While many students spent the week before spring break eager to spend time away from school work, sixth-grader Jessy Tientcheu of Upper Marlboro spent the week painting a school room in the Dominican Republic.
Jessy, 11, was part of a group of nine Prince George’s County fifth- and sixth-graders who visited the Dominican Republic to perform community service. The March 23-28 trip — taken the week before county schools’ spring break — was facilitated through a Silver Spring-based nonprofit that started this year and seeks to instill a “culture of service” in children.
“Fifth- and sixth-graders are in a decisive part of their lives, so if you expose them to a different culture and get them involved in international service at this age, you can create a culture of service early on,” said Katie Esmark, a former third-grade teacher at Arrowhead Elementary School in Upper Marlboro and the founder of Katie’s International Kids.
The organization, consisting of Esmark and a six-member board of directors, meets at the Largo-Kettering library, said Esmark, who lives in Silver Spring. Esmark planned the trip for the week before spring break to match her availability since she is a reading specialist for Bren Mar Park Elementary School in Alexandria, Va.
The students visited the Joan Rose Foundation, a Michigan-based nonprofit that runs a daily development program in the Dominican Republic providing lunch, education and other services to 93 children, according to the foundation’s website.
Their visit was especially timely since the foundation had recently paid for construction there and didn’t have enough money to paint the rooms that the students painted, using material Katie’s International purchased, said David Palmer, president of Joan Rose.
“It was very generous and will help us do a lot of good,” he said.
Jessy, an Arrowhead student, said she learned a lot from the time she spent helping the foundation.
“It made me tear up a little. Some of these kids didn’t even have shoes. It really was them against the world,” she said.
“I noticed a lot of little kids caring for even younger ones,” said Tamia Meade, 11, an Arrowhead fifth-grader from Upper Marlboro. “You’d see 6-year-olds taking care of 4-year-olds.”
Esmark said she prepared the students for the trip with a five-month program that taught them about the Dominican Republic and provided lessons in Spanish, the primary language there.
Esmark chose the country because she wants to tie cultural service to useful language skills such as Spanish, she said.
The nonprofit selected students, starting at Arrowhead, based on an application that asked students their opinions on social issues, she said. Students from Cora L. Rice Elementary School in Landover and Samuel P. Massie Academy in Forestville also participated, Esmark said. The nonprofit raised money for the students’ travel at $1,000 each and parents paid their own way. Esmark hopes to take new students to a French-speaking African country next year, she said. She said she is not limiting future applications to Prince George’s students and is looking beyond Maryland, as well.
“I’d never heard of the Dominican Republic before we started learning about it,” said Sadani Percy-Boyd, 12, an Arrowhead sixth-grader from Upper Marlboro. “Now, I want to figure out how else I can help the people there.”