The Importance of Volunteering: Participating in Alternative Spring Break with Outreach 360 in the Dominican Republic

By Tina Chan

Volunteering plays a vital role for organizations and volunteers.  Not only do organizations get volunteer assistance, but volunteers gain many benefits.  They include job meaningfulness, building leadership skills, strengthening professional networks, improving interpersonal skills, gaining self-confidence, and acquiring problem solving skills (Hamp, 2014; Rodell, 2013).  With many benefits of volunteering, it is befitting for faculty members to include a service learning component in their courses for students to gain valuable life skills.  Many colleges and universities have offices dedicated to service learning and community service.  The State University of New York at Oswego (SUNY Oswego) is one example with the Center for Service Learning & Community Service.  Students can enroll in a one-credit general studies course (GST 302: Service Learning), where students choose from over 130 service learning placement sites.  Course requirements include at least 20 hours of service, three written assignments/journals, and participation in three discussion groups (SUNY Oswego – GST 302).  The Center also has volunteer opportunities throughout the year, including opportunities for one-time, summer, and alternative break trips (SUNY Oswego – Volunteer!).  This article highlights community service in literacy by volunteering with Outreach 360 in the Dominican Republic, an alternative spring break trip I participated in March 2015.

Alternative Break Trips

Alternative break trips consist of community service, typically for a week.  Trips may be local, regional, or international, with each trip consisting of various responsibilities.  The trips provide an option for students who want to volunteer, travel, and seek fulfillment during their time away from classes.  At SUNY Oswego, alternative break trips occur during the winter and spring breaks (SUNY Oswego – Alternative Breaks).

I learned about the alternative break trips from two former colleagues at my library who participated in the trips.  Hearing their stories motivated me to participate in my first alternative break trip.  I attended an interest meeting for faculty and staff who wish to be group leaders.  Every trip has two group leaders who may be students, faculty, and staff.  They are responsible for reminding participants to complete and submit required forms, organizing and leading 2-3 group meetings prior to departure, being the contact person for the host site prior to trip departure, reminding participants of items to pack, leading reflection activities during the trip, and ensuring participants have a good experience.  They also write a short essay stating the reasons for leading an alternative break trip and the experience they have to offer the group.

Outreach 360

I selected as my first choice an organization called Outreach 360, located in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic.  Outreach 360 teaches English to students in underserved communities.  They promote literacy to children, enabling them to get an education or to be gainfully employed (Outreach 360).  As someone who believes in the importance of literacy as the foundation of intellectually and culturally engaged citizens, I was delighted to discover I was going to Outreach 360 as a group leader.  My co-group leader and I met during a group leader meeting for all the spring break trips, where we got a list of participants for our trip.  Our group of nine met twice so everyone could meet each other and to go over work expectations and travel procedures.

Teaching English

We arrived in Monte Cristi on a Saturday evening.  The week we visited was spring break for other schools as 100 other volunteers were there.  All the volunteers had orientation on Sunday.  We learned about the history of Outreach 360 and the Dominican Republic.  Because we were teaching the next day, we were given lesson plans for the week.  Outreach 360 works with several schools in Monte Cristi.  Our school was about a mile away from where we stayed.  My group teamed up with the University at Buffalo to team teach for the week.  Everyone had a day to teach a lesson.  The rest of the teaching days were assisting the students while other volunteers taught the lesson.  Our goal for the week was to teach family members in English.  We taught through assigning activities and singing songs about family members.  We taught five classes each day on Monday through Thursday, with Friday as the field trip day for all volunteers.  The field trip consisted of visiting an international market near the Dominican-Haitian border, eating at a local restaurant, hiking a mountain, and going to the beach.  We returned home on Saturday after a busy week that saw eager and playful students learn English.  The students were caring and full of love.  They were open to learning a new language and they were not afraid to make mistakes.

Libraries in the Dominican Republic

Outreach 360 has a library that consists of donated children’s books in English and Spanish.  Housed in cabinets, books are organized by reading level, with advanced books at the top of the shelves.  As they do not have a formalized checkout system, students borrow books and return them when they are finished.  I was told that people in the Dominican Republic watch television and listen to the radio more than reading books, magazines, and newspapers.  Libraries (public, school, and academic) are not as common as they are in the United States.  One of the students who learned English at Outreach 360 as a child and is now at university stated his university does not have a library.  Outreach 360 tries to instill a love of reading early in students’ lives so they can grow up to enjoy reading.

Post-Outreach 360

I was grateful to take part in improving the students’ English speaking and reading abilities.  Even though my group was there for one week, we were able to serve the teachers and students by teaching students English.  We created lesson plans and adapted accordingly based on grade level.  We expanded their knowledge by teaching them how to speak, read, and write family members in English.  After we left, other Outreach 360 volunteers will continue to build on the English language curriculum where we left off.  I will always remember my experience with the students, volunteers, and employees of Outreach 360.

Tips to Volunteering

Volunteering does not have to take place in another country.  Volunteering can take place where you live.  Finding the right fit is important for a positive experience.  The following are some tips for a successful volunteer experience:

  • Consider your skills to offer and new skills to learn
  • Choose an organization whose issues are important to you
  • Combine career and/or life goals with volunteering
  • Have a manageable volunteer schedule
  • Have fun!

Although it can be a challenge finding the time to volunteer, the benefits of volunteering are plenty for you and the community.  Serving the community adds significant value as it can be life changing for you and the people you serve.  Consider volunteering to make a positive contribution to your community.

References

Hamp, E. (2014). Volunteering: Giving back has many benefits. Parks & Recreation, 49(10), 82.

Outreach 360. (n.d.). Outreach 360. Retrieved April 3, 2015, from http://outreach360.org/

Rodell, J. B. (2013). Finding meaning through volunteering: Why do employees volunteer and what does it mean for their jobs? Academy of Management Journal, 56(5), 1274-1294.

SUNY Oswego. (n.d.). SUNY Oswego – Alternative Breaks. Retrieved April 3, 2015, from http://www.oswego.edu/academics/opportunities/service/community_service/Students_Resources/breaks.html

SUNY Oswego. (n.d.). SUNY Oswego – GST 302. Retrieved April 3, 2015, from http://www.oswego.edu/academics/opportunities/service/community_service/service_learning/gst.html

SUNY Oswego. (n.d.). SUNY Oswego – Volunteer! Retrieved April 3, 2015, from http://www.oswego.edu/academics/opportunities/service/community_service/Students_Resources.html


Tina Chan is the Assistant Coordinator of Reference at the State University of New York at Oswego. She can be reached at tina.chan@oswego.edu.