After spending a week with school children in Rio Grande, a small and impoverished village in the Dominican Republic, Broadwater Elementary School Principal Sue Sweeney is sharing the experience with her own students.
Sweeney took the trip in January after being selected at random by Lifetouch Memory Mission, a photography company that partners with education associations for principals, superintendents and school board members to coordinate volunteer efforts around the world. Sweeney, who has been hoping to go for years, was one of 45 volunteers from around the country who went to Rio Grande to continue building educational facilities for about 50 families.
“The most touching thing is we probably learned more than the kids did,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney worked side by side with Dominican workers and navigated a language barrier with lots of body language and a few translators. The workers had limited equipment to use and volunteers were without a cement mixer for part of the week. Sweeney mixed concrete with a shovel, carried wheelbarrows and helped build four walls of what will soon be a cafeteria. A group from New York is going this summer to complete a basketball court.
While children wait for their school and cafeteria to be completed, they have a two-room schoolhouse that isn’t big enough for everyone to go to school. Once it’s completed, it will also serve as a safe place during severe storms since most homes are built out of wood and lack sturdiness.
Sweeney said that at first, it was easy to feel bad for people living in Rio Grande.
“‘But one Dominican said to us ‘We don’t think about what we don’t have. We think about what we do have,’” she said.
Sweeney is trying to share that experience with her students at Broadwater, who may come from varying backgrounds, but can be distracted by material things.
“We have so much given to us. It’s hard to understand,” she said.
She said it also reinforced the importance of being exposed to a global education and access to learning a second language.
Sweeney said her students have been part of the experience from the start. The student council donated $100 toward the $30,000 the volunteer group had to raise in material costs. Some students brought baseball caps since Sweeney said baseball is a favorite sport in the Dominican Republic.
“It was pretty incredible,” Sweeney said.