Spring Break: Reaching Out to Those in Need - Spring 2001 Ivy Leaf Magazine

Ivy Leaf - Spring 2001

Spring Break: Reaching Out to Those in Need

While many Penn State students were busy making plans to hit the beach or travel with friends during the College's spring break this past March, a group of Penn State Altoona students used the week to help children in need in the Dominican Republic.

Twenty students and two faculty chaperones spent a week at the Hope of the Child Orphanage in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic. During their stay, they helped to improve the grounds of the orphanage every morning by clearing weeds, trash, and rocks from a large area designated for picnic tables and fruit trees. They also helped in the construction of a 12-foot wall around the perimeter of the property. Working with the 20 children at the orphanage in the afternoons, they tutored then in the areas of reading, math, and English. Fun was also a priority with recreational activities such as face painting, drawing and other art projects, and small theater productions, including adaptations of Curious George and The Three Little Pigs.

"This is the first year that Penn State Altoona has organized a trip such as this, and we hope to make it an annual event," said Lee Ann De Reus, assistant professor of human development and family studies and women's studies, and one of the faculty members who visited the orphanage and helped organize the trip. "When I mentioned the trip to students in my classes, I had 20 students volunteer to go in no time. They were so excited about the opportunity."

Freshman Rebecca Moore, who initiated this trip, was especially excited about the project because she's been involved with similar service projects in the past and was looking forward to working with children in another country.

"I was really interested in not only learning about the lifestyle in the Dominican Republic, but actually making an impact upon the lives of the children at the orphanage," Moore said. "We took them toys and clothing and other things they don't have access to, but most of all, I enjoyed broadening their education and their life while I was there."

Before the students embarked on their mission, each of them received their itinerary, information about the mission of Orphanage Outreach, and a short biography of each child at the orphanage. The children ranged in age from 4-year old Swedie to 22-year old Pablo. And despite the variances in age, the students discovered an incredible bond that existed among the children at the orphanage.

"I was amazed by the unconditional love and happiness they showed toward each other," said Michelle Langenbacher, a junior majoring in human development and family studies. "These children had nothing and were deprived of many physical items, but they were so caring, loving, and well-behaved toward one another."

From the time the students got off the bus after their two-and-a-half hour ride from the airport to the orphanage, they were completely submerged in the Dominican culture.

"We were thrown right into it and had to learn what was going on right away," said Darla Bardine, a junior criminal justice major. "But the people were so helpful, open, and friendly. They were not fake in any way." Townspeople were especially warm to the students, with shouts of "hola, hola, hola" whenever the students walked into town in the evenings.

While the accommodations were very primitive – the ramadas, or sleeping areas, had 20 rusted bunks in them with a roof, a floor and sides made out of fencing and tarps, and the electricity kept going out – the students said they had a blast on the trip.

"The mission project was one of the most fulfilling, rewarding, and depressing vacations of my lifetime," said Philip Buterbaugh, a freshman elementary education major. "And it was only depressing because I had to leave." He said he was especially impressed by the fact that none of the children at the orphanage were spoiled.

"They didn't have much, but they were all very grateful for what they did have."

The mission of the orphanage is 'to make each child feel special and to teach them some basic skills to improve their educational level,' and the students sought out to fulfill that mission while they were there.

"The children taught us more than we could ever teach them," said Karen Shuma, a sophomore education major. "They taught us that you can communicate with just touch, and that you can be happy with nothing. You feel guilty when you come home from a trip such as this and see what all you have and realize how little they have, but they are still very happy."

Kathy Regester, a freshman kinesiology major, said she helped the children feel special through the relationships she was able to build with them while she were there.

"Because of the language difference, I don't think I said more than five words to them while I was there, but the love of the children and the relationships we built with them was just incredible."

Orphanage Outreach Project is a non-profit organization founded in 1995 and based in Scottsdale, Arizona, with work currently focused on providing opportunities for orphaned and abandoned children. More than 500 volunteers have participated in work missions since the organization was founded.