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Student trip to Dominican Republic raises awareness, gratitude for other cultures

The students immersed themselves in Dominican life, each taking on a different role.

Great Barrington — Sixteen local students traveled to the Dominican Republic over February break with an unusual aim that precluded basking on the beach with throngs of spring-breakers; the group, from Monument Mountain Regional High School, took part in a service-learning trip of their own design to benefit Centro Para La Educación Domínica and Centro de Desarrollo y Crecimiento Integral Domínica in La Urena, Santo Domingo. “We went to Domínica’s school and orphanage,” was the short story I heard about on Thursday afternoon, from a handful of eager participants who stayed after school to share what they learned on their journey, which, as evidenced by the longer story, had both residual and reciprocal benefits for the American students who set out to be of service to others.

Group photo of student volunteers (in no particular order): Andrew Weston, Cecilia Redpath, Dahn Yook, Edgard Alfaro, Emma McTigue, Jake Lyons, Lucas Kisiel, Mei Small, Mira Webber, Noah Kisiel, Ruth Arroyo, Ryan Schaeffer, Sage Macken, Sophia Tenuta, Stephanie Celis and Zachariah Annand. Photo courtesy Lucas Kisiel

“A real service trip, through Monument, that is not off my shoulders [but shared] with the school,” is how Lucas Kisiel sees the endeavor, one that began four years ago when he was a freshman at St. Joseph High School in Pittsfield. The opportunity, initially brought to students by Kisiel and his father, Dr. Stephen Kisiel, has evolved over the years since Lucas transferred to MMRHS in 10th grade. This year marked the “first official trip,” signed off on by Principal Kristi Farina. “She has done amazing things for the children who come through the program,” Kisiel said of Domínica Rosario, who started the orphanage and school with her brother and has been running it ever since. “They are brought from having nothing to having a chance and an opportunity,” Kisiel added. He and his brother, Noah, met Rosario’s brother at a resort in the DR while on a family trip. “We wanted to find somewhere in the [island] community where we could give back,” he explained of the genesis of this relationship with Rosario.

Over the course of a week in February, students spent time immersed in various projects with the 510 students in preschool through grade 12 — the majority of whom are orphans — enrolled at Domínica’s school, considered one of the best in the province. Students broke into groups, each with a different objective: One focused on teaching lessons in math and science; another did construction projects around the school; one group did arts and crafts. Despite the differing tasks, the group remained tethered with a central goal: “We were there to do what Domínica needed us to do,” said senior Andrew Weston. “When the plan changed, we changed with it,” he added, citing the importance of remaining fluid. This led to an ongoing joke among the American students who learned to operate on Dominican time, specifically Domínica’s time, which, as evidenced by the ebullience of those gathered, was nothing short of a tremendous compliment to “the boss.”

“It was quite an amazing experience where I learned so much about the world in general [including] different cultures, and how I could be better as a person,” said sophomore Dahn Yook. “The trip overall made me realize [and appreciate] how much we have here,” said sophomore Mira Webber. “The kids there appreciate anything and everything that they have [and the] gratitude they have gave me a better understanding of how lucky I am,” she added. Emma McTigue concurred, “A lot of time here we think happiness is dependent on certain stuff,” the senior explained. “[In the Dominican Republic] they are happy regardless of what they have and if everything is good. That really impacted me.” Senior Sophia Tenuta cut straight to the chase, calling the experience, “a whole different world, definitely a culture shock.”

Monument Mountain Regional High School repairing and painting benches for students to sit on during lunch. Photo courtesy Lucas Kisiel

The students immersed themselves in Dominican life, each taking on a different role. Weston, who was part of the teaching group, enjoyed conversing with and explaining to students in Spanish. Ryan Schaeffer, also part of the teaching group, placed emphasis on projects and hands-on learning — an approach he found both “valuable and enjoyable.” The senior, who participated in the trip last year as well, was particularly struck by the strength of the school: “[It was] able to give the students a footing … [one rooted in] community, teachers, older students as role models,” all of which converged to emphasize the importance of mentors in cultivating leadership, both of which are “ingrained in their school.”

“Incredibly, amazingly, we were able to pull it off,” said Lucas Kisiel of the group’s ambitious fundraising goal of $10,000. Efforts included customary booths outside the Co-op, Guido’s and the bagel shop; there were also a handful of successful food projects. Ruth Arroyo and her family helped raise more than $500 preparing Ecuadorian food; Sophia Tenuta spearheaded the mass making of empanadas that group members delivered locally; Stephanie’s tacos were also a success, as was the pizza fundraiser at the Holiday Stroll. “It was a lot of fun,” said Lucas of the collective effort required before the trip even began.

Trip volunteers with the senior class at Dominica’s school. Photo courtesy Lucas Kisiel

Students paid for their own flights, and the funds raised were put toward their accommodation at the orphanage. “We make sure we are not being a hardship on them,” explained Lucas Kisiel, citing the usual costs associated with increased consumption of food, water and electricity (all while keeping in mind that the lights and water don’t always work). “[The goal is to] only leave positivity behind.” Additional funds went toward supplies — wood for construction of benches and cubbies, paint for murals — with the remainder donated to put one of the seniors through college. The figure — inclusive of tuition, books and transportation — hovers around $1,000 annually, and they have set up a GoFundMe page for others interested in contributing to their efforts.

“It is important, when volunteering, [to remember] you are there to do what they need,” Schaeffer said. “We’re not there to push our own agenda,” Lucas Kisiel added. When Domínica decided to cancel the cabinets and make bulletin boards instead, the students were open to being guided through change and changing expectations. “It’s something that we all need to work on, and [Domínica school] was a very good place to work on it,” said Kisiel. Sophomore Noah Kisiel echoed his older brother’s sentiment: “The flexibility and knowing to go with the flow [coupled with remembering that] what you want isn’t always best for everyone,” was instrumental in getting a sense of how others live, citing nothing but bucket showers last year due to a broken water pump. “Our dependence on things changes a lot when you go to a place where you can’t be dependent,” he added.

This connection between the Berkshires and Domínica’s school will remain in tact for the foreseeable future. Noah Kisiel plans to “keep the same energy that Lucas has created for us” and continue the trip next year. In addition to those non-seniors who participated in February’s trip, there is a groundswell of interest at MMRHS. More than 50 students applied for the 16 slots, and Mr. Annand (who, along with his wife, served as chaperones), “is already recruiting for next year.” And Dr. Kisiel — who, for the past four years, has brought teams of doctors not only to teach third world medicine, but also to give check-ups to the children — remains committed to the cause.

This year marks the first in a decade that Domínica has had a 12th grade. In a school where “they all wear the same uniform [and] you can’t tell who pays tuition [or] who comes from a foster family” according to Webber, the seniors stand out: In order to get them ready for the real world, Domínica has them dress in formal clothes rather than don a uniform. “She paves a path for them to follow, to continue their education,” Tenuta said. “She treasures them,” Schaeffer added. “So they don’t go down the other path,” said Ruth Arroyo, in a nod to the prevalence of teen pregnancy and drug abuse in the historically impoverished nation where keeping students motivated to stay in school remains a challenge. The young people from MMRHS have adopted a saying they learned at Domínica’s school: “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” The words, attributed to Aesop, are far-reaching. And perhaps, for the moment, they are giving an underserved albeit incredibly worthy population a chance at life.

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