Rotary World Service Program inspires area youth

MANISTEE –There is no greater learning experience in the world than helping others in need.

Pictured is the entire contingent from the Manistee, Benzie and Gaylord Rotary groups and students who went to the Dominican Republic earlier this month for a Rotary World Service project. This year, the project they worked on in the Dominican Republic was a water purification plant.

Pictured is the entire contingent from the Manistee, Benzie and Gaylord Rotary groups and students who went to the Dominican Republic earlier this month for a Rotary World Service project. This year, the project they worked on in the Dominican Republic was a water purification plant.

For years the Manistee and Gaylord Rotary Clubs have been making an annual trek to the Dominican Republic to help with a variety of building projects in that country as part of the Rotary World Service Program. What makes it a great learning experience is every year they take along high school and college students to assist in the projects.

It is a life lesson that Manistee Rotary club members Daryl Pieczynski and Mitch Deisch never tire of watching every year. Both of the local Rotary members have made the trip for many years and plan to keep on doing it.

Those students who made the trip this year were Manistee High School’s Clemens Tolstrup, Amanda Deisch, Shane Harrigan, Billie Gajewski and Mercedes Forsyth. Going from Manistee Catholic Central are Barry Seymour, Mason Callensen, Emily Golembiewski, and Elizabeth Nelson. Also going with the local group was former Manistee Catholic Central student and current Northwood University student Cam Toczynski. All of these students raised the funds to cover the cost of their trip.

This year they went to build a water purification plant in a community of 11,000 people called Villa Altagracia in the Dominican Republic that doesn’t have any source of clean drinking water.

It is a project that will take six to nine months to complete and will eventually be finished by other groups.

“We were talking with a doctor there, and they told us that if they can get a source of clean water it can eliminate 50 percent of the sickness in the children,” said Pieczynski. “Knowing that you are working on something like this that is important to the community is very rewarding.”

Pieczynski said the magnitude of the trip wasn’t lost on this year’s students.

“This year was great as we had an excellent group of kids and we had a lot of compliments on how well the kids interacted with the people there,” said Pieczynski. “We had 21 kids that went this year from Manistee, Benzie and Gaylord and they all got along very well.”

Pieczynski said one of the highlights of every trip to the Dominican is when the kids all get together and tell what they learn from the experience.

“We all get into a circle and Christian Santiago, who is the leader of the Lighthouse School down there,  talks about our purpose in life,” said Pieczynski. “We go around and ask each person the most important part of their trip to that point.”

Pieczynski said the stories were incredible, like a girl from Benzie County who got a job to buy a car.  However, when she learned of the trip she said something pulled her to use the money for the trip instead.

“To listen to her story was pretty powerful,” said Pieczynski. “She said she wanted to come back again next year now. All of these kids said it was the best time of their life.”

Another story he said was very moving was Manistee’s Cam Toczynski, who originally went as a high school student years ago, but has returned with the local group two other times since he began attending Northwood University.

“For the third year in a row I was left speechless by this amazing place,” said Toczynski. “It is because of going here with the Rotary Club, I have found my purpose in life — to travel the world and to help those in need. And for that, I am eternally grateful.”

Pieczynski said what amazes him every year when they go to the Dominican Republic is how happy the people are even though they have few material possessions.”

“Just because they don’t have what we do doesn’t mean they are poor and not happy,” he said. “They are very thankful for what they do have in their lives.”

Manistee Catholic Central student Emily Golembiewski went with the idea of helping others, but she realized the trip helped her as well.

“The trip was life changing to say the least,” she said. “You go in thinking that you are helping them, but they are actually helping you. They showed me what it is like to live with almost nothing, but they are the most grateful people you will ever meet. There is not a single regret made about going on this trip.”

Fellow Manistee Catholic Central student  Liz Nelson felt the experience was just as moving for her.

“Life changing is an understatement,” she said. “This trip was so empowering and the environment surrounding me  was overflowed with love and compassion. I am so blessed and honored that I get the privilege of saying I had the chance to go to the Dominican Republic.”

For Manistee High School student Amanda Deisch the trip has been a family experience for many years. Besides her dad being one of the longtime chaperones, her brother Jarret has gone on several trips as well.

“I went on this trip last year and it is an amazing life changing time,” said Deisch. “This year I really felt the impact of what we do for people. Last year I helped build the foundation of a house and then coming back this year I was lucky enough to see the house completely built. It means so much seeing them use it. I am thankful once again for this amazing opportunity and I can’t wait to go back next year.”

For Manistee Catholic Central student Barry Seymour III, it was an opportunity to feel like he was making a difference.

“Knowing that I had a part of changing the world, and specifically that community, was really life changing,” he said. “That community that we helped didn’t have fresh water to drink, so having that in the back of your mind helps you want to work longer and harder.”

Interacting with the children and seeing first-hand how little they have, but how happy they are, left a lasting impression on Manistee High School student Billie Gajewski.

“Everyone you talked to or waved at had a smile on their face and being around them made me smile,” she said. “My favorite part of the trip was getting the chance to meet new people and walking around the community where we stayed. If I had the chance to do this again, I definitely would and I wouldn’t have traded this experience for anything in the world.”

Fellow Manistee High School student Mercedes Forsyth said it pulled things in her own life into perspective.

“While this trip has made me grateful for what I have been given in this life, it has also made me not satisfied with how I’ve been using this opportunity in the past,” she said. “I want to spend more of my time and resources helping other people than I have before. If I spend more time with people who want to make a difference just as much as I do, then we can change the world.”

Foreign exchange student Clemens Tolstrup who is spending the year living with Pieczynski said the trip really opened his eyes.

“Going on this trip has widened my point of view of what it means to be poor and what it means to have faith,” he said. “I definitely recommend it to everyone.”

Changing the world one person at a time or one brick at a time in a water purification plant is the way the world becomes a better place for everyone.


Posted by Ken Grabowski

Ken is News Advocate’s education reporter. He coordinates coverage for all Manistee County schools and West Shore Community College. He can be reached by phone at (231) 398-3125 or by email at

Leave a Reply