Nineteen students from the Estevan Comprehensive School's Christian ethics class spent their spring break on a missions trip to the Dominican Republic.
The students, who are in Grades 11 and 12, were in the Caribbean nation from April 6 to 13. They were part of a team of 35 that also included nine students from Weyburn, one from Radville, two staff members and four adult chaperones.
All of the students are from the Holy Family Roman Catholic Separate School Division.
While in the Dominican, they spent time in the batey sugar cane fields, visited the country's NPH orphanage, toured a school for young students, travelled to a cacao factory, and spent time in both the poorest and wealthiest areas of Santo Domingo, which is the nation's capital.
"It was a big learning experience, I think, for all of us," said team member Shanise Monteyne. "It felt really good taking suitcases, and delivering them, and seeing the joy on people's faces."
Those suitcases, which numbered 57 in all, contained items that were collected by team members and donated by southeast residents.
"There was everything from 900 tubes of toothpaste from the Estevan Comp., to baseball equipment … to clothing to teddy bears to school supplies," said Christian ethics teacher Therese Durston.
Thanks to donations and fundraising, they were able to paint and repair four houses in the bateyes.
"As well, we put in new mattresses, cook stoves, tables and chairs," said Durston. "They have nothing."
Fixing the four homes cost about $4,500.
They provided a $2,500 scholarship for a student to attend university. They might be able to provide another scholarship as well. They also donated $1,500 to a program that assists women in violent situations, and $1,100 for food for senior citizens.
Another student who went on the trip, Brooke Pachal, said there is a great contrast between Dominicans and Canadians in terms of affluence and lifestyle. It left her with a greater appreciation for the opportunities she has in Canada, including education.
"You get the opportunity to go to school," said Pachal. "The doors that it opens, and the ability to follow your dreams, come from education. They don't get that (chance). We take for granted that we get to choose what we want to do after high school, or … we take for granted that it's taking us somewhere."
Dominicans have dreams, but they don't have the chance to go to school to escape the bateyes and the other impoverished regions.
"That's where their parents grew up, that's where they're growing up, that's where their children are going to grow up, unless they get that small opportunity that some of these kids are getting to go to school," said Pachal.
Pachal noted that Dominican children willingly stay at the school after classes are finished, which would be a rare sight in Canada.
It was a very busy schedule for the students. Much of their time was spent at the bateyes. Among their jobs was to assist them on Easter Sunday.
"By us going out there and helping them, they got to go home two hours early," said Monteyne. "It was even better because it was Easter, so they got to spend Easter with their families."
While at the NPH orphanage and the school, team members were able to interact with the young people, play games and laugh with them, give them piggyback rides.
The trip to the Santo Domingo city slums, known as the barrio, was also an eye opener. It was difficult for many of the people from the southeast to see the living conditions of the poor.
"The kids were playing with the tire and the stick," said Durston. "They were playing with marbles. And they were happy to see us."
After spending time in the barrio, team members went to the wealthy areas of Santo Domingo, and viewed some of the tourist areas.
And they travelled to a sweatshop, where they watched workers sew baseball apparel for very low wages. Each person at the sweat shop was expected to sew 30,000 seams a week.
Students also gained a greater appreciation for the budgetary constraints facing many Dominican families. The average family makes 150 pesos a week. Two-thirds of their income is spent on groceries. The rest of the money goes to utilities and other living expenses.
Team members were given 300 pesos, and had to purchase food for three families.
They were able to buy a pound-and-a-half of rice, a half-pound of beans, two eggs and oil for each family. The food had to last a week for each family.
Overall, the mission trip to the Dominican Republic was an incredible experience, they said, and it has left an impact on the young people who went to the Dominican.
They'll recap their experiences on Saturday, May 12, at St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church, starting at 8 p.m.