by Dennis Dalman
Take groups of young people from two widely different cultures, put them together for games and music and then watch the differences vanish as the fun begins.
Words, they quickly realized, aren’t the only means of communication.
That was the recipe for success when Sartell students visited a school recently in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, a Caribbean nation that shares an island with Haiti. The students, along with adults – many of them the students’ parents – spent spring break vacationing in that country. The trip was organized by Lee Hurd of Sartell, who is the executive vice president of Bursch Travel.
As she did last year with a similar trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Hurd plans the trips so participants can connect meaningfully with the country’s residents and learn first-hand about their culture. In Puerto Vallarta, the group helped for a day at a school and brought many school supplies for the students, who helped raise money for the supplies before they took the trip.
In the Dominican Republic, Hurd and Bursch Travel contracted with a tour operator in that country – an operator that donates part of the tour income to socially responsible causes, including the school the group visited.
On the trip were 15 Sartell High School seniors, three juniors, nine freshmen and middle-school students of various ages. All told, there were 84 participants, youth and adults, who flew directly from Minneapolis to Punta Cana.
All of them enjoyed laid-back fun at their resort, but much of their fun involved cultural learning experiences. They toured a sugar-cane factory and observed expert workers hand-rolling premium cigars. Two of the island nation’s main crops are sugar cane and tobacco. They also visited the house of a woman who dries cocoa beans for export. Many of them are used to make M&Ms in the United States. The students bought items from the woman, such as cinnamon and vanilla.
After that, the students visited the school. One of their goals was to help install a basketball hoop that Bursch Travel had paid for – along with many basketballs – before the trip began. The Sartell senior boys bolted the hoop pole and backboard onto the cement pad. Later, the students emerged from the school and sang three songs in honor of their special visitors. At first, both groups – the Americans and Dominicans – were shy and awkward, not quite knowing what to do, partly because of the English-Spanish language barrier.
Within a minute or two, the Dominicans, shy smiles starting to bloom on their faces, approached the Americans. Basketballs began to bounce. Whoops and hollers of fun erupted in the air. Meantime, someone started a spur-of-the-moment baseball game with a tree branch used for a “bat.” A group of girls began to sing folksongs in a circle with their new American friends. Counting in 1-10 in Spanish, the number-10 girl would then enter the circle and dance to the tunes sung by the girls. The schoolyard had become a flurry of activities, smiles and laughter.
Jack Hellie, a junior, was a member of the trip, along with his parents, Joe and Amy.
“It was a blast,” he said. “It’s tough to beat those blue waters of the Caribbean. Our tours of the island were just fantastic. The villages we saw and the culture were really interesting. We learned quite a lot about their history and culture. And going to the school was definitely a highlight. It was really cool to be there. The kids we met there were genuinely happy. It was fun to interact with them. We all made friends fast. It was a truly great experience.”
Curtsey Rengel, a 12-year-old Sartell Middle School student, was on the trip with her parents, Mitch and Debbie.
“It was really fun,” she said. “I learned a lot. Everything is so different there, compared to here. The people at the school were so open and friendly. It was a great experience.”
Curtsey said she would very much like to go on a similar trip again – a vacation in which part of the “fun” is meeting people and learning about their culture.
The school experience also taught the tour group how much Americans take for granted when it comes to education. The school is only a two-classroom facility that must accommodate three sections of students per day – morning session, afternoon session, night session. There are about 75 students – all of them dressed neatly in uniforms – crammed into those two schoolrooms. The students are extremely happy to be able to go to school. It is a hard-scrabble life in which nothing can be taken for granted.
Some of the gifts brought by the Sartell group were khaki pants and skirts, blue shirts and black shoes because many of the students are in need of new, clean uniforms.
Erinn Miles and her parents Bruce and Kay also enjoyed the trip.
“It’s such a different way of life, and it was so interesting” Erinn said. “It was very interesting to see the homes. Some have windows. Some don’t. I learned some of the kids go to school half a day, then they go home to help on their farms or in shops. The school kids were all so interested in us.”
Miles had a bit of an advantage over the other students on the trip. She has taken Spanish courses for the past eight years, and so she was able to communicate in “espanol” with Dominicans. She was the trip’s unofficial “translator” at times.
Molly, the daughter of Lee Hurd, has gone on many socially conscious trips with her mother, including an extended stay at an orphanage in Romania a few years ago.
“This trip was something different,” Molly said. “At first we didn’t know how to interact with the students at the school we visited. Then they came over to us. We had no idea what they were saying. And then all the activities started.”
Hurd and Bursch Travel plan to expand their educational, culturally connective vacations. At the moment, however, it is doubtful another Sartell contingent will be able to take one since the school board decided to drop the traditional week-long spring break – the time when such vacations are possible.
Hurd said she was impressed by how many students were so eager to learn and to participate in the cultural-learning activities on the trip, such as the visit to the sugar-cane factory.
“These trips are a win-win-win for everyone,” Hurd said. “They’re a good way to show kids how to pay it forward.”