A volunteer activity teaching English to families in the Dominican Republic as part of a Fathom cruise experience
Last updated September 2019
(Note: The Fathom travel brand ceased to exist as of January 2019. This particular activity is no longer available and in fact has not been available for a couple of years. A big thank you to Fathom Travel for providing thie opportunity to participate in the activity when it did exist. Opinions and observations are my own.)
The Dominican Republic is a beautiful country, but it is also one of the poorest in the Caribbean. Unemployment is high. With tourism a major industry, English proficiency is one of the largest drivers of employment success.
Fathom, one of the companies within the Carnival Corporation group of cruise lines, described itself as a travel experience that combines vacation with the opportunity to give back. On a cruise to the Dominican Republic with Fathom in 2016, I had the opportunity to participate in the English in the Community program. The programs were created in partnership with Entrena, an organization which has worked in the Dominican Republic for over twenty-five years.
A bus drove a group of us from the Amber Cove port near Puerto Plata to a nearby village. As the bus entered the narrow streets of the village, we were greeted by smiles and waves from the people we passed. (Over the course of our three days in port, I heard several stories about how welcome Fathom was. Fellow passengers reported being told what a wonderful thing Fathom was doing by Dominicans they met who were not directly involved in the programs, people they encountered in stores or businesses. It was a reminder of how the impact ripples through the entire community.)
We were divided into groups. The sizes varied depending on which families we would work with. There were four in my group – my husband, an American man and his ten-year-old son, and me. We were given curriculum books, which contained guidance on how to work through the lesson and flashcards to help teach and reinforce vocabulary. Each group then met a representative of the family they would work with. We walked with those representatives to their homes.
At her house, our family representative introduced us to her daughter and her daughter’s baby, her young son, a neighbour and her baby, and another neighbour and her twelve-year-old brother. We worked together as a group to go through the lesson. I learned later that other groups had divided up to give more one-on-one or one-on-two instruction. The first step was to review the previous lesson. That topic had been Celebrations. As we reviewed vocabulary from that lesson, we shared the different ways we celebrated and learned that Dominicans also celebrated birthdays with cakes. All of the neighbours came by when there was birthday cake.
The topic of our lesson was Food, which was a fun one. We had a lot of laughs. Chicken was a favourite of the entire family. Vegetables turned out to be a tough word to pronounce. We learned that the woman of the house was a good cook. Her specialty was a chicken and vegetable soup. Facilitators from Entrena checked in on us a couple of times to see if we needed assistance.
When our time (about an hour and a half) was up, we walked back to the gazebo where we’d gathered before going to the homes and shared our experiences. One young girl, aged somewhere between eight and ten, said she’d enjoyed playing a game with a Dominican girl. They had gone through the flashcards together. She taught the Dominican girl the English word. The Dominican girl taught her the Spanish word. Another woman had been impressed with how much the teens she worked with already knew.
I had been concerned about how my lack of Spanish might hinder my ability to do this activity. That concern made me a little reticent in the beginning. As it turned out, the American in our group was fluent in Spanish, having lived for a time in Spanish-speaking countries. His Spanish allowed us to learn a bit more about the family than we might have otherwise. But I also know now that we would have managed without that.
I enjoyed my time with the family, but had a hard time envisioning how this small interaction was helping. By itself it was nothing more than a pleasant encounter, but the key is that it was one interaction among many, with travellers before and after me working on the curriculum with the learners. International bodies recommend a total of 240 hours direct instruction from an English speaker to achieve elementary proficiency in English. Our small time together added to those hours. Ability to speak and understand English as well as confidence to try and learn would grow with each interaction. Still, I think this activity did not provide enough continuity and consistency to make a strong enough difference.
This particular activity is no longer offered, but the opportunity to help at a chocolate cooperative or at a paper recycling cooperative exist as onshore excursions with several cruise lines under the Carnival Corporation umbrella.
Destinations Detours and Dreams monthly e-newsletter contains behind the scenes information, sneak peeks ahead, travel story recaps and more. SIGN UP HERE
Tag Along DebAugust 21, 2016 at 4:46 pm
It’s interesting reading about your experiences on this cruise, Donna. One thing I would wonder about is how the community feels about a different group of volunteers cycling through every two weeks. Maybe that’s just the introvert in me. I think I’d prefer developing a relationship with the person teaching me another language. It sounds as though they were very welcoming to your group, in any event.
Donna JankeAugust 22, 2016 at 8:17 am
Deb, it’s true you don’t have time to develop a relationship. There are advantages to having that relationship when trying to learn a language. But I also think there are some advantages to having to deal with different people. You get exposed to more variations in speech and may actually become more fluent that way. I think it would increase your confidence in using the language. And there are some constants beyond the cycling group of volunteers. The group we worked with stays together for all the lessons knows each other well. The Entrena staff are constant and get to know the learners well.
Tag Along DebAugust 22, 2016 at 8:44 am
Yes, I can see the benefits of that as well, now that you have pointed those aspects of language learning out.
jacquiegumAugust 22, 2016 at 6:01 am
I tutored adults who were learning to read and the system was one of rotating tutors. Like you, I had doubts that a parade of people would be useful, but in the end, it was. So be comfortable that your contribution was helpful.
Donna JankeAugust 22, 2016 at 8:18 am
Thanks so much Jacquie for the encouraging words.
travelnwriteAugust 22, 2016 at 8:53 am
Your experiences sounded wonderful Donna and I appreciate your sharing them with those of us not on the cruise. It is an interesting concept and one that will be fun to watch as it develops. Thanks for another great report!
Donna JankeAugust 23, 2016 at 8:35 am
Thanks. It is an interesting concept. I hope it works out well.
The GypsyNestersAugust 22, 2016 at 9:10 am
We also participated in this activity on our Fathom cruise and found it to be a lot of fun while helping our young mother with her understanding of English. It can certainly open up job opportunities.
Donna JankeAugust 23, 2016 at 8:36 am
English is important to increasing job opportunities. It was nice to be able to help, even if in only a small way.
Carolina ColbornAugust 22, 2016 at 6:24 pm
That is an interesting cruise! I am a certified instructor of English as a Second Language and would love to join an activity like this! But did you have time for sight-seeing, too? And is there a longer program available, perhaps not part of the cruise and directly through Entrena?
Donna JankeAugust 23, 2016 at 8:43 am
Carol, there was time for sight-seeing. The ship is docked near Puerto Plata for 3 days. You can participate in 0 to 3 impact activities. (I’d recommend doing at least 2). Those take approximately 1/3 day (about 5 hours). Sight-seeing tours are available or you can go out on your own. I don’t know what kind of longer programs, if any, are available directly through Entrena. We were curious about that too but haven’t had a chance yet to investigate.
Suzanne FluhrAugust 23, 2016 at 11:44 am
I once participated in a program run by a language school in Spain where 16 native English speakers from different countries and 16 Spaniards stayed at a rural hotel together for 5 days and spoke English from morning to night. Each day, each English speaker had several one hour, one on one interchanges with the Spaniards who paid a hefty amount for the experience. Having improved my Spanish through a language immersion program, I think the opportunity to speak with native English speakers for less wealthy individuals is invaluable and not all that easily replicated outside programs such as the one in which you participated.
Donna JankeAugust 24, 2016 at 8:04 am
Suzanne, that sounds like a very interesting and effective program for those who could afford it. The Fathom program is not quite as immersive but does give less wealthy people opportunity to interact with several English speakers.
Sabrina QuairoliAugust 23, 2016 at 7:31 pm
This is such a great idea to give back while on vacation. I love it. I am going to check it out for my family.
Donna JankeAugust 24, 2016 at 8:09 am
Sabrina, there were a lot of families on our trip. The children and teens I saw all seemed to be really engaged and got a lot out of the experience. I think it could be a great family experience. I believe Fathom recommends children be 8 or older. Parents would be better judges of whether 7 year-olds were ready for this, but I don’t think it would be appropriate for pre-schoolers.
McCool TravelAugust 23, 2016 at 9:57 pm
Interesting point about 2 weeks between visits being too long between lessons. Makes sense. Nice that there is a stop gap solution.
Donna JankeAugust 24, 2016 at 8:13 am
Charles, it is good that Entera meets with the people in the off-week. One week would be long enough between lessons for me. In two weeks I’d forget everything, unless I was extremely diligent about reviewing and practicing every day.
Doreen PendgracsAugust 24, 2016 at 9:05 pm
HI Donna. I can see the value of these programs, but feel that the more in-depth programs such as those mentioned by Suzanne would be something I would be more interested in as it would have a lasting impact on both the local families and the program participants. Thx for sharing your experience with us.
Donna JankeAugust 26, 2016 at 9:31 am
Doreen, I think there is a place for both types of programs as they address different needs and circumstances. The experience Suzanne mentioned sounds very interesting.
Patti MorrowAugust 28, 2016 at 9:03 pm
Sounds like a really rewarding trip for you. The programs on Fathom seem very beneficial to the local Dominican Republic community.
MoreTimeToTravel (@MoreTime2Travel)August 28, 2016 at 10:09 pm
Although a deeper immersion might be more meaningful to you and the recipients of your largesse, this is, indeed, a very wonderful start! Congratulations to Fathom for making this happen.