Farmington principal helps build a school and hope

North Trail Elementary Principal Steven Geis visits with students in Constanza, Dominican Republic. Geis spent last week in the Dominican Republic building a vocational school there. This trip was part of the Lifetouch Memory Mission program. (Photo from Lifetouch)

North Trail Elementary Principal Steven Geis visits with students in Constanza, Dominican Republic. Geis spent last week in the Dominican Republic building a vocational school there. This trip was part of the Lifetouch Memory Mission program. (Photo from Lifetouch)

Elementary principal introduces Farmington to Dominican Republic

by Jennifer Chick
Sun Thisweek
Dakota County Tribune

North Trail Elementary Principal Steven Geis just spent a week in the Dominican Republic  and now he is back and ready to share his experiences with his students, introducing them to a world beyond their classroom walls.

In Constanza, Dominican Republic from Jan. 20-28, Geis helped build a vocational school through the Lifetouch Memory Mission project.

While there Monday morning, Geis planned to do a live webstream with students at North Trail. But while he was sitting and sweating in 75 degree weather, his students were home for another day off from school because of record-breaking subzero temperatures. Students were invited to attend the school for the 9:30 a.m. broadcast and available staff members also participated.

His recorded webcast is online at the Lifetouch Memory Mission website, lifetouchmemorymission.com, by clicking the YouTube logo or Google Plus icon. Teachers will be showing the broadcast to North Trail students in the next few days.

Geis spent the week shoveling, not snow, but sand to build pillars and steps for the new school.

“What I thought we were coming down here to do was to build a building, however, it is much more than that, we are building hope,” Geis said in his recorded interview.

Geis, along with approximately 50 other volunteers and educators, flew into the capital of Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo, last week and then traveled to the mountain town of Constanza. Geis said Constanza is an agricultural area where residents grow fresh lettuce, beets, cucumbers and squash, but most of the food grown there is exported. As a Minnesota farmer, Geis was fascinated by the agriculture.

“It’s an impressive and very fertile valley that we are in,” he said during his web broadcast.

The average laborer working in the field there earns $8 per day three days a week.

“It’s incredibly hard to make a living so the whole notion of this is to break that cycle of poverty,” he said.

The current school at Constanza educates 230 students, but once the vocational school is built, 400 students can be educated there in welding, culinary arts, tailoring, construction and other vocational skills.

“The whole notion of this school, it’s revolutionary in the sense that the children,  in their hearts, we are lighting this fire that they can do more,” Geis said.

During the students’ recess breaks, the work group also took a break, playing football, baseball and Frisbee. At times, Geis said the group was frustrated with the slow pace of the project since much of the building is done by hand, but part of the mission was realizing the cultural differences that exist between the United States and the Dominican Republic.

“Not only are we building hope and transformation here, we are building relationships, which is much more powerful and longer lasting,” he said.

The Lifetouch workers will not finish the school building.

“We’ve got the foundation started and the people here are actually going to finish it,” Geis said. “And it’s important that they finish it so that sense of accomplishment that they have it done is a wonderful thing for them.”

While there, Lifetouch and the volunteers spent a day taking pictures of the students. For many, this will be their only printed photo. Once the photos were handed out to students, Geis said they were trading them like baseball cards.

In addition to working at the school, Geis and other volunteers visited with families around Constanza. Most students live in two-room houses the size of living rooms in the United States. The volunteers received a warm welcome everywhere they went.

“You won’t find them any more kind and showing that hospitality,” Geis said. “What I see coming to light is the scripture every single day, the story of the widow’s mite. Here they give what they truly need.”

While there Geis tweeted photos and comments of the week’s activities. He arrived back in Minnesota on Tuesday evening.

“It has been one of the most profound learning experiences and given me a new lens, not only on education, but about culture, about the diversity of our whole society and I look forward to coming back sharing that with you all back in Minnesota,” Geis said as he ended his broadcast Monday morning.

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