Volunteers bring hope, help and aquaponics to the Dominican Republic

Dominican community leaders and representatives from Schools for Sustainability Inc. discuss clean water. Schools for Sustainability.

I'm the chief executive officer of Schools for Sustainability Inc. (S4S), but I don't make an executive salary - I do not draw any salary from S4S.

In fact, I work part time (25 hours a week) for Congressman Brendan Boyle as a constituent service representative. In this role, I help constituents with Social Security, Medicare and IRS cases, and with city and state issues.

So why in the world would I work full time for free?

My answer: I want little brown and black girls to know that they can achieve anything they set their mind to.

In the Dominican Republic, S4S (www.sustainability.org) is working with the Ministry of Education to bring sustainable technology and knowledge to communities. We empower communities by teaching high-school-level students how to purify water, grow organic food, manage waste, and produce renewable energy. Our goals are to alleviate poverty, mitigate climate change, improve public health, and reform education.

At S4S, we believe that we cannot address poverty without also addressing climate change, because those in low socio-economic status, like farmers and farmhands, cannot uplift themselves from poverty in the middle of a drought. The issues we address are all linked, and S4S is a holistic solution that addresses the root causes, as opposed to just addressing the symptoms.

S4S's goal is global. But we needed to start somewhere. We started in the Dominican Republic because we have social capital there. The former president of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernandez, and his political adviser Cesar Fernandez donated 22 acres of land to S4S.

In March 2015, S4S collaborated with Arcadia University volunteers to conduct a community survey and to build an aquaponic unit to produce fish and vegetables without waste products. We spoke with over 40 families about their needs and learned that access to clean water, education, medical care, and jobs were their greatest struggles.

Our community - in Sabana Larga, Monte Plata - informed us that clean water should be the first priority, so S4S collaborated with 33 Buckets (33buckets.org) and local leaders Altagracia, Rosa, and Juan Alberto to establish a sustainable, locally managed project to purify water for about 5,000 community members and to create jobs.

This system was built in June on our latest trip. Our innovative distribution model will provide affordable drinking water, support the school, and ensure that the water project is maintained for years to come.

We encourage volunteers to join our trips. Our first service-learning trip included about 20 Arcadia University volunteers who built an aquaponic system in March 2015. Our second was in November with Women International Leaders; we are working with WIL to develop relationships with local female entrepreneurs.

While in our community, I was approached by Giselle, a little Haitian-Dominican girl who was surprised to discover that I was the boss in charge of the 30-plus volunteers. We were serving her community by building an aquaponics system that would feed about 20 families, in a sustainable way, with fish for protein and with leafy greens to increase iron intake. The system is also more cost-effective than giving out iron supplements and protein powder to this community that suffers from a protein and iron deficiency.

"But you look like me," she said. She looked at me with her bright, deep-brown eyes and her coffee complexion, and I recognized the look of hope in her eyes. I crouched down and took her hand and told her, "You can be whatever want to be. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. And if they do, you bring them to me."

I consider myself a part of the community I serve as I am so embedded in their lives. The physical impact that S4S made in this community was the aquaponics system. But the true impact that I will never forget is the look on Giselle's face when she realized that neither her gender nor the color of her skin could limit her.

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ABOUT S4S TRIPS

Most service-learning trips are seven days, but may vary based on customers' needs and the type of project.

Cost: $899 per person for a seven-day trip if there are 20 or more volunteers. More participants bring down individual costs. The price includes orientation, daily tour guides, housing at the Hotel Toro in Monte Plata, three meals a day, daily transportation, airport pickup and dropoff, daily security, a sightseeing day, and daily programming.

Not covered: Airfare, $10 visa fee, money for drinks and/or souvenirs.

S4S currently makes trips about twice a year.

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