July 1, 2013
Study abroad course to Dominican Republic an eye opener for group of Tech student-athletes
By Jimmy Robertson

Brittany Boone, a Virginia Tech swimmer, heard from a teammate about this summer school course at Tech that sent its students to the Dominican Republic to run camps for kids, and she knew she wanted to be a part of it.

Ashley Manning, a Tech soccer player, heard about this as well, and she felt it was a great opportunity, one in which she couldn’t refuse if given the chance. Ronny Vandyke, a Tech football player, found out about it, but he worried about missing summer workouts.

“I went home and I thought about it and I prayed about it,” Vandyke said. “I came to the conclusion that going on this trip would be a great experience and be an eye opener. Anything that can change my perspective, I needed to take advantage of it.”

The trio took advantage of this opportunity and it arguably changed their lives forever. Boone, Manning and Vandyke were three of nine Tech student-athletes who spent 11 days in the Dominican Republic as part of a summer school course entitled Global Citizen Leadership. The course focuses on things like leadership theory, international aid and service learning.

The 15-member group who went to the Dominican also included women’s soccer players Shannon Mayrose and Kelly Conheeney, football player Trey Gresh, lacrosse player Becca Niles, swimmer Morgan Latimer and diver Kyle Butts. Also, former football player Michael Cole went on the trip, along with Reyna Gilbert-Lowry, Tech’s assistant AD for student life; Danny White, Tech’s director of student-athlete affairs; and Dr. Rick Rudd, the professor who taught the course. Undergraduate student Bria Fletcher and graduate student Reggie Stroble rounded out the group, though neither are student-athletes.

The course continued the trend of the Tech athletics department molding leaders among its student-athletes. Three years ago, the Office of Student Life started a “Habitudes” course that centers on teaching leadership habits and attitudes through the power of an image, a conversation or an experience. Also last year, the first group took part in a study abroad opportunity in the Dominican Republic.

The Global Citizen Leadership course gave the student-athletes the opportunity to put theories about leadership into practice while running the sports camps. It also gave them an opportunity to witness true poverty and to work with young children who oftentimes are victims of that poverty.

The recent group left on June 5 and stayed at the Caribbean Center for Education and Research in Punta Cana, a base for Tech faculty to conduct research as well as instruct students on biodiversity, environmental and social sustainability, global issues in natural resources, and hotel and tourism management.

The group conducted their service outreach projects during the day and attended class sessions in the evening. Like last year’s group, this group toured the city of Veron, one of the poorest places in the Dominican Republic. They visited a hospital, one which had been constructed by the Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine – better known in Blacksburg as VCOM. Roughly 200 patients visit this small clinic each day, with many of them being treated for HIV, as more than 88,000 Dominicans have tested positive for the virus.

“The hospital is what shocked me the most,” Boone said. “Here, we have a place for students to go and a place for student-athletes to go, and a local hospital. There, it was just a small place that saw 200 people a day. They only had one doctor there. He’s there all the time for emergencies, and he has a back room where he can stay. That was such a change for them. We have so many hospitals here in America, and compared to what they have in the Dominican, it’s just unbelievable.”

They also visited a public school in Veron. The classrooms consisted of anywhere from 30 to 70 kids, and classes only go through the eighth grade.

Perhaps more importantly, they saw the living conditions of the people. Many live in poorly built homes on dirt streets, with garbage piled up along the sides. Electricity came and went, and the water system only delivered water at certain times.

“We got to see how they lived daily and the issues within their community,” Manning said. “Veron was where all the kids for the [sports] camps were coming from, so we got to see where these kids come from.”

“It was unfortunate to see how they lived,” Vandyke said. “The people that pick up the garbage come every 10 to 15 days, so it’s just lying in the grass or along the street. It was sad to see. It was very eye opening to see because a lot of people are suffering.

“We saw the school there, and we talked to a teacher and she told us how many of the kids don’t have documents to go to school or they lack money to go to school. A lot of the kids in Veron don’t have the opportunity to go to school. The classrooms aren’t big enough, and there aren’t enough desks. Sometimes, the teachers don’t come. All that really shocked me.”

The main difference between this year’s trip and last year’s was the three-hour excursion to a “batey,” which is basically a small town next to the sugar cane fields where sugar cane workers come to live and work. Many of these workers come from neighboring Haiti, where they get stripped of their identification documents and forced to work in brutal conditions for the equivalent of $7.50 per day.

The workers use this money to purchase food for their families, but the food comes from a grocery store owned by the sugar company. So the company sets the wages for labor and then the prices for food. In essence, this is the modern-day form for slavery.

Liz DeHart, a Peace Corps worker and a Tech graduate student living in the batey with a host family, gave the group a tour of the batey. Each member of the group was giving 300 pesos ($7.50) and sent to the grocery store to buy food, water and other necessities, which they gave to DeHart’s host family, just to give them a feel of the life in a batey.

“We were able to buy three diapers, a can of beans, some rice and some salami,” Boone said. “And most families have, like, seven people in a home, so I don’t know how they feed so many. It was eye-opening, to say the least.”

The hardest part, though, was seeing the kids in the batey. The kids loved seeing their visitors and enjoyed playing games with them. Their smiles told that story.

But many did not have shoes or shirts, and truthfully, few prospects of a brighter future. The Tech contingent realized that.

“They were so intrigued to see us,” Manning said. “They wanted to touch us and talk with us. It was crazy to see how they lived day by day. They can’t find a way out. They’re stuck there, and we’re in the U.S. and have the opportunity to escape from things like that. That was hard for me to see.”

Following the trip to the batey, the group spent a couple of days working with Deportes Para la Vida (DPV), which means “sports for life.” This non-government organization uses sports as a means to teach health and life lessons to young children. In this case, a group of three young men used sports games to teach life lessons about AIDS and HIV and both drug and child abuse – all of which are rampant in the Dominican Republic.

The Tech contingent then held sports camps over the next three days. Each morning, a bus would pick up between 70-80 children and bring them to Punta Cana Ecological Foundation. The student-athletes took turns organizing and running the camps, with the first day being dedicated to soccer and the second day to volleyball. They planned on doing basketball for the third day, but there was only one basketball goal, so they nixed those plans and took the kids for an outing on the beach.

Unfortunately, some kids weren’t able to participate in the camps, as the group needed to limit numbers to run the camps effectively. Turning away children was tough for many members of the group and highlighted a need – one of many – for that area.

“It killed me to watch,” Manning said when the group turned away children. “This was something that they didn’t get to do every day. I wanted everyone who wanted to go to be able to go. I couldn’t watch it. I couldn’t make eye contact when we said no. It was so sad.”

“It’s different there because this was something that happens once a year for those kids,” Boone said. “I used to do soccer camps and swim camps and sometimes I’d feel like I didn’t want to go, but for these kids, this is a one-time experience.”

The group got to enjoy a reflection day before returning back to Blacksburg on June 15. This changed bunch continues to sort out the thoughts of what they saw and what they learned. They talked about the trip with friends, but found that their friends often don’t understand. So they often gravitate toward each other as a group.

This is what those in the Tech athletics department want to see. They’ve made an investment in developing future leaders and now 20 student-athletes over the past two years have visited the Dominican Republic and all left wanting and planning to make the world better, one small piece at a time.

“You know there are countries out there that are poor,” Manning said. “But to be able to see it first hand changes you as a person. We didn’t build anything for them or give them anything, but just seeing the kids and seeing how happy they were to see us and how hopeful they were for their future, it changes you and how you see the world. You can help others, just by doing little things.”

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