Each year since 2012, VT Engage has traveled with students to the Hato Mayor region of the Dominican Republic to spend a week learning from and serving with the local nonprofit Community Service Alliance (CSA). Some students go back, year after year, to see the progress of the projects in the small community of El Cerrito and to reconnect with the people they met on previous trips.
Brooke Souders of Winchester, Virginia, a senior majoring in human development in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, is planning her third trip for winter break. "I am excited to see how this year's group is able to build relationships with one another and with the community members of El Cerrito," Souders said. "My favorite part every year is being able to watch the participants experience the welcoming culture while taking steps outside of their comfort zone to not only learn about the Dominican Republic, but to also learn about themselves."
In January, Souders will co-lead the trip for the second time, along with first-time leader Abby England of Arlington, Virginia, a member of VT Engage's SERVE Living Learning Community. England is a sophomore majoring in geography in the College of Natural Resources and Environment with minors in food security and health as well as urban affairs and planning. Both students are part of STEP UP, VT Engage's student leadership team, a group of 48 students who attend weekly trainings focused on leading service trips, developing reflection skills, and exploring issues affecting the world.
With each VT Engage service trip, both domestic and international, faculty and staff from the center work closely with students to ensure they are engaging in service projects that are based on community-identified need.
"Despite good intentions, service projects too often leave out the community voice. Our goal with each of our service trips is to engage in responsible, thoughtful service," said Tricia Smith, interim director of VT Engage. "We don't want these trips to become ‘voluntourism’ experiences in which our students are a burden on the community they are trying to serve."
CSA was founded in 2004 by Rigil Ballester, a native of the Dominican Republic, and Elizabeth Conkin, a long-time resident of the country. The organization empowers local communities with the resources and know-how to realize positive change. Initiatives include projects related to health, education, and income generation.
VT Engage's work with CSA is an intentional partnership in which students and community members serve alongside one another. "The Community Service Alliance is excellent at listening to what the community needs and providing help when asked," England said. "CSA also has the volunteers working eith the people we are serving, which allows us to learn from and get to know the members of the community."
Projects vary from year to year, based on what community members in El Cerrito want and need. Students have engaged in projects ranging from preparing an athletics field for youth baseball and softball teams to installing water filters in single-family homes to building gardens and outdoor bathrooms.
This year's trip, January 4-12, 2018, is open to undergraduate and graduate students of any major or year. Applications are due Oct. 1. A limited number of need-based financial awards are available and all applicants will be considered. Students interested in learning more are invited to an information session on Sept. 18 from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the Newman Library Multipurpose Room.
Faculty and staff members interested in joining the trip can apply for VT Engage's Learning Partners program. Learning Partners are faculty or staff members who join VT Engage service immersion trips to offer their perspective and experience on the social issues addressed by the trips, contribute their unique skills, support the trip's student leaders, and learn alongside students.
Hurricane Irma caused significant coastal damage to the Dominican Republic, but staff members from the Community Service Alliance report that their base of operations was mostly unaffected. A photo album and videos from the 2017 trip are posted on the VT Engage Facebook page.
Written by Lindsey Gleason.