By Josette Keelor -- firstname.lastname@example.org
As local 4-H members learned on a recent service trip, life in the Punta Cana-Bavaro, Dominican Republic, is very different from life in Strasburg.
There are the rich, said 15-year-old Rachel Harriman, and there are the extreme poor, but she said, "There's no real sense of community service."
The Virginia 4-H Dominican Republic Program hopes to change all that, one step at a time. With help from Virginia Tech's partnership with the Puntacana Ecological Foundation, the Shenandoah County group was able to travel abroad again this year and team with teenagers from the Caribbean island on a service project.
"They're learning from our teens," said Carol Nansel, extension agent for the Virginia Cooperative Extension in Woodstock, who accompanied the group, along with delegates and chaperones from 4-H groups in Rappahannock, Bath and Allegheny counties.
Since they started the program, did schools in the Dominican Republic start recruiting volunteers, who have made friends with Americans in 4-H, Nansel said. Also, younger children who attend the two-day camp later become teen helpers.
According to Kathryn Flynn, 16, those who have worked with the Americans before are more willing to help.
Kathryn and Rachel, both members of the Lebanon Church 4-H, and fellow Strasburg residents Bethany Gochenour and Dakota Funkhouser, of Seven Bends Shooting Education 4-H, keep in touch with their new South American friends through Facebook, Twitter and Skype.
"I thought it would be difficult to communicate with them," Kathryn said. "They think it's hilarious when you try to speak Spanish to them."
"I had three years of Spanish in high school," but she said she learned more in one week abroad than she did in school.
After their journey last month, Dakota, 15, learned to appreciate what she has.
Rachel agreed: "Especially our water."
Said Kathryn, "Their sanitary system is practically nonexistent." Rest rooms in some places are mere holes in the ground, and waste seeps into the water supply, she said. "Alaska Water does very well in the Dominican Republic."
As a result of her experience, Bethany said she's been considering a teaching career.
"Day camp helped me decide that," said Bethany, 15. "I really like working with little kids."
All of them said they hope to return again next year.
"We got to talk with one of the Peace Corps workers," Kathryn said. "That really opened my eyes to a possibility of that being something that I might want to do," she said. "Something I would look into as a career."
In 2006, Nansel helped organize the international program after a Strasburg High School student asked about community service opportunities in developing Spanish-speaking countries. There weren't any, Nansel said, so she started one.
"I like to travel," Nansel said. "This was right up my alley."
It's unusual for a county to promote international travel, she said, and Virginia is one of only a few states that promote international travel for 4-H members through counties.
"It was a request from the county level to develop this program," Nansel said.
Still, planning a trip and making it happen are two separate things.
With help from the International Rotary Club and a $5,000 grant from the Virginia state 4-H office, the local members raised money by holding a steak dinner, organizing car washes and selling pork barbecue. That in addition to writing letters asking community organizations for donations helped the group raise $5,000, allowing each to attend for only an additional $500 per person.
"It's awesome that the community supports us," Kathryn said. "Not every community could do that, step up to that bar."
Much of the money raised financed the day camp, allowing 19 Dominican Republic campers to participate after their funding from the Punta Cana-Bavaro Rotary and businesses in Punta Cana fell through shortly before the camp would have begun.
"That was an unexpected expense, but we had it when we needed it," Nansel said.
From July 24 to 31, the Americans stayed in a gated ocean-front resort where beaches are owned by businesses and public beaches don't exist. Because children in the day camp otherwise wouldn't have the chance to use the beaches, the 4-H took them swimming, using the resort's amenities through the Puntacana Ecological Foundation.
The resort is cutting edge on biodiversity, Nansel said. Virgina Tech students visiting the Caribbean nation were staying in the nearby dormitory, leaving only the resort available for the 4-H group.
Nansel said she and the group felt safe where they were staying. and while traveling around the area, they were accompanied by Dominican citizens.
"Safety is a really big concern for me, and we have not had a problem," Nansel said.
Said Kathryn, who has visited Israel with her father, "I've been traveling quite a bit, and I feel completely safe there."
During their six-day stay, the group spent their first day team building, the next two days at the day camp, and the fourth day delivering supplies to a school in the village of Macao.
They brought with them 13 suitcases of school supplies, and they also sanded and painted desks at a school that receives no funding because it lacks a solid foundation, bathroom and adequate walls.
Basically it's a lean-to, Nansel said. The walls are aluminum, but they'll need to be concrete to receive accreditation.
"It wouldn't pass any kind of building certification in this country," Kathryn said. Rotary International is raising money to build the new school.
On the fifth day, the group visited the capital city and the sixth day they had free.
Next year they hope to help construct or paint the school, but the first order of business will be building a bathroom, Nansel said.
Each year they return, the children, generally ages 8 to 12, remember them from previous years, said Kathryn, who first became interested after two friends took part in the program.
She and fifth member, 15-year-old Bobby Loveland, a Central High School student and member of the St. Luke Saumsville 4-H, participated last year, and Rachel joined after her sister participated last year.
"I guess just going out of the country sounded fun," said Dakota. "It's way different from how I thought it would be."
Amazingly, though, for all that they don't have, the children in Macao and Punta-Cana are really happy.
"It's really, really nice bonding with the kids down there," said Kathryn, "because even though they don't have a thing ... they enjoy going to school and they really love life."
"It's eye-opening for sure," she said.
The members of the Lebanon Church, St. Luke Saumsville and Seven Bends Shooting Education 4-H groups are available for public speaking. For more information about the 4-H Dominican Republic Program, call 4-H youth development extension agent, Carol Nansel, at 459-6140 or visit the group's blog at http://2012virginia4-hdominicanrepublic.blogspot.com/.