Katie Neil returns to the Dominican Republic

Katie helped and met many kids, and bonded with them as she built the water bottle houses
Courtesy of Katie Neil
Katie met and helped many kids, bonding with them as she built the water bottle houses.

Instead of partying over spring break 2015, senior Katie Neil is going back to a volunteer service program in the Dominican Republic.

This past summer she spent 21 days in a city called Puerto Plata, on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic through Global Leadership Adventures.

Neil said she wanted to do some sort of service project abroad to “make something” of her summer long before summer began last year. Sarah Stubbs, a former Decatur student and Neil’s close friend, convinced her to look into Global Leadership Adventures.

Global Leadership Adventures is an “international volunteer program for teens,” according to their website. There are programs through GLA all around the world, developing people into leaders while helping people in need.

Neil looks up to Stubbs because of her involvement with the service effort in the Dominican Republic as well. Seeing all that Stubbs ended up doing, even in Decatur, inspired Neil to follow in her footsteps.

Stubbs raised money, and bought water filters for families in the Dominican Republic for her senior project, and then went back to deliver and distribute them.

When Neil went to the Dominican Republic, she visited impoverished towns and volunteered, doing three main jobs.

She helped make buildings out of water bottles, by stacking them sideways and filling in around them with dirt. These buildings were to become clinics, schools, and mixed use facilities including churches and community centers.

“A lot of kids there don’t have access to anything like that, so it gives them a place to come together, to learn, or to build a community or to host community meetings,” Neil said.

She also distributed water filters to Haitian refugees, and helped set up a new aquaponics system.

Aquaponics is a way of combining fish farming and soilless plant farming in only water. The water is full of nutrients because of natural nutrients that fish waste contains, and the plants thrive in the nutrient rich environment. The plants help the fish by consuming the nutrients and thereby cleaning the water the fish live in.

Neil was doing the physical labor to get the aquaponic systems installed.

“It was already designed by the time I got there. For the time I was there, we dug the trenches to put the actual system in,” she said.

The biggest project Neil was involved with was the distribution of water filters to families in need.

“I had to interview Haitian and Dominican families in Spanish, because I was one of the only fluent ones,” she said.

Neil had to ask about how many people lived at each house, if they were sick, and if they understood how to use a water filter properly.

“A lot of people use them for plant pots eventually,” Neil said.

These interviews helped determine how to distribute the filters so that they would impact the most they could.

The trip helped her realize that one person can’t create change alone.

“It really inspired me to get other people active, but it made me feel amazing at the time to know that these children that I saw with smiles on their faces know that they were going to get something out of [me being there].”

One of the biggest differences that she noticed while in the Dominican Republic, besides the obvious poverty of the area, was the overall happiness of the people.

“All people here seem to do is complain about something that they have, but these people are just really happy to be alive and I think that the level of happiness they have isn’t something people [in the United States] have all the time.”

Neil thinks others should get involved because “it helps to raise the awareness of poverty in general,” and she believes awareness is the first step to fix the problem of world poverty.

This spring break she is going to be training, and this summer she will be distributing water filters and mentoring people doing their first service adventure.

“I’ll be mentoring kids, and working with all the locals of the towns as well. I’ll be doing what I did before plus more responsibility,” Neil said.

She will be going back to the exact same places with the same program, Global Leadership Adventures. Neil said she is officially hired this year, but says it will functionally be the same as before.

She wants to continue her service even though this is the last year she will go to the Dominican Republic.

“I know that I will also volunteer and serve for my entire life because I know I have been fortunate to have all the opportunities I’ve been given, and I want to give back to the world,” she said.

For more information about Global Leadership Adventures visit www.experiencegla.com