Students’ hearts, eyes opened through Dominican mission trip
Photos provided by Wayne R. Shepherd, assistant professor of construction management
A few had never flown or been outside of the United States. For some, not even beyond Pennsylvania or any farther south than Virginia. And if any of their good fortunes ever included travel to the Caribbean, that touristy resort experience offered no hint of how revelatory everyday life can be.
When they boarded their flight in Philadelphia in June, not even a 16-week preparatory class on their Pennsylvania College of Technology campus could have adequately prepared them for their imminent awakening in the Dominican Republic.
It was there that the group of 21 students, accompanied and mentored by two faculty members – Wayne R. Sheppard, assistant professor of construction management, and Rob Cooley, associate professor of anthropology/environmental science – purposefully interacted with families in the El Cibao region, while watching their own culture shock evaporate in the northern Dominican heat.
Their stay coincided with one of the hottest weeks of the year: Even nighttime temperatures remained in the 90s, with minimal air conditioning to provide relief, but the students didn’t let discomfort compromise their experience.
“Everyone was attentive and engaged and ultimately impacted,” said Sheppard, who has traveled to the Dominican Republic several times. “They weren’t just ‘there.’ They really did seize the day.” The students recorded those days (and nights) in journals that were regularly maintained and shared with their instructors before being returned as keepsakes.
The nondenominational group was partnered with Mission 2535, a Christian organization building a “Community of Hope” through four pillars: clean water, sustainable food, dignified health care and vocational training. The long-range plan includes a furniture factory and plastic-recycling facility, a tilapia farm, a vocational school and community center, medical clinics, and a marketplace.
“This experience is an eye-opener for any person. Many times, we don’t recognize what is all happening in a small remote part of the world that most have never even heard of,” said Logan W.R. Ledebohm, a senior in the college’s construction management program. “Whether you are religious or not, I believe that a mission trip can have a huge impact on you spiritually.
“When it came to this trip, it was no different. We had a group of some religious and some not who all were able to experience what it’s like to give back to those who are less fortunate. Overall, this was an amazing trip, and I would highly recommend attending any mission trip out of country or in.”
The Penn College group focused its energy on the first pillar – fresh water – during the Spring 2022 semester, raising over $3,000 to purchase water filters. After carrying them into the country, the team was able to visit two communities and distribute about 60 filters that, with proper instruction and routine maintenance, can provide years of clean drinking water in a nation where 3,500 people a week undergo emergency treatment for bacterial infection.
“The brilliant thing about the water filters is that you’re not just donating something consumable that provides a short-term solution,” Cooley said. “You’re empowering entire families and communities with durable equipment that will ensure reliable and long-term access to adequate and safe drinking water supplies.”
“Think about it: With clean drinking water, you’re far less likely to get sick from waterborne pathogens. If you don’t get sick, you don’t miss work, which means you’re not losing wages for lost time. You’re not spending money on health care expenses. You’re not spending money on bottled water,” he added. “By providing water filters, it allows people to have better control over their health, which means they can use more of their budget for food, housing, education, transportation and job-related expenses.”
Comprised of students from all three of the college’s academic schools, the group also helped build a house; painted a youth jail; visited a juvenile rehabilitation center; handed out 13 duffel bags’ worth of coloring books, first aid kits, tools and medicines; and enjoyed frequent interaction with local families. (The bags were custom-made by Equinox Ltd., an outdoor equipment manufacturer headquartered in the Pajama Factory, not far from the college’s main campus.)
“Being a first-time international traveler, I was not sure what to expect when traveling to the Dominican Republic. The country, people and culture exceeded my expectations and affected me in so many ways,” dental hygiene student Kaleigh A. Zuba said. “I think one of the biggest things I saw is the generosity and the hospitality that was shown to us.”
Each time the Penn College contingent visited a home, she said, the large group was welcomed inside to sit down and eat, even if they couldn't all fit around the table.
“One of the main times I remember was when we were building a house and the family that we were gifting it to made us all hot dogs as a thank you,” Zuba added. “It was rewarding seeing the effort they made in thanking us.”
Sheppard also noted that widespread gratitude, although the group wasn’t in it for the credit. Still, the work done over a comparably short period is praiseworthy.
“The team was typically involved in at least two different main activities at a time but, with our embedded talented student leaders, we were able to work on multiple projects that helped keep everything moving and ultimately allowed us to accomplish so much,” Sheppard said. “Completing the house on Friday morning was an exciting culmination for the whole team, but they really accomplished so much that it’s hard to capture it all.”
There was some leeway for entertainment, too, in a land that values leisure as much as labor. Time for meditation and reflection, running a carnival for special needs children, an evening detour to watch bus driver “Bebé” play softball, and a farewell trip to the beach at Punta Cana.
Zuba particularly enjoyed comparing stories of the people and their culture with what she learned while seeing it for herself.
“We’d been told that ‘Dominican Time’ is always 15 minutes behind. So I found it humorous (and to be true) that, whenever we attended something with the community, sure enough: Everyone arrived 15 minutes late!” she said. “We’ve also been told that Dominicans like loud music and to have a good time. We found this also to be true, and we were ready to sing and dance whenever.”
The full roster of students making the journey:
Construction management – Brian J. Adams, Holland; Clark A. Bennett, Perkiomenville; Kamron J. Bertie, Allentown; Aidan T. Dougherty, Newtown Square; Chris A. Fisher, Middleburg; James C. Fretz, Collegeville; Joshua A. Gutenson, Oakton, Va.; Shane M. Kihm, Perkasie; Logan W.R. Ledebohm, Mechanicsburg; Timothy R. Maguschak, Weatherly; Blaine W. Mann, Jersey Shore; Mitchell G. McAfee, Fayetteville; Frank D. Medl, Hatfield; Parker S. Shelton, Fountainville; Peter C. Thorbahn, Devon; Hayden C. Woland, Watsontown; and Eric D. Xander, Sellersville.
Culinary arts technology – Maggy R. Langendoerfer, Waymart.
Dental Hygiene – Kaleigh A. Zuba, Parkesburg.
Nursing – Jaci J. Hunsberger, Reading; and Bryn A. Vargo, Trout Run.
Sheppard and Cooley are taking another group next year, hoping to add a health care component to the service-learning experience – as well as another faculty member, Christine B. Kavanagh, assistant professor of nursing, who has taken nursing students on Global Experiences to Guatemala.
The Cultural Immersion & Service Learning course (GLB299A) is on the schedule for the Spring 2024 semester and is open to any student in good academic standing in at least their second semester. The course can fulfill different electives for most academic majors.
Cooley said he hopes to have students from many program areas, with different backgrounds and experiences, participate next year. Whatever the discipline, however, this year’s class promises a life-changing experience for those who follow.
“Overall, this trip has taught me so much about how people around the world may live vastly differently from what we’re used to,” Zuba said. “But at the end of the day, we share all the same values of education, health, religion, family and more.”