Principal Ramon Cusi of North Davis Elementary recently visited the Dominican Republic as part of a mission trip — organized through the National Association of Elementary School Principals and other educational groups — to help build a school in a Constanza, a town located in the country’s interior.
The late January trip was the first time Cusi had visited the Caribbean country, located on the eastern portion of the island of Hispaniola. Cusi told The Enterprise that in some ways, the Dominican Republic reminded him of the Philippines (where Cusi has a number of relatives): “There is very little running water that’s been treated or electricity. I brushed my teeth with bottled water.” And the Dominican Republic, like the Philippines, has a balmy climate, and past history as a Spanish colony.
Constanza is an 80-mile, four-hour trip from the capital city of Santo Domingo. The work party, composed of some 48 volunteers from around the United States, was known as the 2014 Lifetouch Memory Mission (Lifetouch is a company that does photos for schools, church directories, etc.). The 10-classroom elementary school that Cusi and the other volunteers worked on has “about 400 kids, with 35-40 kids per class. And the classes are held for half days — 200 kids come in the morning, and 200 come in the afternoon,” Cusi said.
It’s a contrast to the nearly 600 students at North Davis Elementary.
“And the kids at the school in Constanza were up to 15 or 16 years-old. It depends on when they start. Some kids don’t start school until they are around 11,” he added.
Cusi, who has been principal at North Davis Elementary for six years, brought some construction experience to the task. “I have some background laying bricks with my father, 30 years ago,” he said. The project in Constanza involved cinder blocks and concrete, reinforced with rebar. (An earthquake struck the western portion of Hispaniola in 2010, causing extensive devastation and death in the nation of Haiti, which shares a border down the middle of the island with the Domincan Republic).
The volunteers got an orientation regarding the history and customs of the Dominican Republic before they arrived.
“They have a beautiful culture, very respectful,” Cusi said, and fortunately, Cusi speaks some Spanish, a language that he studied in college. In economic terms, many of Constanza’s residents live in poverty, “focusing on earning enough money for one meal a day,” Cusi said. “Some kids live in or around the dump, and scavenge for things they can sell.
“The average family house was about the size of a Tuff Shed, maybe 15 feet by 20 feet,” Cusi said. “Some have electricity, many do not have running water. Some homes were made out of cinder blocks, some out of corrugated steel and wood. A few used flattened billie cans as part of the siding … people reuse materials.”
In addition to working on the school building, the volunteers were encouraged to take a break when the students were on recess and spend some time with the kids.
“A lot of these kids have parents who are out working to make ends meet, and some don’t have parents,” Cusi said. “For some, it was the first time in a while that they had been hugged or had individual attention from an adult who was listening to them.”
Making the trip and helping with construction of the school in a town that has far fewer economic resources than Davis, Cusi said, was an eye-opening experience. “(At home in Davis), you can raise bunches of money and pay for food and materials. But you bring hope when you come,” Cusi said. “Having someone smile and listen to a kid is something that these kids don’t always get. So many times in Davis, we are motivated to fundraise, but we don’t always know what it’s for. (Being there) is one of the biggest things we can share.”
Cusi added that as he returned from the Dominican Republic to his home school in Davis, the experience caused him to reflect on how he could be “a better father and a better principal. I would say the trip changed my life and made me a better man.”