Living and learning
Peace Corps volunteer seeks to establish library in Dominican Republic village
Carly Perez lives in a small, poorly insulated abode that, when she's lucky, provides electricity six hours a day. Cold, non-potable water flows from the faucet whenever it takes a notion, and a rat recently took up residence in her dresser.
Internet access entails a bumpy, 40-minute ride over rutted roads to the nearest city.
In terms of creature comforts, the Rock Creek native isn't living the traditional American Dream. Still, it's unlikely Perez, 24, would trade her experience as an Education Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic for an extended vacation in the Bahamas.
'They've taught me so much,' she says of the natives she's lived and worked with since spring 2009. 'They're such generous people. They've accepted me as their own family and really look out for me. It's nice to have that kind of support.'
Talking on her cellphone from Santiago, the largest city near her home village of Rio Grande Abajo, the 2005 Westview High School graduate sounds comfortable with her decision to postpone career building for an opportunity to teach while learning another way of life.
'Instead of always wanting, wanting, they can be satisfied with what they have now. There's more of a premium on human interactions,' she says. 'It's been such a great lesson for me.'
A place of knowledge
In the Latin American village of about 500 residents, Perez teaches English in a four-room primary school serving kindergarten through fourth grade. She also helms two youth-oriented groups and works to raise community awareness on issues such as a cholera epidemic. She even managed to provide the local baseball team $1,000 of equipment from Nike, the sports apparel giant from her Oregon back yard.
Inspired by the poor resources and materials at her school's disposal, Perez's most recent focus is on establishing a library and resource room. She sees the Library Project as a way to abate increasingly failing student standards by providing reading material, school supplies, reading groups and computer labs and classes.
'The Library Project is a means to really improve students' literacy rates,' she says. 'It (intends) to put more focus on kids' learning from the start - how to read and how to read correctly. It means to give students, and offer teachers, resources they'd have no other possible way to maintain.'
Because of funding problems and a general lack of support, students as well as teachers are suffering.
'None of the computers are being used right now,' she says. 'The kids are not aware of having books to read for fun, and teachers don't have any sort of materials. It's a real battle to keep the kids under control and get through the day. They're not learning at the level they're supposed to be learning.'
On her way toward raising $4,000 for the project, Perez envisions a resource room that provides computer access to students in Rio Grande Abajo as well as those in even more remote locations. She's partnering with teachers and prominent community leaders to raise money and provide energy for the project.
'Our overall hope and dream is to start up reading groups and computer classes.'
Perez - whose mission ends in May 2012 - has to stay on her toes to maintain the project's momentum.
'I'd really like to have the project funded by January and get the reading groups and classes going by February or March,' she says. 'That's ideal.'
As if that weren't enough to contend with, Perez also has to keep an eye on her post-Peace Corps future. A journalism and media studies major at the University of San Francisco, where she graduated in 2009, Perez is looking into master's programs in international development, possibly at an East Coast university.
'I don't know if it will be this (coming) year or next,' she says. 'But it's a major goal to head toward.'
Carly's dad, Carlos Perez, said his own service work in the 1970s may have inspired his daughter, but he gives Carly full credit for her volunteer ambitions.
'By and large, it's intrinsic in her,' he says from his Washington County home. 'She's always wanted to volunteer and provide service to others.'
The elder Perez, who retired as deputy superintendent of the Hillsboro School District in 2009, says he envisions Carly choosing a career that's geared toward helping the less fortunate.
'I think she'll take some non-traditional path, and possibly wind up working for a nonprofit,' he says. 'I don't think she's made for the corporate world, by any means.'
While it's been difficult for Carlos and his wife, Corine, to have their daughter living far away in less-than-ideal circumstances, Carlos says a couple visits to the village reassured them Carly's in good company.
'She's a pretty strong, remarkable young lady,' he says. 'As much as we'd like to have her home in the U.S., both of us are realistic enough to realize if she decides to do something, she's gonna do it.'
Carly says the personal growth - not to mention the inspiration she's received from her host family and other Dominican Republic natives - is well worth enduring the occasional cultural shakeup of, say, waking to the sound of a pig being slaughtered.
'The whole experience has been life changing for me,' she says. 'As Americans, we're so obsessed with multi-tasking. Dominicans focus on one thing at a time, which makes the experience more enjoyable.
'Sure, this country lacks so much. But what they lack isn't in the form of human relationships.'
To learn more or to donate to the Library Project, visit https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail and projdesc=517-468 .