April 12, 2012


By Molly O'Brien-Foelsch

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — The tiny wooden house leaned sharply toward the embankment. A bouquet of red silk carnations stuck out of the rusty steel rebar framework, a touch of domesticity in an otherwise bleak scene. Standing in the crooked doorway, the woman who owned the house smiled at the 15 Bucknell University students and two advisers gathered in the dusty, narrow alley of the barrio.

"This woman cleans our school," said Porfirio Holguin, the president of Advancing Communities by Educating and Serving (ACES), the Dominican service organization hosting the Bucknell team. "We're going to have her house torn down before it falls, and you'll help us pour a new foundation."

Two days later, on a hot afternoon, the students returned to the location, climbing an uneven stone pathway to the remains of the house — now a pile of broken wood and twisted corrugated roof. A hen and her chicks explored the trench that workers had dug for the new foundation. The Bucknell students got to work, mixing and pouring concrete as curious children gathered around and neighbors eagerly offered their porches as respite from the heat.

The project was one of many that the students of the Bucknell chapter of ACES performed during their weeklong service trip. The only student-run international service organization on campus, ACES Bucknell raises funds to support its work, educates campus about the situation in the Dominican Republic and travels to Santo Domingo every spring break.

On its first full day abroad, the group piled onto a bus with about 10 Dominican volunteers and rode to the village of Salinas, about three hours west of Santo Domingo, near Haiti. After a breakfast of eggs, rice and plantains, the students fanned out into classrooms that had been turned into makeshift treatment rooms. There, they handed out medications, birth control and toys to the hundreds of people that turned out for the event. They also assisted doctors and dentists in treating patients, some of whom had never before received medical care. In the schoolyard, the volunteers played with children and read aloud, translating English-language children's books into Spanish.

"I knew this would be the first time in years that many of these community members would see a dentist or have access to medical supplies, contraceptives and toys," said ACES Bucknell member Katelyn Tsukada '12. "Our small group of Bucknell students was present, actively providing supplies and energy to people who needed our care." || Read more of Tsukada's impressions of the trip

Later in the week, the ACES Bucknell team handed out about 200 bags of beans and rice to residents of one of the poorest communities in Santo Domingo.

"The food outreach was both exciting and tragic," said co-leader Kristen Ronca '14. "It was awesome being able to directly hand people in need the food we purchased through fundraising instead of just sending off a check. At the same time, though, we had to watch as people were turned away since our supplies were so limited." Ronca, who participated in last year's trip as a first-year student, said it was difficult to go back to the same community for a second time and see the same hungry faces. 

The Bucknell students spent two days volunteering at the ACES school, where they played with the children, talked with them in English and Spanish, and painted the exterior walls of the building.

"Four years ago, we poured the foundation for the school," said ACES Bucknell president Phil Kim '12. "Now, thanks in large part to a lot of fundraising on campus, the school is fully staffed and operational. There's a computer room with high-speed internet access, and construction on the third floor — which will be a rooftop recreational area — is almost complete." The school serves about 200 students ranging in age from 5 through 18. Twenty-five of the ACES schoolchildren have their annual tuition of $200 paid by Bucknell individuals and organizations through the group's Educate-a-Child program, which trip co-leader Paul Allegra '13 developed last year.

For many of the ACES Bucknell participants, the highlight of the trip was a Friday commencement ceremony in which the Bucknell team presented diplomas to about 20 young women graduating from a 12-week jewelry-making course.

"Learning and perfecting this craft is so crucial for the future of these girls, so that they can go out and find work and be able to provide for their families," said co-leader Daniela Calcagni '13. The trip was Calcagni's third, and she plans to return next year. "Education helps to establish a foundation to break the cycle of poverty. The graduation ceremony we attended was more than just a celebration. It set a precedent for the entire community and demonstrated that hard work, coupled with motivation and a desire to learn, leads to success."

Back at the ACES house in the evenings, the students held hours-long discussions about their experiences, reflecting on the many causes of poverty and its possible solutions, and discussing how they might raise awareness back on campus.

"In a mere week, we experienced poverty, pain and emotional conflict too gripping to forget," said Allegra. "I believe the group gained a broadened understanding about life outside of the affluence of the United States. The students have taken with them transformative experiences that will influence their opinions on race, gender, sexuality, class systems and so many other facets of life."

Allegra said the ACES Bucknell trip evokes in its participants a commitment to morality, diversity of thought and civic engagement. "I am confident that this trip will influence many individuals to do amazing things with their lives. My hope is that everyone does a trip like this, not only to understand the world in which we must coexist, but to also understand themselves."

ACES Bucknell is changing its name this spring to BACES Bucknell Advancing Communities by Educating and Serving.

Contact: Division of Communications

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