James Madison University

Social Work Students Build Community Ties in Dominica

By: Sydney Palese
Posted: May 7, 2013

PHOTO: Health fair set up in cafeteria

Grace Carpenter and Christine Zampini spent their spring break surrounded by fellow college students, locals and beautiful beaches. While their break may sound like your classic college vacation, it was anything but.

The two senior social work majors decided to ditch the idea of spending their final spring break with their usual group of friends, and instead opted to lead an alternative spring break trip to the village of Paix Bouche in Dominica.

Carpenter and Zampini made the decision to lead the trip when Dr. Karen Ford approached them about the opportunity at the beginning of the fall semester.

“Karen’s been boasting the fact that [the social work department] has been going since 1999,” said Zampini. “I thought ‘Sweet, alternative spring break trip, let’s do it.’”

Intent on orienting their participants with the culture of Dominica, Carpenter and Zampini took their group to a performance by the Paix Bouche Jing Ping band  in Transitions. The band, known for playing music commonly associated with the “old culture” of Dominica, played instruments like the “boom-pipe” and “scraper rattle” along with the accordion and drums to make music, which Zampini described as “Caribbean.”

Preparation was a huge component of the trip. First, Zampini and Carpenter, along with Dr. Ford, had to choose nine participants from a pool of applicants to form the group. Once the team was in place, they held class every Tuesday at 9 p.m. all the way up until their trip.

According to Carpenter, the class talked a lot about the poverty in Dominica, and how the culture was formed. They mentioned that the term they used to describe the employment status in Dominica was “underemployment” as opposed to “unemployment” because while many people have jobs, there isn’t enough to pay for what they need. Another issue the class discussed was the effects of technology and westernization on the rural and community-based culture.

“A lot of the youth want to sit at home and watch television or be on the Internet,” said Zampini. “The older generation talked about that a lot.”

In addition to teaching their group about the socioeconomic factors of the country, they also had to do fundraising to keep costs low for the trip. They did a letter writing campaign, set up and broke down the Convocation center and sold T-shirts that read “Social Workers do it in the Field.”

Once most of the preparations were finished, the group was ready to experience a week of service in a foreign country with one golden rule set in place by Ford, Carpenter and Zampini: Expect nothing and be flexible.

This rule would become imperative when immersed in the culture “where there is no stress and no one pays attention to time.” She recalled an instance where she and another participant, Marybeth Fox, were having lunch with a professional from the area. Late into their lunch, he realized that he had a meeting at 1:30 p.m. and despite already being 30 minutes late, didn’t go. “In America, we would have thrown away our food and ran,” said Zampini.

They said that the relaxed nature of the country has a lot to do with the people’s general happiness, where they don’t worry as much or get as stressed and anxious. The culture also relies on the strength of the community, which Dr. Ford has established a relationship with over the years.

“As a community focused social worker you do not make progress without forming strong and authentic relationships,” said Ford. “In Paix Bouche that was easy to do. Folks are welcoming and genuine.”

With the help of the community in Paix Bouche, Zampini and Carpenter were able to set up housing and coursework for the week from another country.

“It takes the organizing committee a lot of time and energy to organize the infrastructure for us - housing and getting the JMU supplies out of storage and to the house, transportation, food etc.,” said Ford. “Our respectful relationship is critical to honoring the hard work they do for us so we can have a good cultural and educational experience.”

Once there, people from around the community also helped to provide food. The team ate meals made from breadfruit (which Zampini compared to a potato), beans, rice, chicken, fish, passion fruit, mango, pineapple, and fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice.

Zampini said a common saying about people in Dominica is that “they might not have money, but you never go hungry.”

The community of  Paix Bouche also helped out when some of the participants, including Ford, fell ill during the week. One of the local men, Gervin Honore, 22, made ginger tea to help alleviate the sickness. Many of their neighbors also stopped by to check in on the group throughout the week.  Zampini said the community impact was phenomenal.

On Monday and Tuesday of the week, the group shadowed an area of social work in which they were interested. Because the trip was class-based, the participants were required to write a comparison paper after the trip on whatever fields they liked.

They took the opportunity to explore the beautiful island on Wednesday. Though the day was planned around site-seeing, they said the driver would often offer to take them to other parts of the island they may not have known about.

On Thursday, the group did community service. They helped paint garbage receptacles and visited a primary school, where they watched the children’s morning announcements.

To supplement their daily activities, Carpenter and Zampini also challenged the group to engage in nightly reflections. The leaders asked the group to consider a “What – So What – Now What?” model of reflection. They divided up the week into thirds and first asked what the implications of their social issue was, why it is important and what they can do once the trip is over.

These cultural experiences, along with the strong ties formed with the community of Paix Bouche, have Carpenter and Zampini planning a follow up trip this summer after they graduate.

“We really established relationships,” they said. “It was genuine love, everyone cares for everyone, everyone loves everyone”