An emphasis on relationship building while volunteering and helping, made a trip to the Dominican Republic more meaningful for Sylvan Lake teacher Amy Bouwman.
She was chosen as one of three Canadians to participate in a Lifetouch Memory Mission to Constanza, a small, mountainous farming community, from Jan. 21-28.
Lifetouch, the leading provider of school and family photography, organized the trip and invited school administrators, principals, educators and PTA members throughout North America to work alongside their volunteers and Dominican nationals to build a vocational school.
In 2011 and 2012 volunteers built an elementary school which now serves hundreds of children who otherwise would not have had a chance to receive an education.
“We didn’t just go to build and leave, we were working alongside of them,” said Bouwman. “They were extremely appreciative of us, grateful for us to come there. They really enjoyed our company and the relationship building aspect too.”
The main purpose of the week-long trip was to work on the vocational school and build relationships with the people. But it also involved an orientation of life in the area and the desperate poverty of some.
While the group of about 50 volunteers accomplished more towards the school’s construction than anticipated, “we didn’t end up finishing,” said Bouwman. “We wanted the Dominican people to finish. We were involved alongside the Dominicans, we were the workers and they were foremen, we were told what to do.”
Despite her limited understanding of Spanish, the language barrier wasn’t difficult to overcome. “It was a neat experience having made relationships without language conversations.” Bouwman worked together with a man named Randy and communicated “all through gestures”. They laid cinder block walls, mixed cement, laid rebar, trowelled and painted.
“You can still build relationships even with a language barrier. That’s something I will take into classrooms for future years,” she said.
“It was very nice to work and meet with them. They (the Dominicans) are happy, gracious, hospitable, they love to spend time with us. The translators helped as well.”
While they were building the vocational school, when recess came at the existing school, they took a break and played with the youngsters.
One day they took pictures of the students. The pictures were then printed in the United States and flown back to the group which delivered them to the students a few days later.
While some had had their pictures taken before, Bouwman said it was interesting to see their expressions and excitement. “They absolutely loved having their pictures taken.”
Early in their trip, the group went on community walks, into people’s houses and to the dump where people live. “That was to cement how important school is for kids to give them a future.” Students as young as 13 will go to the vocational school and learn things like welding, machining and cooking to give them a foundation for a career.
Bouwman said she “gained so much from it, as well as personally, and what I could bring to my career. I have an appreciation for what we have here. This made it even more pronounced. It deepened my appreciation.”
She had a difficult time coming home. “I knew I would be affected. I talk a lot to my students about how blessed we are in how we live. It was difficult to see some of the living conditions. I definitely would like to do more to help more in this kind of area.”
During ‘reflections’ every night, members of the group talked about their experiences. “I knew it would have an affect being there. We hear about poverty, have seen it in other countries, maybe not to this magnitude,” said Bouwman. “It has life changing effects on a person.”
“We went and built relationships, met the kids, had an inside look on how they live, that further impacted the whole emphasis.”
Constanza is “not a touristy area”, she said. A community of about 90,000 people, they don’t have school buses. Students walk 2-3 km. to get to school. The school is very much needed. Bouwman added students go for free and the teachers work there as volunteers. She described the area as agricultural, looking similar to the Kelowna area of B.C. She compared the weather to a very nice sunny day here, hot during the day and cooling down at night.
“There were a lot of emotional moments for the whole group, she said. One lady they visited was “so happy with so little. It puts things into perspective”.
In another case, she remembers the smiles of a group of kids who played with a few marbles. They were just thrilled.”
Prior to going to the Dominican, École Steffie Woima School students and staff raised $1,112.95 for Bouwman to use towards the project. The money was raised as students paid $2 for a piece of duct tape and taped her to the wall.
Bouwman thanked the school, administration and division “for being so supportive of my going on the trip”. Also Lifetouch Photography for the opportunity.
“It was life changing with long-term personal and professional effects,” she concluded. “I thought of my students constantly while on the trip and felt gratitude for their education.
“We were shown areas of town and homes of some of the children to give some perspective on why the building of the vocational school is so important. The families and community were so grateful for the school and for their children having the opportunity to attend. It gave them hope for a positive future where they could learn career skills and preparation.”
To learn more about Lifetouch Memory Mission, check www.lifetouchmemorymission.com.