Emerson Donnelly attended Step One from 1994 to 1997, in Room 5 with Charlie Vincent and Jane Timberlake and in Room 1 with Gege Manolis. He remembers particularly how accepting everyone was of his uniqueness. In preschool, he gave himself different names to be addressed by: first ‘Floor-drain,’ followed by ‘Anjun.’ The teachers made him an ’Anjun’ T-shirt so everyone would know his preference. He also remembers how comfortable the teachers would make him feel, and their patience (“like second parents”). Emerson was inspired by his time at Step One to work with youth, and spoke to us about serving as an education volunteer in the United States Peace Corps.
Tell me about your experience in the Dominican Republic.
I’m working on a literacy project in a farming community on the border with Haiti. Everyday, I see people walking from Haiti to go to work or school—3 hours round trip. The Dominican Republic is a very poor country, so there’s a lot of need. I’ve been teaching kids to read in Spanish and working with teachers who are struggling. I’ll help them come up with teaching plans, or model techniques for them. That way, after I leave, kids will still benefit. I’m also working on a community library project, teaching English, and coaching a basketball club.
What have you found most challenging about your work?
Not knowing the obstacles I’ll face. Education in the Dominican Republic works on a patronage system: often the person who’s paid the most does the least. In our school, the school director isn’t there half the time; a great teacher was recently fired and replaced by someone with no degree. It’s also tough coping with social attitudes. I was reading with a girl and her cousin came up, slapped her and said “Go clean the house.” For many people their kid learning to read is last on their list, because even if you get an education, there are still no real opportunities.
How do you cope with educating kids while knowing that, even in the best case scenario, there aren’t many opportunities for them?
There’s a saying here, “Peace Corps is not for the perfectionist.” So much is out of our control. You have to realize often things don’t work out as planned. I focus on the little victories. For example, there’s a family whose oldest son, a 3rd grader, is known as a bad kid. He’s probably my most well-behaved student. I see him and he says, “Emerson, when are we going to read?” The odds are against him but he’s making progress. Recently, instead of fighting, I see him sitting and drawing. That’s a little win that’s meaningful for me.
It also helps to keep in mind that Peace Corps isn’t just project work. As volunteers, we have 3 goals: help our communities, help people in the US understand Dominicans, and help Dominicans understand the US. Small interactions I have with people are important, too. They are what the community will remember. Playing dominoes, basketball, having coffee.
What are your plans for your own future, working with young people?
I want to either teach or do nonprofit work with youth. I’m also interested in working with kids with disabilities. I want to work with kids because you can still influence them, while if you meet a 25 year old who’s a jerk, they’ll probably stay that way! I still remember my Step One teachers who had a big impact on me. At Step One, everyone put their hearts into their work. That’s what I aspire to do; that’s what builds a strong community.