In Cabarete, Dominican Republic, you will find no shortage of tourists, shops with all sorts of knick-knacks, and high-end resorts and condos. At a quick glance, you’d think this tourist attraction is doing just fine. But, take a closer look and travel down a tucked away alley that leads to the small village of Barrio Blanco.
I had the pleasure of visiting this small village of just 600 people during a service trip this past summer. Upon arrival, my group was partnered with nonprofit The Dream Project, which specializes in developing educational programs in various communities throughout the Dominican Republic. While there, we spent the majority of our time serving Barrio Blanco and learning about The Dream Project.
Up until this fall, the Dominican Republic only provided half day school for its residents. You can imagine the sorts of problems that can occur with a weak educational system. To help remedy these issues, a group of Dartmouth students formed The Dream Project and began working with locals to build after-school centers, mobile libraries and computer labs throughout communities.
What’s great about The Dream Project is that instead of going into these areas with preconceived solutions, they partner with members of the communities they serve to better understand their challenges and values. The community is involved with everything from problem solving to building the infrastructure and even staffing the schools. By doing so, they not only provide jobs, but they then develop sustainable programs that have the community’s buy-in. For example, The Dream Project has been in Barrio Blanco for the last 5 years. In that short time, the organization has built a small educational community center with its residents. Local community members staff the center and work with area kids to extend their learnings in after school programs and summer day camps.
While my group was in Barrio Blanco, we helped assist the summer day camp teachers in the education center. As soon as we arrived, the local teachers and students were welcoming of us. Most of us traveling spoke Spanish and jumped right into helping teachers with their lesson plans. For those of us who didn’t speak Spanish we still found a special way to communicate with the students.
In addition to assisting with the day camp, we broke out into separate groups and helped with a beautification initiative. Barrio Blanco doesn’t have any kind of trash pickup, so litter in the area has become a problem. In an effort to encourage community members to take better care of the area, The Dream Project organized a cleanup and invited a local artist to paint a mural along the alley way leading into the community. Since my Spanish vocabulary consists of no more than “gracias” and “hola,” I stuck to the beautification project.
Before we started the mural, we walked throughout the community cleaning up the area. Along the way, we made two young friends who insisted upon helping us. The kids, who were no older than 4, each grabbed an oversized pair of latex gloves and enthusiastically began picking up garbage. This seemed to be the theme of our stay. No matter what we were working on, local kids would populate out of the woodwork and cheerfully try to assist us on whatever we were doing.
After we were done with the cleanup, our new friends followed us to the alleyway where we were scheduled to start painting the mural. The local artist had sketched out a few basic drawings representing The Dream Project’s educational and community based mission, such as a bookshelf, extracurricular activities, school children and families. With a few hand gestures and points to his sketches, he instructed me on how to get started. As I got to work, an audience of local children formed around me. Since my artistic ability is less than elementary to say the least, I started handing out paint brushes and invited the kids to help us with the mural. Some were actually pretty talented, while others may have given the local artist a bit more work. But, all in all, it was great to see the children organically appear and join in.
In just 3 short days, we were able to nearly complete the mural, and on our last day, the men of community joined us and worked at improving the area’s landscaping. We worked side by side in helping pull weeds and of course taking breaks every once in a while to play with the kids, who by day 3 had become staples at our work station.
We may have been there for a short time, but seeing everyone work together and take such pride in their area was a special thing. We all felt as though we had become a small part of the community. One of the students, who will be graduating this coming year, wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted to study in college. She told me that she had been thinking about studying health care, but hadn’t yet decided. Towards the end of the trip, during one of our nightly reflections she told the group that not only was she feeling more inspired to study health care, but she now wanted to one day return to the village and help improve their health care system.
When I now think of the Dominican Republic, I don’t think of the land of all-inclusive resorts. Instead I think of its vibrant culture, the friendly people I met and their love for life.
Liz is a Marketing Manager for Service Learning and Language Immersion at EF Educational Tours. Liz got a taste for travel at a young age when visiting her parent’s home country, Portugal. In the past 5 years, she has focused on trying to make headway on her lifelong goal of visiting every state. So far she’s at 17. She still has a lot of work to do…
SERVICE LEARNING TOURS
On a Service Learning Tour, you and your students work side-by-side with locals on community-driven projects in Africa, Asia or the Americas. EF Partners with established non-profits and NGOs—such as the Mariposa Foundation and Free The Children—to make sure your contributions are both meaningful and sustainable. Through hands-on work and deep exposure to the local culture, students learn vital collaboration and problem solving skills. They return inspired to make a difference at home, too.