For one week last month, Princeton High School Assistant Principal Lori Rotz, along with 25 other school administrators from around the country, constructed a four-classroom addition to a school in Constanza, a farming community in the Dominican Republic.
While Constanza’s mountain views are very beautiful, its people live in grinding poverty, and this is what drew Ms. Rotz to volunteer for the project.
“I couldn’t not do it,” she said in a recent interview. After learning about the initiative, which is sponsored by the school photography company, Lifetouch, Ms. Rotz, who paid her own way, reported that “the part that jumped out at me was how our kids are so giving here. It was a chance for me to give back with other educators.” It was indeed a “chance,” since participants were chosen through a lottery held several months before the actual trip. The four extra classrooms means that 200 more children will be able to attend the school in morning and afternoon sessions.
Participating in the new construction (there was “a lot of lifting”) was only a piece of the experience for the assistant principal and her colleagues. Local workers helped with the project, teaching the volunteers how to work with cement and stucco obtained from area businesses. While the school administrators had been taught about cultural differences and “what not to do” in preparation for the program “after a day or two you couldn’t tell who was who,” said Ms. Rotz. Relationship-building extended to friendships that developed among the volunteers, who are now talking about a possible reunion.
The presence of children was a particular boon, Ms. Rotz reported, with little kids’ hugs for the volunteers on the very first day. Lifetouch’s practice of taking photographs of children at project sites and giving them copies to keep and exchange with their friends added to local families’ pleasure in seeing the volunteers; most of the children had never had their pictures taken before. Ms. Rotz also appreciated the organizers’ careful divying up of supplies contributed by the volunteers, to make sure the crayons, backpacks, clothing, etc. were given to those who specifically needed them. The quantity of supplies each member of the group brought with them “took your breath away,” she observed.
Ms. Rotz was saddened by the poor conditions in which the people in Constanza live, describing “shacks a quarter the size of my office” housing at least seven or eight people. Perhaps even more striking to her, though, was the fact that the shacks were decorated with Christmas lights, and people were happily celebrating the season. Ms. Rotz sounded apologetic as she described the relatively upscale rooms, showers, and food the volunteers enjoyed.
“It does change you,” she observed. “I’m grateful for what I have in my life, but saddened at what others don’t have.” She is already thinking about a return trip to Constanza, where the next stages of the project will include building vocational and playground facilities at the school.
A live video feed, now available on YouTube, enabled special education teacher Joyce Turner and her class to follow Ms. Rotz’s experiences in Constanza while she was there.
For more information about Lifetouch visit www.lifetouchmemorymission.com.