Courtney Connolly didn’t know what to expect last year, when she signed up for a weeklong service mission in the Dominican Republic with Seeds of Independence.

Then she saw the squalid green shacks near sprawling sugarcane fields, where Haitian families live without healthy food, clean water or basic sanitation, scratching out a meager living by chopping and lugging long stalks in searing heat.

“You see the ads on television, collecting money for kids with big bellies, and you don’t think it’s real,” Connolly said. “Well, it’s real. I’ve seen it.”

Connolly, a former dropout who is now a senior at Portland High School, traveled to the Dominican Republic last spring with Seeds of Independence.

The Freeport nonprofit operates several programs for youth at risk of leaving high school, getting involved in the justice system and becoming parents at a young age. It is one of many agencies doing similar work in southern Maine.

Connolly will go to the Dominican Republic again next week, though she’s no longer considered “at risk.” Connolly is on track to graduate in June and plans to attend the University of New England on a scholarship in the fall. She wants to be a veterinarian or a physician.

Connolly is one of 15 students from nine schools in southern Maine who will travel to La Romana, the second-largest city in the Dominican Republic, where cruise ships dock within walking distance of people living in extreme poverty.

Other students going on the trip attend Deering, Scarborough, Yarmouth, Freeport and Brunswick high schools, Topsham’s Mt. Ararat High School, Waynflete School in Portland and The Real School in Falmouth.

It’s the 11th trip that Seeds of Independence has organized for at-risk youth. The students will stay in dormitories at Hospital El Buen Samaritano, which Seeds of Independence helped build.

The students will help set up and run health clinics in the dusty “bateyes,” company-built villages at the edges of sugarcane fields. Each batey contains about 50 shacks and houses 100 to 150 people. There are about 125 bateyes around La Romana.

Also going on the trip will be 27 adults – doctors, physical therapists, social workers and others – who will oversee the students as they register patients and help distribute medication.

Residents of the bateyes suffer from a wide variety of health problems, ranging from tuberculosis to parasites to malnutrition, said Tom Wright, president of Seeds of Independence.

Wright, a former owner of Wright-Ryan Construction Inc., dropped out of high school in Buffalo, N.Y., when he was a freshman, then returned and ultimately graduated. He and his wife, Willo, started Seeds of Independence 12 years ago, in part to repay all the help Wright received when he was a young man.

“I had a lot of mentors, and that’s a lot of the reasons I do what I do,” Wright said.

The Seeds of Independence trips have proven to be life-changing experiences for many at-risk youth, most of whom face a variety of challenges in school and at home, Wright said. Several have chosen health care professions as a result.

“When you put them in a completely different environment, it changes how they see themselves,” Wright said. “There’s a huge jump from being a victim, or however they are perceived in their community, to being a contributing member of society.”

For Courtney Connolly, last year’s trip caused her to see her good fortune, despite a childhood marred by her father’s suicide when she was 7 years old.

“It made me realize how lucky I am,” Connolly said. “Many people here who have nothing have more than people there.”

While in La Romana, the students will help load a truck with medical supplies and food that will feed about 400 people for two weeks at a clinic outside Haiti’s earthquake-ravaged capital, Port-au-Prince, Wright said.

The earthquake has swelled the numbers of Haitians seeking jobs, housing and health care in the Dominican Republic. The Seeds of Independence team is up to the challenge.

“It’s probably going to be a little more crowded,” Connolly said. “We’re probably going to work a little harder. But I can’t wait. I’m counting the days.”

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]