The Perfect Place for Me: Cabarete Language Institute

Back in March, in the midst of state testing and a flurry of IEP meetings, I was online one night, and I found a $500 plane ticket to travel to the Dominican Republic, where I volunteered for three summers, for three weeks in August. I had neither arranged a place to stay nor did I have any plans of what I would do there, but I decided to buy the ticket anyway.

Myself, Elena, and Nataly (my classmate) outside of CLI on my final day there.

But how would I spend my time? Yes, I can visit friends and former students, but what else? I know myself, and I need to have some sort of schedule. Aha! I can study Spanish at Cabarete Language Institute. I had heard great things about the school from a friend who had studied there, but I had my doubts that I could succeed in a Spanish class. I learned Spanish as an adult from my Dominican and Puerto Rican students in Boston and from living and working in Cabarete for three summers. My Spanish was a teacher’s Spanish and a Spanish from the streets. I could communicate basic information about school events and meetings to my students’ families, even on the phone. But, there are still hiccups, gaps, and stops once the context changed or the ideas became more complex. I had taken Spanish in high school, and that’s how I learned the basics. I had tried a popular course at a local adult education center, but I dropped out because I felt uninspired. I received a scholarship to attend an evening program at a prominent Ivy League university, and the teacher bored me. Although my two weeks at Cabarete Language Institute did not make me a perfect Spanish speaker, they did instill my faith that I was capable of refining my Spanish in a classroom setting. I found that, for myself as a learner, Cabarete Language Institute provided the perfect place for me.

Spanish Immersion
When I entered Cabarete Language Institute for the very first time, Rosa, a cheerful and enthusiastic intern from Venezuela, greeted me in Spanish. I took classes from 10 am – 1 pm each day, and for that time, except for a few clarifications in English, I heard, spoke, read, and wrote in Spanish and Spanish only. Even during our charlar con café coffee breaks, we spoke in Spanish and we were provided with feedback from our fantastic teacher…

From L to R: Elena, Nataly, Me, Al (another student), Rosa, Jessica

Elena
Elena is a teacher’s teacher. As a teacher myself, I judge other teacher’s strongly, and Elena exceeded all of my expectations. First of all, Elena knew her content. Elena is a native Spanish speaker from Spain who has lived in the Dominican Republic for a little under two years. Elena knows her Spanish backwards and forwards, and she even studied philology (which I learned is the history and structure of languages). Elena makes the students feel so welcome and comfortable in her classes – she asks lots of questions, and she is interested in learning about her students. She sets clear goals and she provided us with interesting classwork assignments, such as listening to and dictating lyrics, creating shared narratives using various verb structures, and discussing personal experiences, and homework tasks – such as constructing questions based on common interests and writing summaries of a wordless film. Elena provides consistent feedback and corrections in a way that supports students in their language learning without making us feel stupid or overwhelmed.

Elena (center) in action: a dynamic and professional teacher.

A Welcoming Atmosphere
Jessica, the director of Cabarete Language Institute, was prompt in responding to any communication over e-mail before the class started. When I arrived at Cabarete Language Institute on the very first day, I noticed that the chalkboard in the lobby read ¡Bienvenidos Jenny! The lobby also contained a library of books in a variety of languages, which is a treasure in Cabarete where there are no book stores and a few extremely tiny library collections here and there in shops and non-profits. For me, personally, a particular highlight was the free coffee, milk, and sugar provided by Cabarete Language Institute. I am a shameless lover of coffee, so it suited me perfectly! The classrooms are comfortable and airy, and the teachers and staff are hospitable, professional, and able to answer any questions about Cabarete.

Welcome sign and library in the lobby.

I wish I could spend a whole year at Cabarete Language Institute. Between the wonderful atmosphere, classmates, teachers, and students, it is the perfect place for me. It would benefit my Spanish incredibly to work with a talented and experienced teacher like Elena, and I love the enthusiastic, warm, and caring atmosphere of the school. Although I am now back to my reality in the United States, I am fortunate that Elena and Cabarete Language Institute provided me with the confidence to continue my pursuit of “perfect” or at least “progressive” Spanish.

Change Agent: Paulina Perez, School Principal and Community Leader

The sun beats down upon tin roofs as motoconchos rev their engines, bachata music blasts from a nearby lavandería, and red dust clouds the sidewalks of unpaved streets. Most of the people in Cabarete, ex-patriates, Dominicans, and tourists alike, adorn short shorts, flip flops, and tank tops in a futile attempt to beat the heat. But not Paulina Perez, the principal of Puerto Cabarete School. Upon entering her office, tucked in a shaded pocket of trees inside the gated school yard, I find Paulina seated at her desk, wearing a green button-down shirt, gray suit jacket, long dress pants, and loafers. She greets me with her gorgeous and friendly smile, and, upon observing the sweat dripping off of my face, she quickly gets up and turns on the fan.

Paulina Perez flashes her famous smile in her office at Puerto Cabarete.

I first met Paulina in 2008, when I partnered with teachers from her previous school in a summer writing program. By 2010, during the Mariposa Girls Summer Leadership program, Paulina had moved to the Puerto Cabarete School and generously opened the facility – the schoolyard, classrooms, and library – to the Mariposa volunteers and the young ladies attending the camp, many of whom were students at Puerto Cabarete.

Paulina has devoted her to life to serving her community as both an educator and a parishioner. Paulina received her bachelor degree from the Ponticicia Universidad Catolica Madre y Maestra, and moved to Caberete to begin her career in education. She began this career nearly 20 years ago, teaching in the Cabarete public schools. In 2004, she was promoted to Assistant Director of Colonial Nuevo, a K-8 public school in Callajon de la Loma. In 2008, upon receiving her Masters in Education from UAPA, La Universidad Abierta Para Adultos, she became the Director of Puerto Cabarete, the oldest public school in Cabarete. Within the her parish, she makes home visits to the elderly and sick to facilitate prayers and offer communion. Paulina and her husband, Mario Bonilla, have 4 children, all of whom attend the pubic schools.

Paulina’s office serves as make-shift counseling center for both adults and children alike. Children come in here when they are in trouble in the classroom. Teachers come by when they have a stressful day. Angry, frustrated, or depressed parents bring there problems here. Paulina listens carefully to them, helping them to work through problems by asking questions and offering advice. I myself have cried in Paulina’s office – once due to being completely exhausted by running a summer program and the other time over the murder of a mutual friend. Both times, Paulina’s words and gentle yet strong manner helped me to heal my feelings – indeed, just being in her presence lends itself to a sense of calm.

Over the past three years, the Puerto Cabarete schoolyard has transformed as a result of Paulina’s engagement with her community partner, The Mariposa DR Foundation. Where once stood a chain link fence, through which motoconcho drivers catcalled schoolgirls, now stands a multi-colored wall adorned in butterflies. Volunteers from Lawrence Academy have painted the wall’s interior in rainbow colors. The once-crumbling gate of the school now bears the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. A planter that was once filled with litter now holds a well-manicured collection of plants. The children in the schoolyard on this day, dressed in their blue school uniforms, are smiling. Several of them volunteer to read to me from the bulletin board, where one of the signs reads: “Proteger tu escuela. Es tu segundo hogar.” Care for your school. It is your second home.”

Paulina and Candida, a teacher at Puerto Cabarete, pose in front of the butterfly wall. Photo courtesy of the Mariposa DR Foundation

Three students pose in front of the butterfly wall. Photo courtesy of the Mariposa DR Foundation.

The Rights of the Child are painted on the school’s gate.

Students pose in front of the planter at Puerto Cabarete.

All of these students were able to read the signs from the bulletin board.

Change Agent: Victoria Jones, International Volunteer

“Why is it just for girls? That’s what the boys in the neighborhood ask,” explains Victoria Jones, as she sits on the striped futon in the center of the Mariposa DR Foundation‘s office on Calle 9 in Cabarete, Dominican Republic. Victoria has served as a volunteer with the Mariposa DR Foundation since August of 2011, and she will continue to serve the organization until December of 2012 as she completes her practicum for her M.A. in Social Justice and Intercultural Relations from the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. “I was supposed to go to Tanzania to teach ESL, but Ria [Shroff, another Mariposa volunteer and former School for International Training student] convinced me to come here.”

Victoria Jones poses in front of the library in the office of the Mariposa DR Foundation, located on Calle 9, Callejón de la Loma, Cabarete, Dominican Republic.

Over the past year, this poised and thoughtful young woman has clearly made an impression on the families of Cabarete, as several of them have photographs of her in their home and mentioned her by name when asked about the Mariposa program. The teen girls who participate in the Mariposa DR programs are the sole focus of Victoria’s work in the foundation. “Our three overarching goals for all of our girls is that they feel safe, learn skills, and have fun,” she explains. In addition to providing the girls with an out-of-school-time community center, Victoria and the team of Mariposa staff and volunteers provide a wide range of trips and activities outside of the Mariposa office, including swimming, tennis, volleyball, soccer, and capoeira.

Victoria knows the needs of and individual goals for each and every young lady in the program:
“Maritza* used to lack listening skills, and she had difficulty with showing respect for adults and peers. She has developed a lot of maturity as a result of being a part of this program. Ana* is unable to read, and she used to make a lot of negative comments. Julia* devours books. She asks questions, and she shares knowledge. Paula* and Mariana* struggled with attendance, and then they were a part of a sewing program that we did. It helps them with motivation, and they started coming a lot more. They increased their alphabet knowledge. They didn’t know the Spanish alphabet, and they struggled to sound out words.”

Victoria’s extended stay in the Dominican Republic has forced her to spend a lot of time analyzing the difficulties for the young ladies who grow up in the Cabarete community. “These girls are developing as adolescents, and they are learning attitudes, communication skills, and social relations. Their parents may or may not have basic skills. They are very sexualized in this culture, and there is an industry of sex tourism.”

However, Victoria also feels the appreciation and respect of the community: “I was automatically a part of Cabarete when I came here because I was working with the Mariposa Foundation. My work is valued, and I feel very protected here.”

*Note: To protect student’s privacy, names have been changed.

Change Agent: Orquidea Garcia, Supermamá de Cabarete

In the office of the Mariposa DR Foundation, located on Calle 9 in the Callejón de la Loma in Cabarete, Dominican Republic, Orquidea Garcia is known by her alias:”Supermamá”.

La Supermamá Orquidea (left) with Jennifer Dines (center), daughter Orianna (right) and two of the La Supermamá’s students

In 2010, when I first met Orquidea, she was very excited for her daughter, Orianna, to join the Mariposa DR Foundation’s First Ever Young Women’s Summer Leadership Program , an all-girls summer program that, in its first year, provided 50 at-risk teenage girls with four weeks of academics, activities, and excursions. When Orquidea agreed to join the program herself as a part of the School Staff Training Program, she took the first steps towards her new life as “Supermamá”.

Orquidea’s talents were immediately apparent in her abilities to use her quiet yet radiant personality to engage the Mariposa program’s young women in both casual conversation as well as in their academic work. I remember one day in early July of 2010, I walked into the library at Puerto Cabarete and saw Orquidea with a group of twenty or so girls. Not one of the girls turned towards myself or Mariposa Assistant Director Jessica Lawson when we entered the library. Orquidea had these young ladies completely enamored with a Spanish translation of Tomie di Paola’s Italian folktale Strega Nona. Afterwards, when I commented to Orquidea about her abilities as a librarian, she said: Jenny, tengo mucho ánimo. “Jenny, I have a lot of positive energy.”

Along with her neighbors and best friends, Claudia and Kathy, Orquidea continued to volunteer with the Mariposa DR Foundation, and in the fall of 2011, she was extremely excited when Executive Director Tricia Suriel arrived at her home along with Jessica Lawson to offer her a job working in the office of the foundation.

Today, Orquidea works full-time for the Mariposa DR Foundation, where she serves as the office manager. Each morning, she starts her day by chatting with the program’s young ladies as she prepares breakfast for them and then sends them off to school. Orquidea has gained many computer skills as well as learned English through her work in the office, and she handles e-mail and phone correspondence, arranging trips, appointments, and guest speakers.

Additionally, Orquidea tutors younger girls in mathematics, and she works closely with the girls in the health class alongside of clinical child psychologist Alexandra Milián Martinez. Although Orquidea admits that she worries frequently about the problems that these young ladies discuss in their groups, from typical trials of coming-of-age to more intense personal and family struggles, she loves being able to guide the young women of her community through their teen years and she is learning much from Martinez, her mentor.

Orquidea hopes to complete a degree in psychology at the local university in Puerto Plata, and she is currently taking the first steps towards making her dream a reality – Orquidea is completing her bachiller or high school diploma in evening classes at Puerto Cabarete, a local public school. Orquidea says that working with the Mariposa DR Foundation made her realize that she was actually very smart. Although she attended school through the 8th grade, she didn’t really think of herself as a serious student or learner until she began working with the young ladies in her community.

Between her roles as an office administrator, social work intern, student, and mathematics tutor, Orquidea remains a “Supermamá” to her beautiful daughter, Orianna, now age 13. Orianna graduated from the 8th grade in June, and she will begin classes at Colegio CADIN, a private preparatory school, in Islabón on Monday.

Orquidea is an inspiration to her friends, family, and students in the Cabarete community, and Literacy Change is proud to feature her as our very first Change Agent profile because Orquidea is making positive changes in education in her community, and she is a model of a teacher who is also a learner.