Students spend break helping Dominican children learn to read

(From left, rear) UB students Amal Ibrahim (purple shirt), Patricia Johnson, Abigail Gaylord and Kiomaris Sandoval help Dominican students during an English day camp held in a Protestant church in Monte Cristi.

Published May 13, 2013

Many college students who head to the Dominican Republic for spring break are looking to spend their time enjoying the sun and sand. But 32 students from UB spent their break on this Caribbean Island teaching English to disadvantaged children.

“Some of the younger students would come to our camp twice in order to learn even more, since they were too young for school.”
John Maher, Student
University at Buffalo

The students, including 14 from the University Honors College, went to the Dominican Republic as part of UB’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program organized by the Center for Student Leadership and Community Engagement. This is the sixth year that the center has coordinated ASB programs, said Terri Budek, community engagement coordinator who organizes the program, and the second ASB program to the Dominican Republic.

UB students this year also spent alternative spring breaks in New Orleans, focusing on the impact that Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill have had in the region, and in Buffalo, volunteering at such local organizations as Big Brothers Big Sisters and Stone’s Buddies.

For the Dominican Republic trip, UB partnered with Outreach360, a volunteer organization that works to improve education—English, literacy and community—in that country and in Nicaragua. Budek said she was looking to work with an international organization that was well-established and supported education, and was referred to Outreach 360 by colleagues in the field.

The students spent their time in Monte Cristi, a province in the northwestern part of the country, near the border with Haiti.

“Our responsibility was to help teach English to boys and girls between the ages of 4 to 11,” said Timothy Matthews, assistant director of the University Honors College, who took part in the trip. “We held a day camp in the morning and afternoon, with stations for students to cycle through for literacy, conversation, recreation, arts and crafts, and vocabulary.”

UB freshman John Maher said the public school system in the Dominican Republic is widely considered to be a failure. “Statistics show that they (students) will most likely drop out and begin working to help their families,” he said.

This is where Outreach360 comes in, helping these students learn English to improve their chances of getting better, higher-paying jobs.

“Locals say that job opportunities are sometimes only posted in English, so that only English readers can apply.” Maher explained.

The day camps organized by Outreach360 are free for all Dominican students, who can attend whenever they are able.

Matthews said he was tremendously affected by how much the Dominican children wanted to learn. “When we were walking up to camp each day, the kids would run up to us, give us hugs and walk us by hand the rest of the way to camp.

“They attended the camp because they wanted to and we made it fun,” he said.

The children’s eagerness to learn changed Maher’s outlook on education in the United States. “In the United States, we all pray for a day off and celebrate when school is cancelled,” he said.

And although attendance never was taken, "we saw a lot of the same kids during the week,” Maher said. “Some of the younger students would come to our camp twice in order to learn even more, since they were too young for school.”

Matthews said he was surprised by the poverty he encountered.

“I wasn’t expecting the neighborhood that we worked in to be as poor as it was—we had cold water showers,” he said. “There was trash in the streets; farm animals (cows, pigs, chickens, goats, dogs) roamed freely.”