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At-risk Berkeley students appreciate helping the poor

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Working hard: Berkeley Institute students in the Dominican Republic (Photograph supplied)

There’s a tiny village in the Dominican Republic that doesn’t have a sewage system; its electricity is best described as intermittent.

Muñoz also doesn’t have running water or paved streets, trash is rarely collected.

It was an eye-opener for Michael Williams, one of five teenagers who travelled there over Easter as part of an ambitious project called the Berkeley Mile.

Wanting to make a difference, John Parfitt and Henry James, staff members of the Berkeley Institute, started it six years ago.

Their idea was to help at-risk boys at the senior school appreciate the opportunities they have.

Michael, 16, said the conditions faced by the 200 Haitians living in Muñoz were far worse than anything he’d imagined. They earn roughly $1 a day fishing, or selling fruit picked in the jungle.

There are parasites in the ground and, because the majority of the children don’t have shoes, they often get sick from walking in their bare feet.

“I thought people would be struggling but everything would be pretty much normal,” Michael said. “I was surprised at how they were living. I didn’t think it would be that bad.”

Half of Muñoz burnt down in a gasoline accident a few months ago. The group of Bermudians spent a week making desks and chairs for the area’s only school.

The experience was a first for Michael.

“I saw the smiles on the children’s faces. That brought joy to me,” he said. “I would love to help them out again. When I came back to Bermuda I felt very fortunate.

“We shouldn’t focus so much on what we want [here]. We should focus on the opportunities we have instead of going in a direction that won’t benefit us.”

Mr James, a business teacher, had seen many of the school’s young men get themselves into trouble. As head of security, Mr Parfitt was often called upon to deal with them.

“John and I sat around and said we wish we could do something about some of these boys,” Mr James said. “I said if we could just take them on a trip to see something different in the world. So we created the programme.”

They chose the name “Mile” as it stands for the work they do: modelling, leading, empowering and educating. Counsellors recommend boys for the programme and Mr Parfitt and Mr James work with them throughout the year. Five are then chosen for the trip, although fundraising challenges have made it possible to travel to Muñoz only three times since 2012. Sponsorship from Jim Butterfield and the Bermuda Union of Teachers has helped.

“We try to pick the boys we think we can reach,” Mr James said. “We are trying to get them involved and show them that there’s a bigger world out there and there are people less fortunate than you. You need to be more appreciative of the life that you have.

“You have to appreciate that some of these boys weren’t friends when they left Bermuda. Some of them are in rival gangs. When they come back they can’t see themselves fighting the other boys from the trip. It is like joining a fraternity. They have been through a certain experience together and there is a bond there. The longer we can keep them like that, the better it is.”

He and Mr Parfitt chose the Dominican Republic because they are frequent visitors themselves.

“I love the country,” Mr James said. “I love the language, the music and the culture and the mountains. Most people don’t realise that between the Dominican Republic and Haiti they have the highest mountains in the Caribbean. Just to drive up into the clouds is something to see.”

He heard about Muñoz after asking if there was somewhere where he could really make a difference.

The Berkeley group helped deliver truckloads of rubble on their first trip.

“In the village itself there is no real road system and it is just sand,” Mr James said. “When it rains — and it rains a lot — it gets very muddy and you get mosquitoes. Just buying trucks of rubble made a big difference. People came from all over the village with their buckets to get some to put in front of their houses.”

Last year, they plastered classroom walls. A mason on site guided the Berkeley boys in mixing cement.

“It was old school,” Mr James said. “They were mixing and carrying heavy buckets back and forth. It was a lot of hard work in 90F heat.”

The boys are expected to keep journals while on the trip. The idea is that they record their feelings rather than their experiences.

“One of them said it is amazing how these children can work together and they have nothing, and in Bermuda we can’t work together to do anything,” Mr Parfitt said. “It was a good experience and at the end they didn’t want to leave.”

Look for the Berkeley Mile on Facebook

A young Muñoz resident wearing a hat given to him by visiting Berkeleyites (Photograph supplied)
The back of Muñoz, Dominican Republic. As the stream’s cliff wears away, some of the buildings are in danger of sliding into it (Photograph supplied)
Working hard: Berkeley Institute students in the Dominican Republic
École Ébenezer in Muñoz, Dominican Republic (Photograph supplied)
Berkeley Institute boys and friends working in Muñoz, Dominican Republic (Photograph supplied)