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Student generosity helps Dominican children realize their dreams.
Of all the memories and experiences that Ohio Northern University students Alexandra Shiavone, Lauren Anderson, Kalie Gargano and Emily Park brought home with them from their mission trip to the Dominican Republic, it’s what they left behind that they think about most often.
Well, maybe not what they left, but whom.
Brayan Beriguete is precocious, soccer-loving 10-year-old from San Juan de la Maguana. He is a fifth-grader at the Lucille Rupp School, where he studies a range of subjects in modern facility with multiple classrooms, new desks and a computer lab. At recess, he plays with friends on a real basketball court. He is fed nutritious meals and drinks clean water because the school has its own water purification system. And he does all of this because of four ONU students that wanted to help.
These young women didn’t go to the Dominican to sponsor a child. They weren’t looking for a cause. In fact, they each had their own motivations for going on the Northern Without Borders trip this past July. Anderson wanted to serve again, having previously traveled to El Salvador for a mission trip while in high school. Schiavone, a pharmacy major, and Gargano, pre-med, both saw the medical mission trip as an opportunity to gain real-world experience in health care. Park wanted to experience a different culture and share an adventure with her friends. They expected once-in-a-lifetime. They didn’t expect life-changing.
Northern Without Borders has operated health clinics in the
Dominican Republic since 2010.
“I didn’t know what to expect, honestly,” says Gargano. “I thought it would be good for me to get to work with the doctors down there and to see the different types of diseases they deal with. And it definitely was. It was eye-opening. I’d like to go on another mission trip after I’m through with medical school because it was just so amazing.”
Over the past few years, ONU has formed a relationship with Solid Rock International to facilitate interdisciplinary aid trips to the Dominican Republic. Northern Without Borders, a student organization (modeled after Doctors Without Borders) that includes pharmacy, nursing, medical laboratory science and biology/premed majors, runs health clinics each summer. Dr. Christine North, associate professor of communication arts, takes her extra-disciplinary seminar class over Thanksgiving break to do aid work. The engineering student group Northern Engineers Without Boundaries travels each May to help with civil engineering projects and lead engineering education workshops for Dominican teachers.
“When doing international aid, it is vital that you establish a local connection with a community so that you can cultivate a long-term relationship. That is what Solid Rock does for Ohio Northern,” says North.
Solid Rock is heavily involved with a variety of projects in the Dominican Republic, including clean-water initiatives, child nutrition, health clinics, ministry work and education programs. It operates five schools in the county and runs a student-sponsorship program to lift children out of poverty and give them a chance for a better life.
Sponsors pay $26 a month to send a child to a Solid Rock school. As part of their experience in the Dominican, Anderson, Schiavone, Gargano and Park were told about the student sponsorship program and given a tour of a Solid Rock school to see for themselves where the money is spent.
“We also had the chance to see what the typical public schools were like because we held our clinics in them. They were usually just two rooms and very basic. Compared to the Solid Rock schools, there was a huge difference,” says Anderson.
“It was really kind of sad,” added Schiavone. “Especially when you realize that most of the kids in the Dominican Republic probably attend schools like that.”
As the week progressed and the students worked longer and longer hours in health clinics in various villages, the hundreds of children they met kept them from feeling too tired or overwhelmed by the tremendous need. When their bus would arrive in a new village, the children would be the first to greet them with big smiles and shouts of “Americanos!” When they would walk through the village, they would feel a child slip his or her hand into theirs and hold tight. At night, the four friends would talk about how much they wished they could help all the children.
From left: Emily Park, Kalie Gargano, Brayan, Alexandra
Schiavone, Lauren Anderson and Brayan's father.
“Every single day you would fall in love with those kids, and you wanted to do everything you could to help them,” says Gargano. “We’d give them little gifts like stickers or candy, and they were so appreciative of even the tiniest gesture. I’d run out of things to give them, and I’d feel so bad.”
One night, their conversation turned to the topic of student sponsorship. Together they decided that if they couldn’t help all the children in small ways, maybe they could help one child in a very big way. That child turned out to be Brayan.
Solid Rock arranged for them to meet Brayan and his father on their last night in San Juan de la Managua. They had been told not too expect too much from the child. Often the children are very shy in these private meetings with what essentially amounts to strangers from a foreign country. To make matters worse, all the communication is through a translator, making the meeting seem all the more formal.
Brayan was anything but shy. As one of seven children, he must have learned early on how to get attention. He showed up to the meeting wearing his finest clothes — his school uniform — and had even put on cologne. But of everything he was wearing, nothing could top the huge smile he wore on his face.
“When we met Brayan, it just clicked right away. We formed this relationship with him that I never thought that we would have with someone down there. It’s just so cool to know that we’re helping such an amazing little boy,” says Gargano.
The translator had a hard time keeping up with Brayan as he answered questions and told his new friends about his life. They learned that he loves to play sports and that his hobby is memorizing Bible verses. He told them about his family and what he liked to learn in school. When they asked if he knew any English, Brayan proudly counted to 10.
Brayan’s father could speak some English, but he mostly just said two words over and over: thank you.
“It was amazing to me how grateful his dad was. He couldn’t say thank you enough,” says Schiavone. “It’s like he really wanted us to understand how much this meant for his family.”
Brayan isn’t the only student to benefit from ONU student generosity. Over the years, other students have sponsored Dominican children as well. On the same trip this summer, Stacy Henthorne, a fifth-year pharmacy major, sponsored 3-year-old Aileen Del Pilar Ramirez Matos so she could attend preschool at Lucille Rupp.
Stacy Henthorne is sending 3-year-old Aileen to preschool this year.
Henthorne grew up in a family where sponsoring children from less fortunate parts of the world was just something you did.
“I've always wanted to sponsor a child. I've seen the joy it has brought to my parents over the years. I know how important an education is and what a difference it can make in a child's life,” she says.
Henthorne’s parents had sponsored children from afar, never having the opportunity to meet them or see where they live. Unfortunately, due to extenuating circumstances, Henthorne didn’t get to meet Aileen on her trip. She hopes to return to San Juan de la Managua as a pharmacist in the coming years, and she will try to meet her then. But still, Henthorne believes that being there and seeing the community in which Aileen lives and the school she attends made her gesture feel all the more special. Whereas she knew she was helping provide an education, she learned that she was also providing Aileen with a better life.
“The fact that the schools run by Solid Rock have safe drinking water is amazing! Clean water is the basis of life, and she can’t even get that at home,” says Henthorne. “There is no safe drinking water anywhere in the Dominican Republic. It's so humbling to know that I could make such a profound difference in Aileen's life.”
All the students agree that their money is well spent helping Brayan and Aileen. They are amazed at how far $26 a month can go and honestly couldn’t think of anything they’d rather spend it on.
“We would probably be wasting that money on something we don’t really need,” says Park.
Instead of wasting their money, these students are putting it to very good use. They know that Brayan and Aileen are benefitting from it. They know that there are now two more children in world with access to quality education. In short, they know that they are changing lives, and not just those in the Dominican Republic.