, said most health issues they observed centered on lack of access to basic health resources.

“Based on informal analysis, the primary problems were poor nutrition (compounded in some cases by unclean drinking water), lack of dental care, no vaccinations and general lack of access to primary health care,” he said.

Amelia Mount ’12 said the physicals they conducted were designed with these factors in mind. They brainstormed ideas during the spring semester, drawing from the clinical experiences they’ve had so far, keeping in mind health disparities and the young age of the children.

“A lot of the children were street kids,” she said. “We wanted to focus on their nutrition habits and also their skin. We did a lot of checks on their feet; they’re walking without shoes and stepping in all sorts of things.”

But no matter how much they prepared, it was still very difficult when the group encountered instances of abuse.

Merrill said no children had injuries requiring treatment, but they reported the situation in a similar manner as they would in the U.S. With the help of a translator, they passed the information on to the appropriate staff at Caminante.

“I can’t say that I was surprised by anything we had found in our health assessments but I was surprised at the reality that we were surrounded with,” Shrader said. “As health professionals you live in the moment and do whatever you can to help. You act professional and put your own emotions on hold while you care for the patient at hand.”

The Microfinance Team
While the other two projects focused heavily on children, the microfinance project focused on the women of the community.

When the students prepared for the trip, they intended to teach the women lessons on how to start a business. But when they got there, Caminante’s microfinance director suggested they teach the women about savings.

“They had no concept of it,” said Lauren Jasko ’13, a neuroscience major. “If they save money now, they’ll have back-up money when they need it.”

With a quick change of plans, the group put together PowerPoint presentations and a skit to demonstrate the idea of savings to the women. The skit centered around someone working as a tailor, who put 10 percent of her earnings from every customer away, and built up a larger amount of money over time.

“I think the idea got through,” Jasko said. “They enjoyed it and learned a lot.”

The students working on the microfinance project were also exposed to the reality that children must grow up fast in the Dominican Republic. They often make significant contributions to their parents’ incomes by learning trades of their own.

Jasko said it was hard to see, but the reality is, that a child working is often better than the alternative.

“That’s what’s better for them – it’s better than them being on the streets,” she said. “Children in America are really privileged.”