Monday, June 9, 2014

REAL School students give back on inspiring trip to Dominican Republic - By Elizabeth Richards

In mid-March a group of seven students and four staff from the REAL School took a life changing trip to the Dominican Republic. The trip was the culmination of months of service learning, planning and fundraising, and taught the students inspiring life lessons that no textbook could teach.
Staff members Marie Reidman, Max Brandstadt, Paul Field and Page Nichols traveled with students Brian Parent, Jamee Fillmore, Ernie L'Orange, Jurnee Larson, Emily Denbow, Aiden Conway-Stuart, and Julia Kaserman. The REAL School has been taking students to the Dominican Republic for five years, said Reidman, but never on such a large scale. Previously, they have traveled with the non-profit organization Seeds of Independence, with one staff member taking one or two students. This year, a whole class made the trip.

One of the major tasks for the group was to install water filters in homes on the bateyes, which are villages in the middle of sugar cane fields where Haitian refugees work and live. Field said these refugees are recruited at the border of Haiti, and often have very little opportunity to ever leave the batey. When they aren’t working the fields, they build up debt to the company, which keeps them there, essentially as indentured servants. 

The workers are paid very little, have no medical care and their education, if they get one, stops at seventh grade, said Reidman. Often, education and medical care are not accessible due to transportation issues.

In addition to installing water filters, the students set up a medical clinic for a day, and distributed educational supplies. Reidman said they were also able to provide a scholarship for a young woman finishing her last year of school. 

Brandstadt, an Americorp member working at the REAL School, said that organizing and raising money for the trip seemed like an impossible task at times.“It took a lot of effort and an incredible amount of perseverance on the part of staff members,” he said. The students raised $15,000 through various efforts that included a letter writing campaign, a walk, a flatbread pizza fundraiser, private donations, and a video appeal to local water companies asking for help. The Falmouth and Sebago Lake Rotary clubs also gave donations for the trip after seeing Brandstadt and students present to the clubs. 

Reidman said that the service learning that is part of every REAL School day was dedicated to preparing for the trip this year. Students learned about the Dominican Republic, the people on the bateys, what their needs were, and how the group might be able to fill those needs, in addition to planning and carrying out fundraising efforts.

Because staff had been to the Dominican Republic previously, they could prepare the students for what they would encounter. Students spent months learning about the history of both the Dominican Republic and Haiti, why Haitians are in the Dominican, the racism that exists and the history behind that racism.
The trip really opened up the eyes of the students, said Brandstadt. Some of the students come from very difficult, impoverished situations and have never met anyone with more difficult life circumstances than they have, he said. This trip allowed the students to see that they have more opportunities than they realized. “Even though some of our students have tough lives, I think that this trip really helped expand their horizons and realize that they aren’t as tough as they thought they were,” said Brandstadt. 

Reidman added, “On the other side of that a lot of our kids don’t look at themselves in a really positive light. It was a way for them to be on the giving side of aid, and they felt so good about that. It made them see themselves in a different way.” Reidman hopes the trip will have a long term impact on the students. “It opened up their world to what they might be able to do in the future,” she said.

The work was hard, but the kids rose to the challenge. One of the interpreters commented that their group worked harder than any group they had seen, aside from themselves, Reidman said. “They were really proud of that,” she said. “They were proud of how much they could give to someone else.” The group installed 30 water filters in homes while they were there, 20 of them in one day.

The trip touched students in ways they’d never experienced before, offering valuable lessons on compassion, gratitude and accomplishment. “Compassion blossomed in the students,” said Brandstadt. He illustrated this with a story about a severely disabled man they encountered on the betay. Placed in a broken down wheelchair, the man was left to sit under a palm tree in the heat all day, without much interaction. On their second visit to the batey, one of the students approached the man and talked with him, then gave the man his hat. “He was just overjoyed to receive this hat and get some attention from someone,” said Brandstadt. The man’s happiness touched the student so much that he was filled with emotion and began to cry. Brandstadt said the incident brought about a huge and important shift in the student’s concept of what being a good person means, as well as what it means to be a man. In a reflection, the student wrote, “I have a bigger heart than I thought. Real men cry!” 

When they left, many students left their shoes behind. “They felt like they had so much…too much. They were moved by that,” Reidman said. Reflection statements written by the students showed just how much students learned about themselves on this trip, with comments like “Happiness can be so simple,” “I learned to think of others before myself,” “I understand better what true need looks like,” and “I have so much compared to the people in the bateyes.”

Jamee Fillmore, a junior, said that the trip opened her eyes up about a lot of things, and inspired her to continue doing this kind of work. It was hard, she said, to be in an entirely new culture. “It was crazy to see how everything was so different from our part of the world,” she said. Another struggle was working out the dynamics with the other students she was rooming with, but she said they worked through it and all had a really good time together. When asked what she learned most from the trip, Fillmore said, “I learned that I take everything for granted – like clean water, and hot showers.” Seeing people who had so little made a big impact on her. She also said she learned a lot about herself. “It made me feel really good about myself, knowing that I helped someone,” she said.

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