A Life Well-Lived After Camp Woodstock

Posted on 4/7/15 by Will Kusek

Tony Gronski, Executive Director of Camp Woodstock, often describes summer camp as a training ground for life. Here is the story of former Camp Woodstock camper, Sarah Bonner, who recently began a two-year term of service as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic.

Sarah Bonner grew up in Avon, CT and graduated from Avon High School. She attended Camp Woodstock for ten years, first as a camper, then as a Leader in Training, Counselor in Training, Counselor, and finally, Counselor in Training Director. In March of 2013, she participated in the service trip to the Dominican Republic, and in the spring of 2014, Sarah graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she double majored in Sociology and Social Thought and Political Economy.

Sarah, becoming a Peace Corps volunteer requires a significant commitment to serve two years in a developing country. How did you decide to become a Peace Corps volunteer?
During my final year in college, I began thinking about what I wanted to do with my life and how I could make a contribution to this world. In the Peace Corps, I saw an opportunity that would draw upon my education and skills. The rigorous training for and hard work of progressing through the ranks at Camp Woodstock, as well as the core values gained from Camp Woodstock and other experiences, prepared me well to make the commitment to become a Peace Corps volunteer. I applied in August 2013 and seven long months later - after an exhausting process of interviews, applications, and endless amounts of waiting - I was selected to serve as a Youth, Family, and Community Development Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. My two-year term of service began this past August and it will conclude in October 2016.

What was your "journey" from Avon to the Dominican Republic?
I set off to the Dominican Republic with 41 other Peace Corps volunteers from across the United States. In our suitcases, we carried our bathing suits and Chacos sandals, as well as many hopes for, but little knowledge of the experiences ahead for us. During our first three months in the Dominican Republic, we went through extensive training: how to take public transportation (which is an interesting and sometimes thrilling ride); the Dominican culture; the Spanish language (my command of the language is immensely better than my first day here); and most important, project-specific training for the work each of us would be doing in our assigned communities. At the end of our training period, we were sworn in in a ceremony held in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, promising to dedicate the next two years of our lives to the development of the Dominican Republic and educating our friends and families back home about the Dominican culture. Soon after, each of us set out to our communities to begin our work.

The community that you call home, the culture in which you live, and the work you do are very different from anything you have ever experienced.
Yes, they all are very different. I know this experience is going to be transformational and life changing. My community is a beautiful place to live. It's located in the province of Elias Piña, about 130 miles west of Santo Domingo and about an hour by horse from the Haitian border to the west. It's a small, rural, and humble community. About 400 people live here. We have a small elementary school with five teachers, a community center with a small clinic (which sometimes has one doctor or one nurse), and 54 houses. The people of my community are a mix of Dominican and Haitian descent, so in addition to working on my Spanish every day, I'm also learning some Creole. Elias Piña is the poorest province of the 31 provinces in the Dominican Republic, and my community is one of the poorest communities in this province. The main source of income is agriculture, which brings in very few pesos each month. We have electricity less than half of the day. There is no running water. People gather their drinking and bathing water from the local canal or the river. It can be treated with bleach or boiled down to make it drinkable. I am the first Peace Corps volunteer in my community since 2000. One of the first things I did when I arrived was undertake a study of my community. I learned that, in addition to the severe lack of income, the greatest difficulties in my community are the lack of running water, paved roads, working lampposts, and space to play, as well as low levels of education. In the short time I have been here, I have been struck by how caring and generous the people are - for one another and for their country. There is great passion for developing their nation.

Tell us about the work you are doing.
As I have been in the Dominican Republic only seven months and in my community only four months, the structure of my work is evolving as are my language and cross-cultural skills. Much of my work is developing relationships and building trust with community members. I work primarily with the youth and families. I teach physical education at the elementary school and I've started an English language class, a girls' youth group (se llama Chicas Brillantes), and a boys' youth group (se llama Chicos Superman). In the youth groups, we discuss such topics as healthy relationships, leadership, positive self-esteem, sexual health, and beauty. I've also started a community development group (se llama Junta de Vecinos - "Neighbors Together") and we're working with local leaders to fix the lampposts on our streets as well as in neighboring communities.

Did Camp Woodstock help shape you and your life?
Very much so! My Camp Woodstock experience helped shape my ability to thrive. Camp Woodstock helped me develop attributes and skills that I put to work every day: self-reliance, independence, leadership, flexibility and adaptability. In turn, these help me to be a role model to both the youth and adults. One of the most valuable lessons that I learned at Camp Woodstock is the CHoRR values: Caring, Honesty, Respect, and Responsibility. These are global values that can - and should - be shared with all. Respect for and care about this new culture in which I am living has helped me not only learn about the strengths and weaknesses of my community, but also to understand the people I live and work with on a personal level, to see things from their perspective and be responsive to them.

When I sit with a group of youths here at night, I often think back to doing reflections with my cabins in The Pines of Woodstock and looking up at the starry night sky. When I dance Bachata at night to blasting music in a crowd of friends, I think back to my favorite night activity at camp, the Dance. When I lead my youth groups in a Spanish version of A-roosh-ta-sha, I think back to the spirit at the opening campfires of each session. I often think of the people at Camp Woodstock who helped shape the person I am today. I already know that the people here in this beautiful community will have a similar effect on me and that together we will make a difference. To the Camp Woodstock community around the globe, ¡Saludo!

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