By Jen Toland, Telegram & Gazette Staff Reporter
Clark sophomore Courtney Pharr, a member of the
volleyball team, was fortunate enough as a freshman to travel with
a contingent of other Clark student-athletes to Guatemala for an
international service learning trip known as CAST (Clark Athletics
Service Trip), which was the brainchild of former Cougars tennis
player Harris Rollinger.
Rollinger earned his master's degree from Clark last year, but he wanted CAST to continue. He asked Pharr if she wanted to lead this year's trip.
"Yes, I did," Pharr said, "and it was a life-changing experience."
Earlier this month, Pharr and 10 other Clark student-athletes, as well as Micki Davis, director of community engagement at Clark, and representatives from Service for Peace, spent nine days in El Cidral, Dominican Republic, working with community members to build a schoolroom, interacting with local children and immersing themselves in a different culture.
El Cidral is located in a valley nestled in the mountains of Villa Altagracia County, about 45 minutes northwest of the capital city of Santo Domingo. Most residents are employed seasonally in agriculture, and many rely on remittances from family members abroad. The community has big plans for its future, however, including an improved educational environment for its youngsters.
"It's refreshing to see the community is driving the plan for development, not external forces saying, 'This is what we think you need,' " Davis said. "To go and be a part of that and see that they really have their own self-determination and plan for the schoolroom and a basketball court after the schoolroom and being part of making that happen was really exciting and something that resonated with the 'Clarkie' spirit."
The elementary school where the Clark group worked was basically one big classroom divided by moveable walls — not ideal for teaching or learning. The Clark student-athletes began the work of building four new classrooms, putting up cement walls and doing other carpentry work.
"We're not entirely skilled carpenters," Pharr said, "but it was a great experience to work alongside community members and get to know them."
Junior Gabby Paolini, the women's soccer team's goalkeeper, said the residents of El Cidral welcomed the Clark group and greatly appreciated its efforts.
"I liked how close the community was and how hospitable it was," Paolini said. "We bonded with the community and worked side by side."
A favorite part of the trip was getting to know the community's children. They would visit the house where the Clark student-athletes were staying in the afternoons and evenings and paint their nails, braid their hair and play games.
"It's so easy to connect with people even over a simple game of dominoes," Pharr said.
Some of the kids have kept in touch with the Clark students.
The group visited a cacao co-op recently started by a group of women in El Cidral and also purchased jewelry, pottery and other items made by locals.
Last year's CAST trip to Loma Linda, Guatemala, included a sport-for-development project, with Clark students holding soccer clinics for local youths. There were no formal sports programs on this year's trip, but the Clark students did join kids in recreational games of baseball and soccer as well as keep-away and monkey in the middle.
"They just opened their arms to us," Pharr said.
Also participating were Mia Cattaneo, Nikki Feinberg, Kara Fischer, Taylor Johnson, Rebecca Kravetz, Alistair Richardson, Emily Seibring, Michael Spanos and Brooke Wilson.
Service for Peace involves volunteers in ongoing community development programs around the world. The organization's theme is community development and personal development. The Clark student-athletes certainly embraced it.
Pharr's goal is to continue the CAST program.
"We realize we're not going to change the world in one week," she said, "but we realize we can make connections and build relationships with community members while doing service work and definitely get something positive out of that."