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.
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