Tessa L. Getchis, aquaculture extension educator and aquaculture extension specialist for Connecticut Sea Grant and UConn Extension for the last 20 years, spent last August through December in the Dominican Republic with her husband Ryan and their two school-aged daughters. While past trips to this island nation had been vacation-length recreational time, this was an extended stay with a decidedly challenging mission. She would be teaching marine science to middle-school aged girls from impoverished families, taking on some big problems while imparting hope and empowerment. The University of Connecticut and Connecticut Sea Grant supported her project there, and this story was originally published in the Spring-Summer 2020 issue of Wrack Lines, the magazine of the Connecticut Sea Grant College Program, located at UConn Avery Point.
This past fall I had the incredible opportunity to move my family to a Caribbean island, take on a new job as a middle school marine science teacher and be part of an organization that’s cultivating future female leaders in environmental activism.
My family has been traveling to the north shore of the Dominican Republic for more than a decade. This country, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with its neighbor Haiti, is a place of unimaginable beauty. Palm trees sway over wind-swept beaches, coral reefs span turquoise waters, waterfalls tumble over jagged green mountains and narrow streams meander through grasslands. Its diverse landscapes make it perfect for ecotourism including hiking, diving, surfing, windsurfing, whale watching and more.
Life is also a lot slower. (It’s a stark contrast to living here in the Northeast.) Dominicans are known for their friendly nature, and always greet you with a smile. When they say hello and ask about your day, they really want to know!
We immediately fell in love with the country and its people, but while we were enjoying the sand and sun, we realized they have been dealing with some serious challenges. Most people in this part of the Dominican Republic live in poverty, without sufficient food or clean drinking water.
They lack access to a quality education and some children are forced to sell items on the street or beg for money to support their families. The majority of children attend public schools that are only offered for a half day, and fewer than 20 percent of girls make it past the eighth grade. A rapidly changing climate with extreme flooding followed by drought, and relentlessly rising seas further threaten their personal safety and food and water security.
And then there is the garbage. The country is grappling with the amount of trash, especially plastic, entering its waterways and the looming threat of the microscopic pieces that it will continue to break into for hundreds of years. This plastic problem is so particularly grave here that a documentary Isla de Plastico (Cacique Films, 2019) was recently produced to draw attention to the widespread impacts.
It is still paradise – just paradise threatened.
It was difficult to witness such adversity in the midst of what for us was paradise (and what we considered our second “home”). As my husband and I thought about how difficult it would be if our two young daughters had to grow up in these conditions, our hearts sank. They’ve never had an empty belly. They drink from a faucet, never thinking that there might be a limited supply or that the water could make them sick. Our biggest trash problem is when collection day falls on a holiday and we have to store bags in the garage for one extra day. We felt motivated to do something to contribute, but these were huge problems and we were just visitors.