A group of Saugatuck students are hoping that one project will have a big impact for many families in the Dominican Republic.
A few dozen people came to the Saugatuck Center of the Arts on March 22 to hear the Saugatuck High Schools Interact Club’s plans to construct a school expansion in the Dominican Republic.
“We as a club can’t take on the vast issue of global poverty,” said senior Lena Burdick, secretary of the Interact Club. “But we can have a noticeable target of impact on the area we’re familiar with, by focusing on one school.”
The Saugatuck High School Interact Club focuses on giving back through local community projects and one international project. About 30 students, 10 percent of Saugatuck High School’s student body, are in Interact Club.
The club’s local projects have included painting and setting out trash cans on Oval Beach and other parts of Saugatuck and Douglas, reading to migrant children at a migrant camp in West Olive, planting and tending trees on Mount Baldhead and picking apples for food pantry Christian Neighbors.
Since June 2012, their international project has been annual trips to the Dominican Republic, installing water filters and building latrines, usually in the bateys. Bateys are communities that house people who work on sugar plantations, a large and profitable industry for the Dominican Republic. About $94 million dollars of sugar is imported into the United States annually.
However, those profits don’t trickle down to the field workers. Club members said the workers make an average of $8 a day, often working 12-hour shifts with no breaks. Many of them are undocumented immigrants from Haiti, who are lured by recruiters known as buscones with promises of a better life in the Dominican Republic.
The club visited Batey 106 during their February 2014 trip and stopped by the Batey 106 school, which has only one room. Because of that, approximately 50 students can only attend the school part-time, and only through fourth grade. Currently, students who want to continue their education beyond fourth grade have to travel by bus to another school, and most families can’t afford the bus fare.
It was then the club decided they wanted to build another room onto the Batey 106 school.
“Education is the most effective tool to escape the cycle of poverty in the bateys,” said club member Georgia Richardson-Smaller. “It links to increase in survival, decrease in malnutrition, increase in income and increase in growth for developing economics.”
During the club’s trip this Feburary, the club members did research and talked to locals to make sure they were making the right choice and giving the community something they actually wanted and needed.
The response was overwhelmingly positive, with people saying that being a high school graduate means more job options. Without the diploma, working in the sugar fields is only option. Currently, about 80 percent of kids in bateys don’t graduate from high school.
“With education, they become professionals that benefit society,” said Batey 106 teacher Maribel in a video message made by the Interact Club. “They should know there is another way of life. Education is key. Without education, you have nothing.”
The club plans to build another room on the school, doubling student access to full-time study and providing additional shelter for families during tropical storms and hurricanes. La Romana, a service organization the club works with in the Dominican, has confirmed that they will be able to hire a second teacher with the school expansion.
The construction would be overseen by another service organization the group works with, and Dominicans would be hired to do the work.
In order to raise money for the school, the club has opened a crowdfunding campaign at youcaring.com/saugatuckinteract. The club is asking for donations of $10, enough to cover the cost of one of 1,600 concrete blocks needed for construction. However, more than $10 is welcome. Total construction cost is estimated at about $25,000.
“If we raise more, we don’t want to just build one school room,” said club vice-president Joseph Cappelletti. “They want to continue to build. If we raise more than $25,000, that will go into future plans, like funding travelers for the annual trip or a fund for students to ride the bus to high school.”
Club president Rudy Joon said they are also planning on doing a few other presentations at churches and Douglas Elementary School to raise awareness about the project.
“We’ve had a large donation from student council from our school’s Snowcoming Dance, and we’ve had a few private donations,” she said. “We’re basically starting campaigning now.”
Helping the club doesn’t just help the Dominican students, but Saugatuck students as well. Teacher and Interact Club supervisor Mike Shaw said project-based learning like this helps students develop important “habits of mind” like engagement, responsibility, persistence, openeness and curiousity.
“Our students develop not only a deeper perspective of the world we inhabit, but also compassion for others and gratitude for the multitude of blessings we have here in America,” Shaw said.
Both Joon and Cappelletti agree, saying they plan on continuing in philanthropic work after high school.
“Being a part of this has matured as a young man, and helped me figure out what I want to do with my life,” Cappelletti said. “I think everyone in the Interact club has had similar experiences.”
For more information about the Interact Club and their work, visit saugatuckinteract.weebly.com
— Follow this reporter on Twitter @SentinelErin.