Learning and making connections through a Virginia Tech service project in the Dominican Republic
A group of 19 Virginia Tech students and two professors recently traveled to the Dominican Republic for a service-learning project that not only opened eyes and built connections but inspired plans for a return trip this summer.
“I loved it,” says Diamond Lee of Virginia Beach, a sophomore biochemistry major. “Actually going to live in a developing country for nine days was the most eye-opening experience I’ve ever had.”
The group, led by Pamplin College of Business professors Reed Kennedy and Lance Matheson, traveled to Puerto Plata to work with Haitian immigrants. Conditions in the batey, the area near the city where the immigrants live, were spartan, Kennedy says.
“They live in makeshift houses made out of scrap wood,” Kennedy says. “There’s no running water, no sewer. Women go out into the woods to go to the bathroom.”
The group worked with Project Esperanza, a nonprofit service organization started as a student group by alumna Caitlin McHale in 2005. McHale graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies: Leadership and Social Change.
In 2006, Project Esperanza brought 31 volunteers to the Puerto Plata. One of their projects was a street census of the young boys living on the streets. They found that most had come from Haiti and could not attend schools in the Dominican Republic because of citizenship issues, language barriers, and other cultural issues.
“The Haitians who come to the Dominican Republic to work on sugar cane plantations are considered second-class citizens,” Kennedy says. Project Esperanza has been working to provide housing and education for these children. “Caitlin just has a heart of gold. She is the Mother Teresa of Puerto Plata.”
Kennedy had been looking for less expensive service programs for Pamplin to offer. “I thought if we found something close, maybe we could do it over spring break,” he says. “Caitlin thought it would work. I thought it would work. And it did.”
Several of the students are making plans to return to help out more in the summer, Kennedy says, and he hopes to repeat the trip next year.
The goal of the trip was to help several Haitian immigrants working as entrepreneurs in the batey and the nearby city. The students weren’t all from Pamplin, says Matheson. “We had a full range of students from the sciences, liberal arts, business, and engineering,” he says. “They were interested in going and helping out. This was not a traditional study-abroad trip.”
Project Esperanza runs a shop that allows local artisans to sell their goods. Some students worked to improve the facility, giving it a fresh coat of paint and trying to make it more enticing for tourists.
Others worked with food vendors. “They got one of these women to change the items she was offering,” Matheson says. “She was selling breakfast items at lunchtime. They convinced her to offer more traditional lunch items, and greatly increased her sales.”
“We definitely learned about business,” says Madison Batts of Leesburg, Virginia, a freshman who is pursuing a double major in management and hospitality and tourism management. “And we learned a lot about poverty. You have to have money to grow a business. The business owners just don’t have money to be spending.”
The empanadas vendor was borrowing money weekly to keep her business afloat. “We tried to figure out what we could do to help her borrow less, to get her on her feet to do it herself rather than relying on a loan,” says Lee. “We’re editing a business plan for her right now to finalize and send back to her.”
Students made deep connections with the people they met, says Simone Race of Ashburn, Virginia, a freshman who is an undecided business major. “We learned all about their lives, the way that they live,” she says. “We really experienced what it was like to live in another country. It was a big culture shock.”
That exposure is an important part of the value of these kinds of trips, Kennedy said. “They aren’t just seeing it from a bus,” he says. “They’re feeling how the other 70 percent of the world lives. They got to see, smell, and taste it. The impact of that is something they’ll carry with them for a long time.”
Lee said the residents’ poverty did not weigh them down. “I was struck by how happy the people were,” she says. “Here, we tend to equate happiness with wealth, money, and the items we own. But so many people there were happy and smiling, all the time. They were making the most of every day.”