Guest Contributor – John Donner ‘16
The first time you see the village of Vermuja (which translates literally to “The Little Houses”), you are left speechless. Small streams of dirty water mixed with human waste trickle across the road, and trash is strewn throughout the fields. The only bathrooms in existence are those that have been built by Sigs past, and children often go to the bathroom in their own backyard. Disease spreads quickly, and infections run rampant when the kids play all day in unsanitary grounds. The problems of this village are not much different than the problems of civilizations from thousands of years ago, without the advancements of modern society that many take for granted.
Just as other basic waste disposal systems were made in the past to help fix these problems, the latrines that the Brothers of Sigma Chi construct help to mitigate the disease and poor living conditions that persist in the area. Using Peace Corps construction standards, each latrine is built to last 20 to 30 years, made with a mixture of stones, concrete rocks, cement, new wood and metal. Over the last five years alone, the River Campus’ Gamma Pi chapter has sent over 30 brothers to the town of Don Juan in the Dominican Republic, and the program has raised over $65,000 to make construction possible. To date, over 20 latrines have been built, in addition to a church and community center. Work has also been done on various community homes.
The University of Rochester Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (UR EWB) also decided to get involved in the Dominican Republic, building off of the 5-year commitment that the Gamma Pi chapter has made here. Two Brothers, past-consul Adam Hartman ’15 and Chandler Woo ’17, also members of UR EWB helped establish the connections with the group and Sigma Chi’s connections in Don Juan. This has sparked what is now a 5-year program for the Rossello Taller School community, where Brothers and engineers will design and implement a potable water system for the school. Built on solar power that will last generations, the system will be able to store up to 8,000 gallons of water. The project will use Dominican supplies and resources, stimulating the local economy. It will be owned by the school community upon completion.
However, what Sigma Chi brings to these regions of the Dominican Republic goes further than the implementation of these projects. These service trips have established a social foothold in the community; a connection that seeks to build not only current but long-term benefits.
There is a Spanish word, compartir, which literally translates as “to share.” In the Dominican Republic, this means to share life and community with one another. The Brothers have established a connection with the locals that falls in line with the meaning of compartir. They have given their time and attention to the local people by actively integrating into the community and getting to know them and their culture.
Service trips are often thought of as a way of bringing value to others. In reality, the Brothers get just as much out of it as they give. By design, the Brothers who go on these trips often gain valuable experiences, insights and connections. They grow as men, building character and growing an appreciation for those who are less fortunate. Experiences such as these build men who will leave a positive impact on the world and live a life that embodies the true values of Sigma Chi.
Going to Don Juan in the Dominican Republic is not unlike a true initiation week experience. Having no connection with anything outside of the small village where Brothers stay cultivates introspection and internal growth. The physical work hardens each individual, and the language barrier makes living with the locals a healthy challenge. Some Brothers use their free time to write, and there is even time set aside for group discussions, reflecting on their time in Don Juan and what they’ve seen or felt.
Justin Brennan ’17 reflects: “My housemother graciously gave me her bed so that I could sleep comfortably after a day of hard work. I don’t usually experience such generosity, and it really left an impact on me. This has made me want to pay this generosity forwards through genuine means rather than tossing money at organizations as we do back home.”
In developed nations people have options and choices in their lives that aren’t so readily available in third-world countries. Spending time with their host families, the Brothers grow to appreciate this privilege and what other amenities they have back in America: higher quality food and dependable facilities. It is experiences like these that shape what impact a man will have on society later in life. Seeing these communities today can affect how people make decisions decades from now as leaders – decisions that could impact an entire country by helping to mitigate poverty.
The missionary with whom we worked came to meet the educational, spiritual and physical needs of the region around Don Juan and has pushed for long-term solutions to poverty including the establishment of the Rosello Taller Primary School for over four hundred students. This project, working to assist communities with basic needs that we often take for granted, fits the growing vision of our Gamma Pi experiences. Sigma Chi has only just begun in the Dominican Republic, and there is active interest in and out of the Fraternity to continue to provide aid. The future is happening now – the impact is not just in the present; rather the circle of justice is widening towards progressive change.
One thing that this trip has taught our chapter is that true Sigma Chis don’t merely live their lives following the values of the Fraternity. Beyond that, they help others to live a life that embodies friendship, justice and learning. We strive to cultivate deep, reciprocal relationships, fight for what is morally and ethically right, and remain open to the opinions and ideas around us. Coming to the Dominican Republic has been a tremendous example of how anyone can lead by example to create a world where everyone follows these values.