Building bridges and futures wrecked by hurricanes

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:53

    SUSSEX COUNTY-If you want something done right, do it yourself. The story of a group of Sussex County teachers who wanted to help suffering children of the Dominican Republic seems to epitomize that old adage. While their colleagues statewide were attending the New Jersey Teacher's Convention in Atlantic City, a group of educators and some of their family members traveled 1,400 miles to deliver supplies to school children in the jungles of the Dominican Republic. The idea of a do-it-yourself relief project started with the Spanish Club at the Sussex County Technical School, whose members heard about the devastating effects of an earthquake in the Dominican Republic, which all but destroyed many schools. At the end of last school year, when Tech students were cleaning out their lockers, Spanish Club members went through the items tossed into the garbage. Pens, pencils, markers and notebooks that had barely been used were repackaged and added to new items donated in a fall drive. The club was joined first by the Student Council and the National Honor Society and then by students from other Sussex County schools in putting thousands of supplies into plastic bags, one each for 750 Dominican children. Items were donated from the Rotary Club, Vernon schools, Kinnelon schools, Stillwater Township schools, the Newton Interact Club and Sussex Tech, among others. The decision to deliver the supplies in person was out of necessity, said Wendie Blanchard of Sussex Tech. "It was impossible to do it any other way," she said, noting that shipping costs are very high, and because of corruption many donations never reach the children. The decision was made to take the 1,800 pounds of supplies, pack them into suitcases and fly as many people as could be carried in two 50-pound suitcases, the maximum check-in luggage allowed per person. Teachers from Newton, Vernon, Sussex Tech and Kinnelon schools, along with some family members, took the trip and personally delivered the supplies to 10 Dominican schools. Blanchard said some were invited along because of their expertise n special education, knowledge of school facilities, a social worker, and a doctor, Steve Sarner, who accompanied his wife, Suzanne Sarner, who is director of the Student Center at Sussex Tech. Others were asked to come along because of their ability to carry heavy suitcases, she joked. "We all saw things just a little differently," Blanchard said. "We needed those different kinds of perspectives." Each traveler paid his own airfare and had hotel rooms paid for through a local travel agency. A local businesswoman in the Dominican Republic donated the use of her "monster truck" and fuel for taking the group on its delivery trips. Many of those on the trip were shocked at the conditions faced by school children. Of the 10 schools on the tour, only two had electricity and only two had bathrooms. Several had leaking roofs. Many had no screens on the windows. Students doubled up in chairs. Many had no desks at all. "We were really shocked," Blanchard said, adding that the Dominican Republic has no national funding for schools. The "Catch 22" is that education is the only way out of a life of poverty for the Dominicans, yet the country is too poor to support education, she said. Last month's trip was only the beginning, Blanchard said. "It was our first real adventure, to see where our challenges are," she said. The teachers now have a list of things the schools need and that they'd like to help provide. The group has met several times already to plan a second trip next November and have asked their high school students to come up with some solutions to the problems faced by Dominican schools. "We went with one goal and came back with many," Blanchard said. Janice Sund, consumer science teacher from Newton Schools, said the experience gave her hope for the future. "I have faith now that others do care. I met them on this trip," she said. "The educators went to the Dominican Republic to help the people there; in truth, it was the travelers from New Jersey who received the greatest gift."