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)
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 our 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 is 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Outreach360 website at www.Outreach360.org.
Originally published in the Staten Island Advance.