August 15, 2012 - "Bananas unite! Bananas split! Peel banana, peel, peel banana; bananas to the left, bananas to the right, peel it down the middle and UNH! take a bite! Go bananas, go, go bananas!"
Hannah Scherer taught this classic American camp song (and dance) to children in the Dominican Republic during a trip to the island nation last month. They loved the song and they loved her. The song was one of many things she taught, but the 2009 Brandon High School graduate learned a lot from the youngsters, too.
"The whole trip was a once in a lifetime experience for me," said Scherer, 21. "I know now that you can live with a lot less. There are a lot of things that people take for granted (in the United States) and I can appreciate the little things."
The township resident left for the Dominican Republic on June 29 and stayed until July 26 as part of the international student volunteer program. Scherer learned about the program last fall at Oakland University, where she is a student majoring in integrative studies with an emphasis on nutrition.
"I've always been interested in traveling and after learning about the program and the impact you have on children's lives, it got me excited to start fundraising and pursuing it," she said.
Some students are eligible to receive academic credit, but it wasn't applicable to Scherer's degree. She was driven more by a desire to do volunteer work and pure enjoyment of the experience. Scherer raised the $4,000 needed to pay for the month-long trip by approaching family, friends, and local businesses, as well as doing bottle drives and hosting a car wash at her church.
Scherer took a flight from Miami to Puerto Plata June 29 and upon arrival, got an immediate introduction to an integral part of Dominican life.
"Right when we got off the plane, there was a band playing traditional music, a huge part of their culture," she said. "I loved all the music they played. Everyone there is so happy and has a really good mindset. I love their lifestyle."
Scherer is not fluent in Spanish and had a communication barrier to overcome, but enjoyed learning the native language while she taught some English as well.
During the first two weeks of their stay, Scherer and 27 other student volunteers from around the U.S., as well as Canada and Australia, stayed in an ecolodge in the small village of Tubagua. The group brought with them numerous donations, including health and hygiene products, school supplies, baseballs, Frisbees, bubbles, and other kid-friendly items.
The volunteers constructed a new library in Caraballo, first tearing down the original tin structure which Scherer said was like an oven, then building anew using a cement/sand mixture, wood, and cinderblocks. They completed all but the roof in the two week span, finishing a very small structure to keep donated books.
"It seems small, but when you go to a village that has nothing and then build something, it's huge to them," said Scherer. "The kids who want to pursue a higher level education have to travel to the city to go to high school. Having a library there helps them build their education. We gave them something small, but they appreciate it so much."
The workers toiled from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the construction project, and alternated building days with hosting classes for kids. Themes included nutrition, art, physical activity and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) prevention, with different subjects depending on the age of the kids.
Scherer said that HIV is very prevalent in the population, which is not well-educated on how the virus is spread. She noted that Dominicans become sexually active at very young ages.
"Girls at 12 or 13 will be with a 19-year-old guy," she said. "They don't know about condoms or have access to them. You tell them they have the power to say no, they don't have to give themselves to these guys. There is also a misconception that if they touch someone with HIV they can get it. A lot of people with HIV there get shunned. We let them know you can still associate with (HIV-infected individuals)."
Scherer and her fellow volunteers are hopeful the kids will talk to their friends about what they learned in all areas.
Caraballo, formerly farmed for sugar cane, is extremely impoverished and structures are built of either scrap metal or cinderblocks, with small shacks housing six or more people in on room, with bunk beds sleeping multiple children. Scherer said families are often combined when parents die and other parents take in orphans.
"What is most heartbreaking is seeing how desperate they are," said Scherer. "They sell jewelry, bracelets made of beads and you just want to buy everything to help them."
On the last day in Caraballo, the volunteers put on a field day for the approximately 90 children they had worked with, playing soccer, kickball, volleyball and doing face painting, balloon animals and sack races. They brought them a huge cake and each child received a prize.
Then it was on to an adventure tour of the rest of the country, during which Scherer was able view the natural beauty of the nation, surfing, snorkeling, exploring caves, kayaking and viewing the wildlife in the Los Haitises National Park.
"I just wanted to travel and impact people's lives," said Scherer of the overall trip. "It didn't have to be the Dominican Republic, but I'm really happy that it was."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville