Volunteer Stories

More Than Just a Field Trip in Nicaragua

As a Caminos volunteer this past summer in Nicaragua, I had the privilege of sharing many wonderful experiences with the students in the learning program. We shared a wonderful celebration of International Children’s Day with a party that included “pin the heart on the student” and salsa lessons, we shared the joy and excitement of seeing a helicopter fly over the learning center one day as we were singing songs at recess, and we shared endless amounts of laughter as the students learned what it means to hit turbulence. What ended up being my favorite and most cherished shared experience was the field trip to Managua that we took the children on towards the end of the summer.

These students have been in this learning program for three years, so at this point they know how things work. They know when we will have a celebration instead of class, they somehow always know who the upcoming week’s volunteers will be, and they know that every summer they get to go on a field trip. So, in the weeks leading up to the trip, they were ecstatic. They could barely contain their excitement. They couldn’t stay in their seats or pay attention to the lessons we planned, and all they could talk about was the field trip. Two days before, one of the students said to me, “Teacher Lucy, I know what I am going to wear; my Outreach360 t-shirt, shorts, my tennis shoes, a hat and my sunglasses.”

As an upper middle class American who attended a small charter school from Kindergarten to 8th grade, and was involved in many organizations apart from that, I am a seasoned veteran when it comes to field trips. Having been on countless field trips myself, and having taken the refugee children that I work with in the summer when I am home, I was sure that this one would be just like the rest of them. I was anticipating a quiet bus ride full of sleeping students, and a long day full of standing around listening to people talk while having to make sure bored kids don’t wander off. What I didn’t realize was that this was going to be a field trip unlike any I had experienced before, and one of the most rewarding days of my life.

We arrived at the learning center at 5 am, only to be greeted by the students in their very best attire waiting patiently, but excitedly, to get on the bus that they had been assigned to. The boys were fully equipped with mounds of gel holding their hair in just the right place, and the girls had all sorts of hair bows and clips, some even had their hair straightened. The bus rides did not include sleeping students, but students pretending that the two busses were racing, cheering for the bus drivers by saying “Si se puede!” or “Yes you can!”, and singing silly songs at the top of their lungs. This was all before 8 am.

What followed was a very long, very hot day of making our way around the city of Managua. We stopped at the airport, a retired airplane, walked through a historical plaza, went on a boat ride and finished the day with dinner at McDonald’s. The attitude the students had throughout the day was amazing to me. It was a smoldering day in the middle of July, and we were outside, many of the students were wearing long pants, but not once did I hear any of them complain. They never said a word about how hot they were or how hungry or how tired. They were all so excited and so happy to be there that they were content to just be, no matter the circumstances.

I don’t think I can emphasize enough how long of a day this was. We started it at 5 am and it didn’t end until 9:30 pm. That being said, it was also one of the greatest days I’ve ever lived. Being able to be a part of such an exciting day in the students’ lives and seeing everything we taught them culminate in something as sensational as being able to experience the things they learned about was something I would have never dreamt would happen before this summer.

The students’ excitement and curiosity could be felt by everyone around them throughout the entire day, and honestly throughout the entire summer. The growth that I saw in the students this summer not only in their English skills but also as people was incredibly fulfilling, and the relationships I formed with them, as well as the other volunteers, are so special to me. I know that after this summer, I have a second family in Jinotega that will welcome me back whenever I get the chance to return. And believe me, I will be returning.

As my counterpart Jessica Mathias so eloquently put it, “Jinotega is a home to me now. Come see why.”

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I will choose to look differently at the world today.

The wonderful thing about Outreach360 is that it gives anyone the opportunity to invest in another person’s life.  As a typical American, I came to Nicaragua this summer with a whole bag of assumptions that my role would be a superhero to those less fortunate. Thankfully, I was quickly corrected in my thinking. The magic of Outreach360 is that it equips people to be on an equal playing field. As those that are born into wealth, it is hard to comprehend that others that are not are still as able, happy, and capable. It’s a shame that such an assumption is made without any true knowledge of the vast variety of nations and ethnic groups we have in our one small world.

As a Caminos volunteer this summer, the thing that struck me most was the repetition of this one small assumption that plagues the lives of each visitor that comes to our humble Volunteer House. They marveled each week at the electricity, cleanliness, and general joy that permeates the area. Each week we would grin, nod, and listen to their thoughts and say yes, it’s a great way to broaden your understanding, isn’t it? To me, this was the most crucial thing you could learn from a trip like this. These kids have rescued us from a life of believing that our one small piece of this planet contains all of life’s answers. We teach kids to dream, but they taught me to dream differently.

And so, that is reason enough for anyone to come and try this thing we call ‘stepping out of our comfort zones’. It’s a huge decision to say, I will choose to look differently at the world today. However it is an essential way to becoming a person who can love anyone. That is the beauty behind a wonderful program like Outreach360- besides the fact that it is well run, well done, and so easy to fall in love with. It teaches you what love looks like past your current understanding. I urge anyone that stumbles upon this blog to not hesitate on an experience like this. It doesn’t matter your credentials or your abilities, all you need is a heart and room to let it grow.

Jinotega is a home to me now. Come see why.

Nos vemos pronto,
(See you soon)

Jessica Mathias
Caminos Summer Intern 2015
Nashville, TN

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What does Outreach360 do?

Staten Island Academy student Mina Rhee and JFK School students work on a review lesson at an Outreach360 program in the Dominican Republic. (Clay Wollney)

By Clay Wollney | For the Staten Island Advance
on June 09, 2015 at 2:00 PM, updated June 09, 2015 at 4:32 PM

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Outreach360 is an organization that engages volunteers in a service-learning experience providing underserved children with alternative educational opportunities such as English classes, art, music and drama camps and sports programs in an effort to give the children opportunities they must have to live a life of choice.

The full mission of Outreach360 is to transform individuals, families, communities, countries and the world by providing education and activities that enable the development of disadvantaged children.

The organization has centers in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.

In the Dominican Republic, being able to speak English is necessary to pursue a college education. Unfortunately, English classes are not available to many children.

During the last week of May I accompanied 19 Staten Island Academy seniors on a service-learning trip to the Outreach360 site in Monte Cristi.

The SIA students taught small groups of students at two Outreach360 Learning Centers, one in JFK Elementary School and another after school. The SIA seniors taught English classes, using lessons they prepared themselves.

The interaction between the students was a learning experience for all involved. The JFK students strengthened their English skills and the SIA students got a firsthand sense of the life and needs of underserved children in a developing nation. They also developed a deep sense of love and caring for one another.

Volunteers are what make Outreach360’s programs and successes possible. Each week a new set of volunteers arrives to help at the school, building upon the work accomplished the week before. According to Konrad Bennett, an Outreach360 OLE leader who gave us his full and constant attention, “The JFK students bring incredible energy and enthusiasm to the classroom every day, but don’t often get the individual attention that they crave and need. That’s where are volunteers come in … whereas, in a typical Dominican classroom, the teacher to student ratio is about 1:35, our volunteer teams of fluent English speakers can bring that ratio down to 1:3 or lower!”

Bennett further observed that “The volunteer teams bring the real excitement and creativity. It’s always incredible to see how much our students learn and how much their desire to learn grows each week.”

Does this approach really work?

Said Sarah Edwards, national director of Outreach360 in the Dominican Republic:
“Students who were once illiterate are now reading in English and Spanish. Students who were ‘too cool for school’ became students of the month.”

Of course, the real effectiveness of a program are its outcomes. During our visit we met a few of the program’s graduates who now serve as local volunteers; they have mastered English and are in college.

Daritza is on scholarship with Outreach360 and is studying medicine. She explained, “I started studying English when I was 8 years old and also learned many values — patience, respect, teamwork and punctuality — thanks to Outreach360.”

Aidil, another graduate of the program and a highly dedicated volunteer, just completed her freshman year in university. She observed that “The kids can feel the energy that their Outreach volunteers bring to the class each day. For me, it is incredible to see how the JFK students’ knowledge increases.”

In addition to their work during the day, the SIA students were introduced to various aspects of Dominican history and culture, as well as the country’s  relationship with Haiti, in the late afternoons and evenings. They also took a guided walk of the town, toured a facility that harvests sea salt and learned how to do dance Dominican style. The lunches and dinners were mainly delicious  Dominican dishes.

The impact of the experience on my students was impressive. Their reactions included expressions such as “inspirational”, “a real-life experience” and “energizing.” One student even described it as “the best week of my life.”

As Aidil pointed out, “the volunteers get as much out of the experience as the children they served.”

If your school participates in any service-learning programs or you would like to learn more about Outreach360, please contact me at cwollney@statenislandacademy.org or visit the Outreach360 website at www.Outreach360.org.

Originally published in the Staten Island Advance.

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Bright Shirts, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose

Beth Anderson is a senior majoring in child and adolescent development psychology at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). She is also an alternative break trip coordinator for SNHU’s Center for Community Engaged Learning.  Together with 13 other women from SNHU, Beth recently served with Outreach360 in the Dominican Republic for two weeks.   -Photo by Jaimie Konowitz

It was the first day of camp, and I was shocked at how nervous I was. I had been preparing for this trip longer than the two hours spent lesson planning the night before, so I thought I was ready. But no amount of preparation could get rid of the mariposas in my stomach. What would camp be like? What would the students be like? How is our group going to do? Will they even like us? I had so many lingering questions as I walked the dirt road towards Escuela Básica John F. Kennedy on that first day. We arrived with plenty of time to spare. Station leaders and team leaders split up to get everything ready for the students’ arrival. It was nine o’ clock, the time camp is supposed to start and we had no one at camp; that was also the day we learned what “Dominican time” meant. We kept our hopes high and, sure enough, students started coming at about ten past nine. My nervousness started to fade once the first “repeat-after-me” song began.

After camp songs and opening, everyone went to their spots and my co-team leader, Alli, and I took our group to the recreation station to learn how to play volleyball. We had two girls in our group, and we could tell they were shy. They didn’t know us, and we didn’t know them, and here we all were trying to teach and learn together. And then something happened that changed everything: The girls started laughing and pointing at one of the drawings that the recreation station had made. At first we were all confused, and then I looked at the picture and realized the person in the drawing didn’t have eyes. I began to laugh at the hilarity of it all. It was completely unexpected but completely necessary in that moment. This was not where we thought the lesson was going to go, but it was so funny. Their laughter was contagious. Soon we were all laughing, and the tension all of us had been feeling faded away. In that moment we became the students. Here were these two little girls with five teachers, and they were the ones making us feel comfortable. They felt our nervousness; saw the eagerness in our eyes, and through their laughter they were telling us to relax and have fun with it. They broke down our barriers and allowed us to be just as silly and goofy as they were being. Their laughter was common ground for us; it was something we all understood and could grasp on to.

I realized in that moment that you can plan as much as you want, but the best moments are the unplanned ones. It’s the high fives when a student gets the sentence right. It’s explaining something you don’t even know. It’s singing the same camp song countless times because they love it. It’s them scrunching their nose when they don’t understand but then seeing their big smiles when they do. It’s all of that and more.

Watching the students’ growth in just two weeks was incredible. From mastering everything we gave them to becoming more comfortable with us, I thought the change in them would be subtler, but they proved me wrong. Many days I was even wondering if I was the teacher or the student. They challenged me in more ways than I can count. But what moved me the most about every single one of them was that they wanted to be there. They wanted to learn and interact with us as much as we wanted to learn and interact with them. That eagerness to learn and that desire to grow will last longer than our time in Monte Cristi, and that makes it all worth it.

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A Family of Three

The Monilaws served with us for three weeks in Nicaragua.  This is their story: 

At first I thought, I’d like to volunteer teaching English somewhere.  Get out of the daily grind and experience something completely new!  This idea turned into; how could I bring my family? Which turned into; could we actually all volunteer together somewhere?  After much research I came across outreach360.  One of the few organizations who not only welcomed children but allowed them, encourage them, to participate as volunteers.  This idea, I loved!  As a family of three; Sydney – 11, Stacey – 4, and myself, I thought this could be the perfect fit!

We chose Nicaragua for many reasons, one in particular being Sydney is enrolled in a Spanish immersion program in her school and I wanted her to have the opportunity to use the Spanish language she had learned as well as experience one of the cultures/ countries she had been studying.  Stacey and I were happy to get away from the cold Canadian winter to just about anywhere!  So, Nicaragua it was!

When planning this trip, traveling with 2 children brought many questions and logistical planning.  Would we actually be able to teach?  Would we have culture shock?  What if we didn’t like the food?  What kind of precautions should we take? So after everyone had vaccinations, packed medicines for every possible ailment, a month worth of snacks, and Spanish vocabulary was practiced, we arrived at Outreach360 only to realize all the worrying was for nothing.  We felt nothing but comfortable and welcomed (not to mention excited) the moment we stepped off the plane!  Outreach360 staff really made us feel at home.

Outreach360 has 10 principles to keep in mind when volunteering with them.  One being “Its not about you”.  I adopted this principle when we first arrived and really focused on the mission of Outreach360; to help children who may not otherwise have the opportunity to reach their full potential.  The Learning Center was amazing and the kids who are in this program are so eager to learn.  They are smart kids and I felt so fortunate to have the chance to work with them for 3 whole weeks.

One of my favorite moments was teaching the kids at the Learning Centre hockey!  We thought bringing Canada’s national sport to the kids of Jinotega would be a great experience and something new for them to try.  We packed 8 hockey sticks with us and it took less than 30 seconds for the kids to catch on to the idea of the game.  The laughter that ensued was contagious as they ran back and forth across the backyard, sticks in hand!  We all enjoyed teaching them and are so glad we can leave a small part of something we love as a family, with them.

It turned out Outreach360 was the perfect match for our family.  I could go on and on about the amazing staff, fantastic volunteers, and of course the inspiring students.  I will definitely leave with more than I expected to and our experience in Jinotega is one all three of is will not soon forget.      -Katie

“Outreach360 has been one of the best experiences for us.  It makes it clearer, after being in Jinotega for 3 weeks, that the work being done by volunteers and staff is benefiting the kids.  The kids are open to any recreational activity; we brought hockey sticks from home and they loved playing hockey!  I also met some pretty amazing volunteers and even though it’s about the kids, meeting volunteers who are also so open and friendly really MAKES this experience.  The kids are all so unique and having met them I can see what individuals they really are.  (I won’t spoil the experience for you with too much detail, you’ll have to come see for yourself!)”  -Sydney, 11

“My favorite part was camp because I was making so many new friends!  I’m so happy because I got to bring my hockey stick and play hockey with the kids.”   -Stacey, 4

 

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