Sustaining Hope

By Christopher P. Sarachilli | September 30, 2015

The road to Monte Plata is at times smooth, bumpy, paved, or dirt-ridden.

One of the Dominican Republic’s two major highways, it is bordered by contrasting images. On the left, azure Caribbean waters extend into the horizon, foregrounded by palm trees and tropical flowers. On the right, run-down gas stations and cement buildings peek out of the foliage, their skeletal iron frames bent and jagged.

Travel by bus to Monte Plata from Santo Domingo, the nation’s capital, takes a little under an hour. The road winds as it heads north, leaving the sea behind. The landscape is now open and rural. Mountains border the far-off distance.

It is March 13, the first day of Preview. Crowded on the bus are nearly 20 first-year students from Arcadia, as well as others from Drexel University and the Art Institute of Illinois—students, educators, a construction worker, and an environmental scientist. They point outside, take photos behind glass windows, and make excited remarks over the 1-2-3-4 rhythms of bachata playing on the radio.

It is still half an hour away from Monte Plata, the capital city of one of the country’s poorest and most rural provinces (also called Monte Plata). Two women at the front of the bus orient the group to the next few days. Under their guidance, half of the Arcadia students will build a system that uses sustainable farming technology known as aquaponics; another group will travel into a peripheral town to interview and build rapport with the local community.

The aquaponics unit is the first step in a process that ultimately will lead to the building of a school in Monte Plata, with a curriculum developed and managed by Schools for Sustainability (S4S), the nonprofit run by Alyssa Ramos-Reynoso ’12 and Jacquelyn Crutchley ’13.

Ramos-Reynoso, the organization’s founder and CEO, laughs as she speaks, emphasizing words with touches of excitement. She details adjustments students have to make while in the country: throwing out, rather than flushing, toilet paper; adapting to the more flexible “Dominican time,” during which a 15-minute task can easily take an hour; and prepping for the emotional and physical toll that service trips take.

She shifts between excited chatter and grave explanations of the problems facing the country. Her voice grows solemn as she explains that women in the Dominican Republic typically are fated to become maids, cooks, or prostitutes; that same voice becomes cheerful when she discusses the waterfall and cacao farm the group will visit tomorrow. 

Crutchley, S4S’s chief operating officer, remains quiet, though she will use her fluent Spanish over the next week to connect with a group of locals. After Ramos-Reynoso’s orientation, Crutchley reassures the group that they are safe in Monte Plata.

“Everyone knows you’re coming,” she says. “They ask, ‘When are the Americans getting here?’”

Beginnings, or, how to acquire land in the Dominican Republic

At 15 years old, Ramos-Reynoso lived with her family in New York City, where she attended the all-girl, Blue Ribbon-winning Aquinas High School. When her family decided to move, she chose to keep her scholarship to Aquinas and live in subway stations and bus stops in the Bronx. Food and shelter were a regular struggle until friends offered their homes.

She majored in political science at Arcadia, studied abroad in Tanzania and India, took part in an alternative spring break trip to New Orleans, and graduated magna cum laude. 

“I always knew [building the school] was something that I wanted to do, but studying abroad really helped me conceptualize the idea a lot more,” she says. “When you do [service] projects like this, you think, ‘I’m going to help the community,’ but the person who is really helped is you. Without the trips that I’ve taken, I wouldn’t be here right now. I wouldn’t be doing the kind of work I’m doing. These types of [experiences] prepare future leaders.”

After graduating, Ramos-Reynoso worked with a former faculty member to launch S4S. While her dedication was unquestioned, she needed to gather a network of people with skill sets and expertise—teachers, education professionals, marketers, and those familiar with green technology—to realize her dream.

Crutchley, meanwhile, envisioned building a community-oriented school when, after losing her father and grandparents in the spring of her first year at Arcadia, support from her hometown of Ewing, N.J., helped assuage her grief. Former teachers cooked for her family twice a week, and the community watched over them when Crutchley returned to Arcadia a few weeks later. She triple majored in Spanish, anthropology, and sociology and studied in Mexico and Guatemala, where she helped with medical translation on an Arcadia service trip with the nonprofit Hearts in Motion.

“After [the support I had], I wanted to create a community,” she says. “The best way for me to do that was to build a school.”

Despite its newness—S4S received its 501(c)(3) nonprofit classification less than two years ago—the group organized this trip and raised $5,500 through crowdfunding website IndieGoGo for the materials and costs of building the system. Last October, through connections with former Dominican president Leonel Fernandez, they entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Cesar Fernandez, an engineer who worked closely with the president during his time in office, granting them 22 acres of land. 

While Ramos-Reynoso and Crutchley originally hoped to build a school in the Philadelphia area, stateside legal and financial barriers made progress difficult. Once they developed the connection with President Fernandez, the choice to build in the Dominican Republic seemed obvious: Ramos-Reynoso is half-Dominican on her mother’s side, and she had lived there for periods as a child.

By 2020, they hope to have the school operating. But first, there is a list of projects to complete: more aquaponics systems, vermiculture units that grow worms and compost, anaerobic digesters (which transforms biodegradable waste into usable fuel), and student dormitories. Green technology will be a focus of the school’s curriculum, and S4S wants students to learn through project-based education. By building these systems now, they ensure that the curriculum will be in place once the classrooms are built. They hope to bring future groups from Arcadia and other organizations to complete the rest of the projects and begin construction of the school.

The school’s curriculum will focus on practical, eco-friendly skills that apply to people in Monte Plata: farming techniques, animal husbandry, and land cultivation. Years—possibly decades—from now, Crutchley and Ramos-Reynoso hope to open schools in Philadelphia, Tanzania, and wherever else they can make a difference.

Ramos-Reynoso has the school’s tenets, created by the group’s curriculum development team, written on a piece of paper with a clock face scrawled on.

Community, democracy, identity, and action represent the 12, 3, 6, and 9 hour marks. Between them are more than a dozen other words and phrases that the curriculum development team has chosen to define the school’s ethos: “cultural relevance,” for instance, and “accountability,” “self-awareness,” “experiential learning,” “service,” and “collaboration,” beginning with this gathering of local input years before breaking ground.

“We can dream all we want, but we can’t build the curriculum if we don’t know what people want,” says Rochelle Peterson, adjunct professor of education, who teaches the Preview course with Erica Davila, former associate professor of education. Both serve on S4S’s curriculum development team.

Getting by with a little help

The bus arrives in Monte Plata at the Hotel El Toro, which has a labyrinthine layout that climbs three stories. Locals dine and drink at a restaurant on the ground floor, and guests watch telenovelas and local news on the TV in the common room. The group rests for a few minutes before re-boarding the bus for La Paradita—“The Little Stop”—a roadside restaurant where they will eat traditional Dominican meals like mofongo, tostones, mashed yuca, and rice and beans for the remainder of the trip.

La Paradita is the closest thing S4S has to a home base, both in the Dominican Republic and the United States, where Ramos-Reynoso holds team meetings at her Northeast Philadelphia home or through Google Hangouts video chats. While Arcadia and Illinois students eat, Ramos-Reynoso and Crutchley schedule upcoming meetings and address problems, eating with both the Arcadia faculty leading Preview and the local connections working closely with them in the Dominican Republic.

Their chief team on the ground consists of La Paradita’s Isabel Voigt, her boyfriend, and two drivers. A graduate of the tourism program at Universidad Dominicana O&M in Santo Domingo, Voigt is using her degree for the first time on this trip, due to the near-complete lack of tourism in Monte Plata. Her mother, Lydia, served as assistant to Charlie Mariotti, the senator for Monte Plata, who uses La Paradita to hold political meetings and dinners.

After dinner, the group returns to the hotel to sleep amid faint Friday night sounds of reggaeton playing from the town discoteca. Tomorrow is for cultural excursions throughout Monte Plata. Then, the service begins. For the next week, this is their home.

Preparing to build

Aquaponics 101

Fish swim in a tank of water, eating fish food and making fish waste—ammonia-rich urine and solids

Waste water flows into a second tank through piping connected with a bivalve; when that valve is switched, solid waste flows out an exit pipe to be used as fertilizer.

The remaining fluids flow through more piping into a third tank lowered below the surface. Inside are hundreds of small plastic caps that provide surface area for ammonia-eating bacteria, which naturally begin to grow in the presence of fish urine.

These bacteria remove ammonia and produce nitrate. Ammonia-free, nitrate-rich water is pumped to a spout sprinkling above a fourth tank of water. Styrofoam sheets float on the surface of the water with uniform holes drilled into them that hold small cups filled with rock dust—finely crushed bits of rock spun into a spongey substance with the texture of cotton candy. Seeds are ‘planted’ in the rock dust, treated to the ideal pH, and watered by the spout.

The growing plants purify the water, which is sent through a final series of pipes to the original fish tank, providing the fish clean water. The cycle continues ad infinitum.

At 6:40 in the morning, Monte Plata wakes with the sunrise, which gives brilliance to pastel walls and glistens off of sheet metal rooftops. Roosters crow, dogs search for scraps, church bells ring over the prerecorded sound of a preacher, and the smell of empanadas and chicharrón (fried pork rinds with fatty flavor and fattier texture) emanates from street corner displays.

A few miles away, the 22-acre aquaponics site offers little protection from the sun, making work difficult. About a dozen students begin constructing the aquaponics unit. A man named Jose manages the land, living there with his wife and toddler-aged child. Aside from his house, two water troughs, a bathroom without running water, and a pig pen, the land is a hilly collage of barbed wire, palm trees, and yuca and banana plants. It is suitable for this aquaponics unit, but because the land lacks foundation, it isn’t ideal for traditional construction, says Jody Luna, associate professor of interior design at the Illinois Institute of Art–Schaumburg, who has run an environmental design firm since 2007. Even further vegetation units will need alternative methods, such as building up the land or installing Earthships, a construction method that uses recycled tires to build into the earth from the side of a hill.

Constructing a school requires a more in-depth strategy. Grant money could provide the most obvious solution of hiring landscapers to flatten or build up the land, but cheaper options exist. Recycled shipping containers, for instance, are an unconventional form of affordable, sturdy dormitories and facilities. Though these issues are still a few years away, they are present on Ramos-Reynoso’s and Crutchley’s minds.

The aquaponics system is an exercise in problem solving, beginning with transporting supplies. PVC pipes and connectors, solar panels, pumps, plastic caps, rock dust, styrofoam boards, screwdrivers, drills, power saws, paint and brushes, sponges and cleaning supplies, and other assorted tools were scattered among suitcases and carry-ons or purchased locally. Transporting solar panels and a 75-pound battery presented a larger challenge, landing the S4S team in the interrogation room at Las Americas International Airport. The connection to President Fernandez got them through unscathed and, according to Ramos-Reynoso, customs officials were energized by the group’s idea.

Intermediate bulk container (IBC) totes, which transport anything from chemical solvents to molasses to lard, are needed in order to be recycled for use as water tanks. The IBC totes were particularly difficult for S4S to acquire; by the day before construction, the group was still without those critical parts. Ramos-Reynoso mentioned the troubles to Voigt, S4S’s most treasured local asset. Living in Monte Plata, she knows the town and how to get things done. Hearing the IBC tote troubles, she made a phone call. The following day, the totes were in front of the hotel.

Local favors are a crucial part of success in building the system: A neighbor knows someone with a large saw in his backyard; a friend of a friend owns a farm and would be happy to supply tilapia; someone has a contact who can secure used shipping containers coated in coagulated chicken fat that clogs the drain plug.

Lasting change

A few miles away, in a small, one-street community outside the town of Sabana Grande de Boya, the rest of the Arcadia students, along with Ramos-Reynoso and Crutchley, assess the needs of the locals. As the bus drives past the village school, elementary students run alongside, laughing, waving, and pointing. When school lets out around two o’clock, they rush toward the group of Americans to take pictures, play games, blow bubbles, and braid otherworldly straight blonde hair. After the fifth grade, these students will have the option to continue on to high school. But the school is miles away, and there is work to be done at home. Few leave the village for high school.

College is even less common. Altagracia, a community leader in her mid-20s, is an exception. She balances studying at a university with taking care of her toddler-aged girl.

“There are a lot of people who come and go,” she says. “Some people address our immediate needs, and that is good for a while. That holds us over. But there are very few organizations that bring us lasting change, and that’s what we need. I would send my daughter to go to this school.”

Altagracia relates some of the problems the community faces, including the process of gathering something as essential as water—when it runs out, a group bearing buckets walks out of town, across a highway, and to a remote cave. Previously, teenagers and adults scooped water from the cave to bring back to town, but, after a partial collapse, children are now the only ones able to fit inside, and so the responsibility falls on them.

Despite the frequent lack of necessities, hope sustains many in the town. A pastor, on the verge of blindness, clings to a vision for his community.

“My vision is that they don’t have to commute over an hour for a hospital or die on the way there,” he says. “They don’t have to travel for water, because the pump built for that purpose will work. My vision is one where the youth have the skills and opportunities to build a community for themselves and that these opportunities are afforded to them—that they aren’t neglected by their country.”

By Wednesday afternoon, the group at the aquaponics site is finishing up the system. PVC pipes snake from one tank to the next. Tilapia swim in the trough. Seed beds sit in a styrofoam board floating in an IBC tote. The final step involves attaching the solar panel to the roof of the fish tank and connecting it to the sump pump.

As students connect nodes on the battery, a bus arrives carrying the surveying group. They’ve just shared tearful goodbyes with the townspeople, assuring them that, yes, they will return. As Altagracia noted, too often, in this land so far removed from the rest of the country, people are told that help is coming, that their voices are being heard; too often, they are left without assistance by a group that has failed or lost interest.

Ramos-Reynoso and Crutchley will return in November with members of Women International Leaders of Greater Philadelphia, which  connects women from diverse backgrounds to empower people in developing countries. They will bring goods—vitamins, school supplies, shoes,  Spanish-to-English dictionaries—that address immediate needs.

“They’re really used to organizations coming in and getting their hopes up and then abandoning them,” says Ramos-Reynoso. “We want to show them that we’re still here for them—that we’re committed.”

The sight of the finished unit softens thoughts of farewells for the Arcadia students, who have grown close to the townspeople. With the flip of a switch, running water begins to flow, bringing to fruition days of manual labor in 90-degree weather. Water from the fish tank travels through the waste tank into the sump tank, up a pipe to the grow bed, and back into the fish tank. The system is complete, self-contained, and operating.

Teaming up

On Thursday, Ramos-Reynoso and Crutchley attend a ceremony held by the Batey Relief Alliance (BRA) at the Radisson Hotel in Santo Domingo. 

BRA, named one of the best nongovernmental organizations in developing countries by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, aims to improve self-sufficiency in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Peru, and the United States. The Alliance has worked with President Bill Clinton through the Clinton Global Initiative and, in December 2014, signed an agreement with the mayor of Sabana Grande de Boya with the goal of expanding critical health services and food security for
thousands of vulnerable and impoverished families struggling in the country’s rural areas, according to the agency.

Recognition from other nonprofits is not only an affirmation of S4S’s progress; it is necessary for the shared resources and respect that comes with such recognition. S4S needs nonprofit credibility, proof to investors and supporters that they are the real deal.

When pitching the school, S4S invariably receives one of two responses, says Crutchley: “How can we help?” or “Good luck.”

“It’s hard when people can’t visualize the scope if they don’t already believe in this kind of change,” she says. “We know that after this first school is built, people are going to want to buy in.” 

A lack of funds is the most daunting obstacle that S4S has faced at every step of its journey—not only because money can provide supplies and travel costs, but because it would allow Ramos-Reynoso and Crutchley to work at the nonprofit full time. As it is, both work 40-hour weeks—Ramos-Reynoso for a travel agency, Crutchley for a food tour company in Philadelphia. Both estimate that, with their jobs and the nonprofit, they put in an average of 80 hours every week, leading to stress, exhaustion, and sickness. For S4S, money is time.

In April, they learned that, after making it to the top 15 percent of applicants, they were not named finalists for a $90,000 grant that would have afforded them the opportunity to work on the nonprofit full time. Despite the setback, they are undeterred.

“I don’t think I would ever give up on S4S,” Ramos-Reynoso says. “This is what I want to do with my life, and for the past 10 years I’ve known that I want to do it. I’m not going to stop.”

After leaving the BRA meeting, Ramos-Reynoso and Crutchley join the Preview group in downtown Santo Domingo for a street fair showcasing cuisine and goods local to each region of the Dominican Republic. Two large tents run by the Ministry of Agriculture display sustainable and agricultural exhibits. Despite abuse by large-scale agricultural corporations, failing education and health care systems, and scant opportunity for work, the exhibits reveal that sustainability is a priority in a country that doesn’t guarantee running water. 


On a Sunday in late April, Ramos-Reynoso comes to Arcadia to collect posters that the Preview students presented at Global Expo to hang on her wall as reminders of the trip.

“It’s surreal,” she says. “Jackie and I were two of those first-year students not that long ago. I would have never pictured us putting a Preview class together.” 

When asked how the aquaponics system is operating in the Dominican Republic, she smiles.

Jose is running it, she explains, and the first seedlings have sprouted.