You may know me as the editor of LatinTRENDS Magazine, but before that I was a volunteer at The DREAM Project, an education and mentoring program in the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Come meet me on Thursday, November 13 at the Sueños 2014 Fall Benefit. It’s a special opportunity for you to extend a helping hand to children in need.
But before you pick up your checkbook, you should get to know more about The DREAM Project. Here is an interview with a lifelong dreamer and a former volunteer at the DREAM center in Cabarete. Her name is Debra Angely and she’s pretty amazing. Here is her story.
Where are you from? Tell us a bit about your background.
I am from Salem, MA where I lived with my parents and three sisters until attending college. My parents were born and raised in Bani, located on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic. When I was younger, my family traveled back and forth visiting the country as frequently as we could but before working for DREAM I hadn’t visited the country in 15 years.
Describe a day in the life of Debra at DREAM. What were your students like?
When I started at DREAM I began my volunteer work in the public library program, the only children’s library on the North Coast of the country. Along with a co-librarian, I worked to facilitate a book club, reading competitions, and an after-school study group with high school students. We spent a lot of time helping families new to the center navigate their way around and check out books. As the year progressed and I learned more about the programs DREAM offered, I grew an interest in working with the Montessori school.
The DREAM staff was flexible with me, and gave me the opportunity change my role within the organization. I began to co-teach with a certified local teacher in the Montessori primary classroom. Being in the classroom was life changing; my student’s eagerness to learn was something I had never experienced before. Whether is was to take an art class, read in the public library, use computers, or jam with the band, most days it was extremely difficult to say goodnight and close the doors of the DREAM center.
I think that says a lot about the environment DREAM creates, you’d be willing to spend your whole day at the center because it feels like home.
I once heard a woman tell her friend never to visit the Dominican Republic because there are only poor children who chase your car, asking for money. (Seriously, this woman said this.) Can you tell us about your overall experience in the Dominican Republic?
I remember that within my first hour of moving into my new home in the Callejon I experienced my first power-outage in over fifteen years. A huge toad had jumped into my house, and I did not want to sit around in the dark with it until la luz came back on. Unsure what to do with myself, I walked outside my house and gazed around. There were four women sitting in chairs under the shade of a mango tree and called out saludos. They introduced themselves and invited me to sit with them. They shared their food with me and invited me into their home. Without knowing anything about me, they offered acceptance and openness that was new for me.
I was used to the “hustle and bustle” of the States but all of a sudden everyone I met made an effort to reach out to me. The warm welcome I received from neighbors and families is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. While the country has many areas of improvement, Dominican people are generous and kind: they are the heart of the island.
Most people can’t imagine leaving home for week or months in order to volunteer their time. Can you tell us about how you planned for this financially or how you budgeted while in the Dominican Republic?
I received the Dominican Heritage Fellowship, which covered my volunteer fees, stipend, and housing expenses. To cover my airplane expenses and a small savings I created a GoFundMe account online and posted in on all my social media networks. With help from my family, I reached out to employers and friends to ask for donations. The stipend I received from DREAM was comparable to the average salary of a family in the DR. It helped me to limit my spending to the pesos I was allocated. It allowed me to budget and showed me that while I was living humbly, my neighbors in the Callejon were surviving on much less than what I had.
What are you up to now? Feel free to brag. DREAM volunteers tend to be achievers.
Since returning from the DREAM Project I have spent my time co-teaching in areas of high need. Ultimately, my experiences with DREAM left me determined to pursue a career in the field of education. This fall, I began my graduate program in Early Childhood Education-Dual certification at Columbia Teachers College in New York. Since beginning graduate school, I have been part of a teacher-researcher team where we use play to encourage the development of oral language, literacy skills, and vocabulary to students in their early childhood years.
Most of my students in the after-school program have recently immigrated from the Dominican Republic and have been in the United States for less than a year! I use a lot of the songs I learned while teaching with DREAM in the classroom today, and can directly apply my experience with DREAM towards providing improved educational opportunities for under-served students.
I say that I will always be a dreamer, meaning that DREAM Project has made a lifelong impact on me. In what ways has DREAM affected you? Will you always be a dreamer?
I think of my experience at DREAM and the experiences of the students I taught nearly every day. As a DREAM volunteer in Cabarete, I witnessed firsthand the lack of resources and opportunities many of us are familiar with and take for granted. The dreamer in me believes that while there is much work to be done in education for the Dominican Republic, there is transformative change occurring. The center was a place always buzzing with energy that was so contagious you couldn’t help but buy in.
The organization showed me what it means to have a huge amount of flexibility, management [responsibilities], and drive while still having fun the Dominican way. I learned to help my students develop skills in the classroom to be future leaders and responsible community members, but ultimately I was inspired to dream big for myself. I am grateful for the DREAM project: it has been the most rewarding experience of my life thus far.
I count the days I will return to the Dominican Republic and am a proud dreamer for life!