By Nance Ebert, Contributing Writer
Southborough – For St. Mark's students who will be participating in the “Release the Hero Within: Volunteer with Outreach360” program in the spring, their lives and the children they work with will forever be transformed.
This spring will mark the seventh year that St. Mark's School has participated in the Outreach360 program in the Dominican Republic lead by Charlie Sellers, head of modern languages and a Spanish teacher. Any student who wants to participate in this volunteer program is welcome to do so. Last year about 30 students went.
Volunteers spend a week in the Dominican Republic in a very remote town called Monte Cristi, which is on the northwestern coast about one hour from Haiti. There is one chaperone for every 10 students and that number is expected to increase for the next trip.
Lauren Sischo, who teaches chemistry and athletics at St. Mark's, along with Amy Vachris, who works in admissions, were the chaperones last year and hope to go back again.
“With Outreach360, we work in the schools, teach English in the schools, and play with the Dominican children organizing a lot of games. The objective of Outreach360 is to give more possibilities and get kids from Monte Cristi in to college. Learning English is a huge asset for them because the main industry in the Dominican Republic is tourism. This is one of their best job opportunities,” Sellers explained.
Outreach360 attempts to train each student volunteer to be a leader. The St. Mark's students put together lesson plans and come up with funny songs. Several weeks before departing, the student volunteers are given an introduction to the country, its culture and history, along with tips on how to be respectful of other cultures and stay safe.
“When we go to work with the Dominican children we tell our students to “serve don's help,”” Sellers said. “You help someone who is really in need; they are down and out. In many ways these kids have a lot of things that we don's. They give just as much to us, if not more than we give to them.”
Ned Sherill, a chaplain at St. Mark's, found out about Outreach360 and organized the first trip in 2007. He went on to lead the first three trips that St. Mark's participated in.
“Release the Hero Within” encourages volunteers to help the Dominican children realize what they are capable of and to see what they can do. This has a profound effect on the students from St. Mark's as well.
“Our students then realize just what they are capable of as teachers to these children. Their confidence soars and they realize that they truly can have an effect on other people,” Sellers said.
In an essay, sophomore Payton Nugent noted how the trip proved to be an amazing experience. She wrote, “I was definitely surprised by the people of he Dominican Republic. I have never met happier people in my life. They were smiling all of the time.”
Nugent also recalled how, on her second day of the trip while walking two miles to the church, a little girl came and held her hand.
“That was a moment of realization for me. This little girl and I really aren's very different. We are all just people, aspiring to be somebody and make something of ourselves. The Dominican Republic is filled with these types of moments that force you to take a step back and look at your life through an entirely different lens,” Nugent wrote.
During the week-long trip, students are not permitted to bring any technology, including cell phones. This also has a profound impact. The evenings are spent talking, playing cards, making bracelets, and writing a daily reflection.
St. Mark's students that have participated have written about their experience in college essays and have gone on to be nurses, educators and more.
“This grassroots volunteer organization has forever changed me,” Sellers remarked. “I get to increase my impact on the world a thousand fold.”
For additional information about Outreach360, visit www.outreach360.org.