For most students, Spring Break often means a week or two’s respite from setting the alarm clock and a needed break from study and academic testing. For some lucky students, Spring Break may even include a getaway trip, perhaps to some far-off sunny shore.
This year’s Spring Break included all of these elements – and then some – for Clarke County High School International Baccalaureate (IB) students Breanna Leach, Monica Wisecarver, Jacob Rogers, Nicole Skipper, Sarah Alger, and Maeve Jones thanks to a “volunteer vacation” scheme launched by Maeve and her father, Dr. Matthew Page Jones.
Last year, Maeve said, she and her father decided to try a volunteer vacation after urging from Maeve’s mother, Diane Sheehey.
“Basically my mother got tired of taking us on family vacations to Disney World every year,” Jones laughed. “She said that it was time for us to do something different where we could give back to our community. That’s how my dad and I found Outreach 360.”
Outreach360 is a not-for-profit originally incorporated in 1995 as Orphanage Outreach to assist an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. As the Orphanage Outreach volunteer program grew, more and more volunteer effort was expended on disadvantaged neighboring communities. The focus was on education—English, literacy, and community health. Orphanage Outreach transformed into Outreach360 in 2011.
So in 2011, Maeve and several of her family members joined a team of Outreach360 volunteers and spent their Spring Break teaching English to children in Monte Cristi, a town of about 25,000 inhabitants on the northwest coast of the Dominican Republic, not far from the border of Haiti.
Jones, who is enrolled in Clarke County High School’s IB program, was so moved by her Outreach 360 experience that she organized a trip back to Monte Cristi over the 2012 Spring break. Only this time, Jones encouraged five of her fellow CCHS IB peers to come along. Not only would the trip offer a chance for adventure, Jones reasoned, it would also provide an interesting way to fulfill the program’s “creativity, action, and service” requirement, part of IB’s mandatory counterbalance to academic studies.
“We went back to the small town of Monte Cristi,” Jones told the Clarke County School Board. “The people there are much less privileged than we are, they don’t even have a school system. We spent the week working one-on-one with kids from the town.”
“I had the time of my life!” Jones said. “It was really an eye-opening experience.”
Even though Outreach360 provided the structure for the CCHS IB students to visit a local community in need of help, volunteer Breanna Leach said that it was up to the students to find the people who needed help. Together, Leach and the others walked the streets of a Monte Cristi neighborhood, known locally as a “barrio,” calling for students to attend the day camp that the CCHS students had planned.
“We walked from house to house trying to attract attention,” Leach said. “The neighborhood kids were really excited about the camp and followed us down the street to our a little church where we had set up the camp.”
Volunteer Monica Wisecarver ran the camp’s “English station” where students learned vocabulary and conversational techniques.
“We sang songs together in English and Spanish and got to know each other through music,” Wisecarver said. “I tried to stick to basics like colors, numbers, and manners.”
Wisecarver and the others incorporated educational concepts and lessons into games in order to maintain a playful “camp” feeling for the children.
“I placed a row of colors on the wall and then called a color in English,” Wisecarver said. “The kids then raced across the room to see who could tag the correct color first.”
According to the Outreach 360 website, the Dominican Republic’s education system is the worst in the Americas, especially in rural towns like Monte Cristi. Children in the poorest neighborhoods, like those where the CCHS students established their day camp, have the least opportunity making it nearly impossible for local children to break the cycle of poverty without additional educational opportunities.
The CCHS students and their Monte Cristi charges had little trouble bridging the communication barrier.
“I’ve never seen a group of kids get so excited about attending a day camp for three hours a day,” said Maeve Jones. “The kids were so excited and happy about the things that we brought along like glitter and markers. It taught all of us about how much we really have in the United States and really changed how I see my life and school. The trip has made me think about possible careers that I might want to pursue in the future to help people.”
Breanna Leach said that she had similar feelings.
“Lots of these kids there never get to go to school,” Leach remarked. “Our day camp school was like a dream vacation for them. They loved being there and just being able to learn.”
While Outreach 360 lets poor children learn with the help of students from more prosperous parts of the world, the learning process clearly has benefits for the student teachers as well.
“The IB program’s creativity, action, and service requirement encourages us to delve into these kinds of global issues. It is really interesting to learn about the problems that people face in the Third World,” said Breanna Leach.
“In some ways kids there are happier than most kids that I know here,” added Nicole Skipper.
Sarah Alger agreed.
“Kids in the Third World know how to create happiness out of nothing,” Alger said. “I would encourage any Clarke County student to go to a place like Monte Cristi and see how other people live.”