UNF students complete ‘Connect Educate Lead’ Project in Dominican Republic

Zach Singer

By: Zach Singer, Contributing Writer

 

A UNF student brought internet-enabled computers to a school in a Dominican city. Photo by Andrew Noble.

 

Before UNF interdisciplinary studies senior JuanCarlos Villatoro came along, the Centro Educativo in Pananao, Dominican Republic lacked reliable electricity and floors and was ridden with carcinogenic asbestos.

The Centro Educativo is a small school in the Dominican Republic that provides education for approximately 135 students, from kindergarten through eighth grade. The school was chosen at random due to the fact that schools in the Dominican Republic are under-funded.

In 2008, Villatoro hosted a pencil drive for the school. During the drive, he noted that the school had scarce teaching resources and lacked computers and other standard classroom technology.

“How can they compete on a global market when they are learning lessons that are absolute in developed and emerging nations,” Villatoro said.

As a result, he created the Connect Educate Lead project to help Third World countries such as the Dominican Republic become technologically literate by supplying knowledge and equipment.

When Rafael Alburquerqu, vice president of the Dominican Republic, initially heard about the CEL project, he allocated $250,000 to renovate the school. The funding provided the school with new restrooms, running water, gates for security, cemented floors and a new, asbestos-free roof.

In August 2011, Villatoro, along with 17 UNF students, erected a fully-functional computer lab with 12 computers, all with Internet access, in the Pananao community.

The lab is contained in a 40-foot shipping container, the same type found on semi-trucks. It receives all of its energy through solar panels.

The students began using the computers with ease within a month with assistance from Kahn Academy, a nonprofit online resource that provides educational videos in numerous subjects and languages.

“They went from having no computer literacy to using modern day technology,” Villatoro said.

The lab has impacted the community significantly. Lab users are able to plan for their professions by using business software such as word processing and slide show programs. Additionally, the lab has allowed farmers in Pananao to increase their communication with buyers and sellers across the world.

Today, the community remains responsible for the maintenance of the lab. To help with Internet and electricity costs, a savings account was created for the entire community to contribute.

After his first visit to the Centro Educativo in Pananao, Villatoro promised the community supplies and a computer lab. He organized the trip himself.

Villatoro and his crew faced adversities, such as having to reach into their own pockets to fund the trip. Following through with the promise of computers and supplies proved no small feat.

Leonora Bojko-sosa, a UNF business management major who accompanied Villatoro on the trip, used her own money to fly to New York to ask Jet Blue to sponsor the trip. Jet Blue provided all of the airfare. Crowley Maritime shipped the 40-foot shipping container for the crew. Office Depot also helped by donating more than 1,000 pounds of school supplies, such as pencils, books and backpacks. All three companies provided their services for free.

Despite the challenges Villatoro and the crew faced, they managed to keep their promise.

Currently, Villatoro is collaborating with UNF alumnus Noel San Antonio, who began building a school in the Philippines in 2006. In December, Villatoro and San Antonio will venture to the Philippines, along with a new crew, to finish the school that San Antonio started.

Villatoro plans to duplicate what he has done in the Dominican Republic and have the community take ownership, maintain the lab and pay for the Internet.

Villatoro and San Antonio met in spring of 2010 in a high-tech entrepreneurship class and began exchanging stories of the projects they pioneered.

San Antonio started his building project in 2006. It was a collaborative effort with citizens from both the Philippines and Jacksonville. The school was built from the ground up, with help from the community.

“It’s a great motivation for myself just knowing that I am able to help little kids, especially those who are less fortunate,” San Antonio said. “It motivates me to do more in helping other people and encourages me to give more.”

Villatoro will begin fundraising efforts in February to help San Antonio purchase the remaining necessities needed to complete the school. He is also beginning to look for volunteers for his upcoming trip.

“We ended up with a team where some people have traveled, but for a lot of people, it was the first time they left Florida,” Villatoro said. “It was a two-way stream where students helped out, and at the same time, they learned new cultures and did things they never thought they could do.”

To donate, make inquiries for volunteering or for more information visit http://celproject.weebly.com/index.html

 

Email Zach at [email protected]