The alarm buzzes promptly at 5:40 a.m., rousing Christina Ellsworth from her sleep. She promptly raises the mosquito net covering her bed and is immediately focused. She and roommate Anne Senn are soon off to join their community neighbors, Nicauri and Geno, for a walk on a nearby baseball field. They return to brew coffee, make oatmeal, get ready and they’re off again. They stop by their former host mother’s house to pray before Anne leaves to teach at the local school. Christina stops by Geno’s family store to buy fresh vegetables for lunch, begins preparing the rice and beans and organizes her class lessons or hosts a high school leadership group before her teaching time arrives at 2 p.m.
It’s all part of a “typical” day for Ellsworth (pictured, right) and Senn in Jaibon, a small city in the Valverde province of the Dominican Republic. Ellsworth, a May 2011 University of San Diego graduate, and Senn are here for an independent nine-month commitment they made to serve as teachers in a community they were first introduced to during a Summer 2010 stint at a local orphanage.
“Anne and I went back and forth what seems like one hundred times trying to decide exactly how we wanted to return to Jaibon,” she said. “When we finally came up with the idea to come here on our own, the decision was made almost immediately.”
Both women have a deep passion for education and were inspired by children at the orphanage who were curious and craved learning. They returned and are deeply invested in school. Senn works primarily with elementary children while Ellsworth focuses on high school students and adult English language courses. The leadership group Ellsworth formed demonstrates a visual for the impact she’s experiencing.
“Every day they swarm me before and after school and in between classes to talk about their ideas for student activities and to ask for updates on approvals from the administration,” she said. “It is students like these that make my job easy and every single one of my students is passionate about something. The beauty of being a teacher is having the responsibility of fostering and facilitating those passions to turn their dreams into realities.”
A translated excerpt from an essay by Clara Luisa, a 12th-grade student, validates it. Ellsworth required all students interested in the leadership group to state why they wanted to join and what strengths and talents they would bring to it.
“I am the type of person that cannot simply look at others in need of the things that I have. If I have, everyone has,” Luisa wrote. “Also, there are times that one says that they need help and no one helps them and I ask myself why we don’t help them. If we are a society that is full of strength, why don’t we demonstrate that we are a society with values in solidarity with others? I would like to be a leader to help find a solution to this problem.”
Ellsworth and Senn can provide tools for knowledge as teachers, but because they are naturally experiencing the culture and community as all Dominicans do, they, too, are students.
“We’re constantly chuckling to ourselves, learning things we can live without that we just never dreamed possible,” Ellsworth said. “We’ve been here for three months and still we’re surprised every day with more amenities or resources that people here live without. Not only do we not have hot water or drinking water readily available in our home, but the city’s water gets shut off at least once a week, sometimes for days at a time. Electricity is guaranteed to be out at least 30 percent of the day and we never know exactly what part of the day it’ll be off. Every day we learn to live with less expectations and overcome our obstacles as they come.”
Ellsworth and Senn created a blog, Efecto de Ondo, or Ripple Effect, to tell their stories and have photos to document their experiences. There’s even a video tour of the house they moved into last month. The blog also functions to seek donations for community-based projects and their very modest living expenses. There is a wish list of critical supplies for the school, community and basic personal items.
“The USD theology department will always be what sparked my commitment to serve. No matter what class I was taking, my focus always turned toward actively, and effectively, creating new opportunities for the oppressed. My professors always held me to high academic standards and it’s because of them that I value education so much and fight for my students here to have the opportunities to receive the education they deserve.”
Two USD theology professors, Susan Babka and Patricia Plovanich, provided quality mentoring and academic advisement, Ellsworth said. Participation in University Ministry’s SEARCH retreat and a liberal arts-based education shapes the understanding of her current path.
“This experience wouldn’t be what it is without having my educational experiences at USD. Studying topics such as liberation theology, Christology, Latino/a culture and religious studies, consumerism and gender studies completely shaped my perspective before moving here,” she said. “My undergraduate education at USD is what allows me to think critically about cultural, religious and educational differences rather than walking into my classroom and trying to do everything the ‘American’ way.”
Graduate school awaits Ellsworth next fall. Her time in Jaibon ends in May, but she will return. Ellsworth and Senn want to deepen their relationship with the people and community here. They want what they’re feeling now to grow and never want to lose the desire to live fully.
“To me, to be present means to recognize, experience and cherish moments. Anne and I only have six months until our departure and I have every intention of experiencing each and every day along with its victories and challenges.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
Photos courtesy of the Efecto de Ondo blog