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Students Find Hope Teaching English in the Dominican Republic

Published: August 20, 2007
By Robin Roger

Sophomore Ashleigh Caldwell from the Isle of Man took hundreds of photos in one week to capture the beauty of the Dominican Republic, but the most beautiful thing she saw was the warmth and gratitude of the people she helped.

“Until you’re there, you can’t understand how welcoming the people are,” she said. “And the kids have nothing, so if you give them a pencil they thank you so much.”

Caldwell visited the Dominican Republic with a group of 10 students from People Exploring Active Community Experience, or PEACE, a student service organization. There the students volunteered teaching English at Orphanage Outreach, an educational foundation partnered with an orphanage in Monte Cristi.

Orphanage Outreach funds the education of the children at the orphanage and provides scholarships for students who get accepted at universities. The organization recently purchased a two-room school house and converted it into an English institute. Any child living in the city can attend the school, as long as he scores high enough on an entrance exam and demonstrates a commitment to learning the language.

The volunteers from PEACE visited the classrooms and presented their own 45-minute lessons to teach the students English words. When teaching vegetables, for instance, they had the children draw pictures of their favorite fruits and then taught them the English words for them.

Because tourism is such a big industry in the Dominican Republic, the organization determined that the more English the children knew, the better prepared they would be to support their families in the developing economy. Also, children who want to attend college need to know English. While rich parents can afford English classes or private tutors, orphans are at a disadvantage.

“There’s a huge dichotomy,” said Casey Stevens, assistant director of civic engagement and adviser to PEACE. “There are people who can pay to learn English, while others wear the same shirt everyday.”

When PEACE visited, 38 children, ages 1 to 18 lived at the orphanage. One child, a 2-year-old, was the son of a fisherman whose wife had left them. Half of the boys were from another orphanage, a couple of hours away.

The children all live in one building, with a boy’s and a girl’s bunk. There is a kitchen and bathrooms with running water, but volunteers were asked not to flush the toilets often. When they took showers, they would turn on the water just long enough to get wet, then soaped up, and rinsed off.

The children shared clothing and went to communal shoe racks to pick out a pair in their size.

The volunteers slept in a 2x4-foot structure with a metal roof and metal fencing for walls. They slept in eight bunk beds, and each volunteer received a sheet, a towel, a pillow and mosquito netting. Nobody complained about the conditions, though, Stevens said.

But the students were shocked to see the world from such a different perspective, she said. They truly learned the difference between wants and needs, and realized how much we have in the United States, she added.

“It’s not about what else can we get, or producing as much as possible,” she said. “It’s about what do we need to feed ourselves.”

The volunteers also learned about the Dominican Republic’s history, from Spanish colonialism to today. The native Taíno people were almost completely exterminated, and remnants of racism remain.

“It’s not just doing and not learning,” she said. “This helped them put it into the context of the city and the country we were in.”When not teaching or learning, the volunteers sorted donations. Each volunteer had brought two large pieces of luggage filled with donations, including clothes, shoes, school supplies and toiletries that PEACE had collected in a clothing drive.

In the downtime, they played with the children. They played basketball and the kids played keep away with the volunteer’s shoes.

“There were bugs constantly eating at us, but that’s part of the adventure,” said Vanessa Panaligan who graduated from UT this spring. “If you’re into the mission, you overlook the discomfort.”

Panaligan said the poverty was prevalent everywhere, even in the city of Santiago. Most recently from the Philippines, she said she had traveled to developing countries before, but she has never worked with closely with the people.

The government and world affairs major said her most memorable moment was walking down the street and hearing the children calling out her name.

“I would highly recommend international travel and programs like this, because adventures create personal development, and help you learn your strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes.”

PEACE will hold its annual Into the Streets event on Saturday, Aug. 25. More than 250 students will volunteer at agencies across Tampa Bay, including the Lowry Park Zoo, Hope Children’s Home, Seniors in Service and Hudson Manor.