Local residents participate in Rotary International Dominican trip

MANISTEE — Local Rotarian Daryl Pieczynski has a wealth of memories from the eight years he has served as chaperone on the Rotary International program in the Dominican Republic.

The Rotary International group from Manistee pose with the children of Villa Altagracia where they worked on one of their projects.

From the many smiles and tears of joy on the faces of the people they have helped on these annual excursions to the heart warming feeling of knowing they are making a difference in someone’s life.

However, Pieczynski will be the first to admit that hands-down for him the best part is watching “the moment” occur every year. “The moment” he refers to is when the area high school students the local Rotary club takes down realize the importance of what they are doing with this project.

“I never tire of that, or hearing the kids at the end of the trip say they want to go back again,” said Pieczynski.

This year was a little different, but special in its own way. The Manistee contingent usually teams with groups from the Benzie and Gaylord Rotary clubs, but both of those groups decided to take a year off.

“We had a smaller number of people go this year, but it was a great group of young people and adults,” said Pieczynski. “This year we took four high school seniors from Manistee High School and one from Manistee Catholic Central. We also had three young people Cameron Toczynski, Elizabeth Nelson and Jadelynn Villeme from Gaylord who went on the trip last year and it was nice to have them back.”

Pieczynski was assisted this year as chaperone by local Rotary members Suzette Redman-Wilson and Laura Ortiz, who were both making their first trip.

Ortiz was really moved by the experience. After brushing aside some initial fears, she said it turned into an incredible trip.

“My fears were soon assuaged when I took my first step inside the Detroit airport,” she said. “I saw and felt the excitement and I couldn’t help but be excited too.”

Ortiz said that feeling grew even stronger after arriving in the Dominican Republic.

“Once we were in the Dominican, well I fell in love with the country, the people and with the work we did,” she said. “The trip was a life changer and I’m counting the days till we return.”

What also makes it special is the students and chaperones pay their own way for this experience. Although that can be a financial challenge for the students they all gain a great deal from it.

Students who made the trip this year were Manistee High School’s Kiera Raymond, Abby Beaudrie, Abdiel Nunez, Cameron Fink and MCC’s Eric Stickney.

The group hardly settled in where they were based at the Lighthouse School in Los Alcarrizos when they headed out for a three hour bus ride that began at 5 a.m. for the first project at San Juan de La Maguana. It was at that location where they helped lay cement blocks for a funeral home for the community.

“They don’t have anywhere to hold funerals and prepare the bodies when someone passes away,” said Pieczynski. “It was a long ride, but we got to see lots of beautiful scenery.”

Student Abdiel Nunez said the work was hard, but very rewarding.

“For most of the trip I worked on laying bricks and spreading concrete for walls of future water infiltration facilities and a community funeral home,” said Nunez.”Although the sun was brutal on our necks and farmer tans flourished in our group, it was well worth it all.”

Pieczynski said the locals pitched in to the cost of the funeral home project paying $50 each, which is a lot of money for them. They also put some sweat equity into the project by working alongside the Rotary group.

“They were very friendly and were very thankful we showed up to help them out,” he said. “We worked there for two days before heading back to the area where we were staying.”

Student Eric Stickney said he couldn’t help but see how little the locals had in their lives, but how they never let it get them down.

“I went to the Dominican a person who has always had everything I need and was kind of greedy,” said Stickney. “I quickly realized while I was there it was a very poor country with a lot of poverty. Even though the majority of people there are very poor, they are all so happy.”

Pieczynski said on the third day there, they worked at the Water Purification Plant in Villa Atlagracia where they have worked in the past.

“While we were there we helped lay block, while some of the other people went to help paint one of the local churches,” he said. “It was nice to be back in the neighborhood and to see some of the same kids we did last year.”

The water plant still has work to be done as they are trying raise $17,000 for a roof on the building and other needed items to bring it to completion.

“What makes is tough is the unemployment rate is 72 percent, so the people are having a tough time,” said Pieczynski. “It still amazes me as well as our group how they still smile and say,’Hola’ which means hello.”

The walks the group took through the neighborhoods made an impact on Abby Beaudrie. She and the rest of the students realized how little some of these people have in their lives.

“This trip was a huge eye opener for everyone,” she said. “Sometimes we take things for granted not knowing how other people live on a daily basis. As we were walking through the village the kids were clinging to all of us. They wanted to be held and hold your hand. Overall, this trip changed my life and I can’t wait to go back next year.”

Many of the local group took things like candy and other small items to give to the local children. What they found made an impact on Cameron Fink.

“I also went house to house handing out toothbrushes and it brought smiles to their faces,” he said. “Their smiling faces showed me how big of an impression I was making on their lives, but I don’t think they realized how big of one they were making on mine.”

On the last day they worked laying blocks and cement at the Lighthouse School in Los Alcarrizos where they stayed.

“I received many compliments about our group from the school director Cristian as well as Felix our interpreter,” said Pieczynski.”Our group really bonded well because we were so small this year.”

Next year they hope to have the Gaylord group back and the plans are to build a basketball court in the village of La Charcas so the children don’t have to play in the streets.

“I was also happy to hear four of our five students said they are coming back next year and a couple of their mothers who want to make the trip,” said Pieczynski. “Cam Toczynski has said he wants to come back next year and take on more of a leadership role as it would be his fifth straight year that started back when he was in high school. Overall we have about 14 committed to going next year.”

What is even better for Pieczynski is next year gives him another opportunity to witness more of “the moments” and that is what makes it so rewarding for him.

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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 kgrabowski@pioneergroup.com.

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