For impoverished Dominican children, a DREAM to grow

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Cabarete, Dominican Republic.- Monday evening at the entrance of Callejon de la Loma, in Restaurante Bliss, the DREAM (Dominican Republic Education And Mentoring) Project held an art show and fundraiser; it’s proceeds intended to sustain their Art Studio Program into the coming fall. Works by local artist were showcased alongside those of students who participated in DREAM’s Fabio Guzman Ariza Summer School & Camp 2009. This is the summer school’s sixth year.

The Callejon de la Loma is a beautiful dusty road, flanked by small, colorful stores and restaurants catering mostly to locals — Cabarete’s hearty tourist population sticks mostly to the road that follows along the beach. It is around 500 meters down the Callejon de la Loma, however, where DREAM has its Cabarete headquarters — a large administrative facility, school rooms, outdoor play areas, a public library, a computer lab — right in the heart of one of the neighborhoods that need the DREAM Project most.

The DREAM started when cofounder and President Michel Zaleski first moved to the DR and was moved by the wonderful locals and their plight for education. He started by bringing student from the US Dartmouth College to come for three months at a time, supplementing teaching in the two local elementary schools. The founders’ community involvement continued to grown until they became a formalized nonprofit, in both the Dominican Republic and the U.S., in the year 2002.

Today, with support from donors like Fabio Guzman and the USAID (United States Agency for International Development) the summer school has grown from 60-70 students at its beginnings to 250 students this year. The school focuses on hands-on learning, education enrichment, and Leadership programs for indigenous kids, who otherwise would likely not be attending summer school, and during the school year would not be taking the amount of public school classes needed to raise precious literacy levels. These summer Leadership programs, like Art Studio, Internship, Young Women’s Group, Young Men’s Group, and Revista, carry over into the fall.

Spencer W. Kimball of Google, Inc. is on the Board of Directors. His generous contribution this year will go towards building up the Montessori school in Abreu. President of the Board, Michel Zoleski, remains the single biggest donor to the DREAM, which now fully and independently operates in three different sites, works in two public schools, and operates four Montessori programs.

As the project grows, new and qualified faces continue to emerge. On March 16th of this year, Catherine DeLaura joined the Project as Executive Director. DeLaura, who had been living on the Samana Peninsula for the last two years, brings her teaching experience from the Peace Corps and the NYC school system. Her New York resume includes co-founding the Academy of the Arts at Taft High School in the South Bronx, working with the Heritage School in East Harlem, and also the acclaimed School of the Future on NYC’s Lexington Avenue.

Each DREAM classroom has one international teacher, one Dominican teacher, and a counselor who follows the different groups of students from classroom to classroom. The international teachers carry on DREAM’s original vision of bringing in college students, not only from Dartmouth now, but from accredited colleges around the globe.

New Jersey native, Laura Budzyna, is a graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont. The joy that working with DREAM brings her always rings clear in her smile. She began as the music and drama instructor for summer camp and is now coordinator of the DREAM Public Library. Budzyna stresses the importance of the multi-faceted approach they take with their kids, “They’re not just learning to read and write, they are learning to swim, brush their teeth, treat each other well, and respect their world.” Tough subjects like HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness are commonly addressed, and it is for these topics that a counselor stands ready to support the children and answer any and all of their questions at any time.

Last week, I had the opportunity to sit in on a day of classes here in Cabarete. As the children enjoyed their breakfasts in the outdoor gymnasium, an enthusiastic volunteer described the day’s activities and displayed how to correctly and incorrectly obtain her attention. She danced around, waving her arms, yelling, “Yo, yo, yo!” as the children laughed. They knew that a simple hand raise would do, but it was a fun – and important – reminder. Next she held up her fingers in the sign of peace, a magical thing at this school where I saw throughout the day that it truly brought just that – a sea of quiet hands making bunny ears and silent grinning faces; any chaos easily cut short. It was in these moments that I’d realize what my initial feeling was, sitting in with the kids as they started their day. That joy of “summer camp,” of getting out of the house and gathering with friends, enhances your life experience in stimulating, interactive, and encouraging ways.

That feeling is summed up and expanded neatly by Julia Alvarez, Honorary Chair of the DREAM Board, Dominican National Treasure, Author, and Professor:

“One thing I’ve learned from the life I’ve lived: The world can only be saved by one man or woman putting a seed in the ground or a story in someone’s head or a book in someone’s hands.

Listen for your own song.

As for this DREAM, pass it on.”
Written by: Mary Otte