Dominican Republic education mission continues amid pandemic

LAS LOMAS | It’s a Monday morning and students from La Cueva are gathering in their small, wooden church, colored in a bright aqua blue paint. Furnished humbly with a simple wooden ambo and altar, the building is perched along a mountain overlooking verdant, fertile hills in the Las Lomas region of the Dominican Republic. The children take their seats, huddling around a cell phone. They’re waiting for their virtual video chat lesson from the United States to begin, via WhatsApp.

Three young mothers are using their smart phones to connect the village’s 13 school-aged students with Orlando kindergarten teacher, Gylla Macgregor, and Melbourne volunteer, Raquel Jimenez of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, to provide video-tutoring in small groups, four mornings a week. Groups of two to six children work with the teachers, who alternate days, while other students are working on other assignments. The key was to establish a schedule and maintain the school atmosphere.

It is possible thanks to the initiative, ingenuity, and love of Jean Crocker and her volunteers. The Holy Name of Jesus Parish missioner participated in different construction and education missions over the past year, along with Jimenez. Moved by the Dominicans’ love of God and simple way of life, Crocker keeps in touch daily with residents, continuing to help them from Indialantic.

“When the quarantine came, it was obvious we had to keep the children in a classroom frame of mind,” said Crocker. “We had no idea then, how long it would last. We were able to begin weeks before the Ministry of Education asked teachers to begin sending assignments by phone,” she said. WhatsApp is so popular in the Dominican Republic because it is less expensive and those with smart phones all use it, Crocker says there really was no other option for distance learning. Despite the slight video delay, the method has proven efficient and expedient.

Crocker is constantly impressed by the people of Las Lomas, and especially those from La Cueva who live on the farthest end of a mountain ridge. “I’ve been going back ever since I met them… The people are incredibly generous, very, very warm-hearted and they have enormous trust in God,” Crocker noted. “They’re the kind of people you want more of in your life. They are unspoiled.” It was that first trip in March 2019 when Crocker decided she would stay in touch regularly. “In exchange, I hoped to understand where their deep faith comes from because I wanted to be more like them,” she acknowledged.

On a normal school day, students from La Cueva would walk up to two hours to reach Los Frios. La Cueva’s 80 residents, experienced the joy of running water just one year ago, after completion of an aqueduct – another mission project. Crocker and Jimenez were both volunteer missioners who helped in its completion. Throughout the year, the small town’s residents have asked Crocker for help on several projects, from establishing vegetable gardens to a first-aid course and a video-chat teaching how to use baby thermometers, their first WhatsApp video-chat experience.

When the mission schools closed in early March, students of La Cueva did not have the option of going home to work virtually from their laptops or checking them out from school. There is almost no WiFi and no electricity in La Cueva. What they do have is a tenacity for resourcefulness and an avid desire to learn, which has facilitated the success of distance learning.

Crocker encourages the missioners involved and the Dominican volunteers as they strive to provide a good education for the children of La Cueva. The Florida volunteers teach the children bible stories, how to solve mathematics problems, play academic games, sing educational songs, and speak a little English. Crocker, a retired General Motors project manager used to overseeing things from afar, us helping Dominican mothers construct classroom aids from the village’s arts-and-crafts box. They are developing skills they can use to help their children with homework in the future. Each morning, as soon as the students are ready, they call Macgregor and Jimenez for their lessons.

“This is an opportunity for our children to learn more and to have more knowledge,” mother Delgado Pinales said. “And it is a chance for the children to avoid having to repeat an academic year. The classes with the children are teaching me to put into practice all my knowledge.” Pinales is studying math and physics at the university, and hopes to become a teacher.

With the help of worksheets prepared by mission school staff and Ursuline Sister Bernadette McKay, diocesan mission office director, students are remaining on track. “This experiment with ‘virtual school’ has truly been a blessing for the 13 kids in La Cueva,” noted Sister McKay. “Academically they have advanced beyond the imagined goal, but more importantly the dynamic and powerful force of love has penetrated deeply into the hearts and minds of all who have been involved in this learning experiment. A truly Pentecostal moment has been evidenced!”

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic, June 3, 2020