Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
June 25, 2001
Alberta students' lives changed by 6 months in the Dominican Republic
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
SHERWOOD PARK — The Dominican Republic is a country beset by poverty and injustice but filled with deeply religious people who love life and live it to the fullest.
That's how a group of Sherwood Park students describe the Caribbean nation after spending several months doing voluntary work there.
Students Jessica Kornder, Michelle Snider and Mycki Shulba, all graduates of Archbishop Jordan High School, said the experience changed them in ways they never imagined.
"We all pretty much went there with this really idealist point of view that we would change everything but we (ended up) being changed ourselves," said Kornder, 18.
"It was a life-altering experience," said Snider, 19, adding that despite their poverty Dominicans are a happy and generous bunch.
"The whole experience opened my eyes more and made me realize how much I do have here and how much I take for granted," added Shulba, 18.
Terry-Lynn Duffy, a student from Grande Prairie, also went to the Dominican Republic with the Sherwood Park trio.
Kornder, Snider and Shulba, who graduated from Archbishop Jordan last year, decided to taste life in the Third World after they heard the experiences of other students who had made the trip. They approached the co-chancellor of the Edmonton Archdiocese, Margot Bilodeau, who arranged the trip through the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
They were sent to Miches, a city of 10,000 people located four hours northeast of the capital city of Santo Domingo. Kornder left in September and stayed for six months, followed by Snider, who stayed for five months. Shulba and her mother Rose Shulba stayed for three months. Most of them returned in March.
In Miches, the trio spent their days painting the parish' chapels and assisting teachers at Padre Daniel elementary Catholic school. During their stay, the students painted the bishop's residence, where they stayed, and 10 chapels throughout the large parish. Rose Shulba, Mycki's mother, helped set up the baptismal records and the Internet for Padre René, the parish pastor.
The girls, who had to learn Spanish in a hurry, also joined a youth prayer group and taught catechism to children aged four to 10 on Sundays. They described young people who attend church as "incredibly devoted." In the Dominican Republic, about 92 per cent of the population is Catholic.
Classes at the Padre Daniel School have an average of 50 students, which means classrooms are crowded and students don't get much individual attention. Snider would come to the school every afternoon to teach the children arts and crafts.
Kornder worked with special needs students, helping them to sharpen their math and alphabetical skills. In the process, she learned that for many Dominican children school is not a priority.
"Some days all 50 (students in the class) would show up," she said. "Some days only 20 would show up." While some simply didn't like to go, others had to stay home helping their parents. A few students would come to class without paper or pencil to work with so they would simply sit and watch.
Thanks to her experience, Kornder now wants to become a primary school teacher.
Shulba wants to become a psychologist or an addictions counsellor to help kids who have been affected by drug and alcohol use, like the ones she saw in the Dominican Republic. Young people who use alcohol and drugs in Miches do not receive any counselling, she said, but are pushed aside as crazy.
The vast majority of Dominicans are descendants of African slaves brought to the country in 1503. The island's indigenous inhabitants, the Arawak Indians and a small settlement of Caribs, died off by the 1550.
Poverty is widespread in the Dominican Republic and unemployment is a serious problem. In Miches it is common to find the beautiful houses of the rich standing next to the broken-down shacks of the poor.
"There are thousands living in rustic shacks that you couldn't in justice describe as houses," Kornder said. "They lack water and access to health services."
"At first, the poverty really struck all of us," noted Kornder. "Then we learned how to deal with it and areas that seemed poor to other people seemed like normal for us after living there so long."
Dominicans survive their poverty simply because they help each other, the Sherwood Park trio said.
"People know they are poor but they don't complain, they work hard and everyone helps everyone else," noted Shulba. "When people smile it's not a fake smile. They are genuinely happy."
Dominicans are also generous and open with foreigners. When the girls were painting a chapel, people from the surrounding area would bring them lunch or juice everyday. Many would share their life stories with the girls. Curious little kids would come and help them paint.
In the evenings, parishioners invited them to their homes. On many occasions they were honoured guests at parties and dances, becoming experts at dancing Salsa, Merenge and Bachata.
"It was just so much fun," quipped Snider. "The people have little but they are so generous."
When time allowed, the girls enjoyed the area's "gorgeous" and "untainted" beaches or visited museums and historical sites to learn about the country's culture. "They have an amazing culture," Snider said.
Now the trio is preparing to share their experience with their former classmates at Archbishop Jordan High and to start a fundraising drive to add two new classrooms to the crowded Dominican school where they served.
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