NC students participating in an International Field Studies trip over Reading Week teach locals how to build treadle pumps, which use pedal power for greenhouse irrigation.
NC students participating in an International Field Studies trip over Reading Week teach locals how to build treadle pumps, which use pedal power for greenhouse irrigation.

Don’t tell Bill MacDonald, or any of the 15 students who returned from their International Field Studies trip to the Dominican Republic with treadle pumps in tow, that their experience is over. To them, it’s only just begun.

The Environment and Horticulture professor led students on a 10-day trip over Reading Week with his wife Linda, a lab technologist at the Welland Campus. While a 10-day cultural experience is what they signed up for, their desire to help others has turned it into so much more.

It all began when they decided to construct two treadle pumps to aid the developing greenhouse industry in the Dominican Republic. MacDonald had read about the simple foot-powered pumps resembling makeshift elliptical machines that have been used in developing countries, and thought it could benefit those aiming to grow produce in the Los Cacaos region they would be visiting. The treadle pumps seemed like a good fit for the area where power such as electricity or gas is cost prohibitive.

Students embraced the idea and, eager to make a difference, learned to build the treadle pumps on weekends before they departed for the trip.

To say the treadle pumps were well received in the Dominican Republic would be an understatement.

Craig Koornneef, who is also in the Greenhouse Technician program and helped in the assembly of the treadle pumps in the Dominican, said the reaction of the local people when they first saw one working took him by surprise.

“Their jaws just dropped. They couldn’t believe it. Just seeing the water dripping out of the hose, they were as excited as little kids with candy,” he said. “I was shocked that something so small could make such a big difference.”

Once one of the treadle pumps had been assembled, Greenhouse Technician student Andrea Sanchez witnessed a dramatic scene: a group of locals kneeling down and praying around it. Sanchez, who is from Colombia and fluent in Spanish, could understand their prayers as they thanked God for the treadle pumps and the NC group who brought them.

“They are Catholic and very religious people and believe that whatever comes to them and improves their life is a gift from God,” she said. “It was very emotional and very rewarding to see that.”

MacDonald was very moved by the response of the local people. He noted how not even he had imagined how well they would be received and how the treadle pumps would be such a perfect fit for their needs.

“To us, drip irrigation is 40 or 50 year old technology but for them, it was just phenomenal and just what they needed,” he said. “This has made such a great impact. The beauty of it is that it’s such a simple thing that makes such a big difference.”

After the students on the trip assembled the first treadle pump, they assembled the second one together with the local people, training them how to do it as photos were taken to record every step of the way.

Witnessing the impacts of their efforts has left the entire group with a desire to do more. Not only do they plan to continue to bring treadle pumps to the area on future International Field Studies trips, they plan to establish a NGO to continue their efforts in the Dominican Republic and perhaps to other developing countries. They would like to put together kits for treadle pumps as well as for small, 150-square-meter greenhouse structures that would enable individual families to grow produce for their own consumption and to sell. The kits would also include compost teas that help control disease on crops.

The NGO would allow all students who went on the IFS trip to continue their involvement – even after some of them graduate this spring. MacDonald is hoping some of the graduating students will take leadership roles to mentor new students on future trips. The NGO would also allow students, who come from a variety of programs, to bring their various skills to the table on the project.

Ashlyn Berkhout, who is in the General Business program, is looking forward to helping with the business aspect. She found it a very rewarding experience that was making history in the Dominican Republic.

“They don’t have anything like this over there, so being able to give something to help with irrigation when they don’t have the power to run huge machinery, and something eco friendly as well is pretty awesome,” she said. “I’m only in my first year and I’m already learning so much. We all want to keep going on with this.”

Hejia Liu, an International Commerce student from China, was also looking forward to continuing her involvement. She found the experience highly rewarding and in more ways than she had anticipated. She not only made new friends and became exposed to new cultures – from Canada and the Dominican Republic –but it helped boost her communication skills which are essential to international business culture.

“I never thought that one trip could change me so much,” she said.

The NC International Field Studies group poses for a photo with a local passerby in the Dominican Republic.
The NC International Field Studies group poses for a photo with a local passerby in the Dominican Republic.
Above: Jim Norgate is pictured (back row, third from the right) with a group of NC students and site contractors on a Me to We volunteer trip to Nicaragua over Reading Week where they helped to construct a school.
Above: Jim Norgate is pictured (back row, third from the right) with a group of NC students and site contractors on a Me to We volunteer trip to Nicaragua over Reading Week where they helped to construct a school.

Twenty two individuals from Niagara College left for Nicaragua on Feb. 23 to participate in a Me to We volunteer trip, helping to build a community school in an impoverished community so far away from the familiar comforts of home. Seven days later, a single unit returned – bonded by a life-changing experience.

The determined pack of students, mostly from NC’s Police Foundations program, were led by program coordinator Jim Norgate. Norgate says the trip was unlike anything he’s ever encountered, not only during his 13 years of teaching at the College, but in all of his 44 years.

“What the students expected to do was go to Nicaragua and build a school,” he says. “While they built the school, they as individuals became rebuilt, renewed. It’s undeniable.”

Each day, the group set out from their jungle lodge on a 40-minute bus trip to their work site. Their mission was to work on the Grade 2 classroom for the school, which was being built one classroom at a time as part of Me to We’s Adopt a Village program. Under the guidance of local contractors, they dug the foundation with pickaxes and shovels, and laid the rebar by hand, bending the metal and connecting pieces with twist-ties. Countless buckets of sand and gravel were carried to wherever they were needed. Cement was hand mixed. It was physically demanding manual labour and Norgate’s voice rings with pride as he described how the students shone through it all, determined to keep going, often needing to be reminded to take breaks.

“We essentially built a house without power. I had high expectations of the students but I was astounded by their work ethic,” he says.

He wasn’t alone.

“At the end of our week, I asked the contractors and the Nicaraguan who oversees the group to tell me the truth about how we did. He said our group did the work of three to four groups,” says Norgate. “They were blown away. The foreman told us that we worked so hard that he never got to rest because he had to keep leaving to get more supplies.”

Every evening, the group returned to their accommodation in the jungle, where the canopy of wilderness made nights even darker. While drinking water was always available, some days, they lived without running water available to shower, flush toilets or even wash their face. Some days, there was no electricity. Once, a 6.4-maginitude earthquake rattled the group from their sleep at 3:40 a.m. Not once did Norgate hear a complaint from his group.

Dinner was always followed by module time, run by the Me to We facilitators. The modules aimed at teaching the students about the Nicaraguan culture, and to help them better identify with the local people, experiencing challenges first hand like shopping to feed a family of five at the local market with only $3. The depth of the discussions that followed the modules chipped away at superficiality. Soon, students began to open up to one another in new ways, and shared their personal stories — some, for the very first time, setting them on a new path of healing.

As the group bonded, Norgate also saw changed individuals who were increasingly focused on helping others – literally, shifting from a ‘me’ to ‘we’ focus. Whether someone needed a drink of water or a person to talk to, there was always a student stepping in to help. At meals, Norgate would see students bringing items like cutlery or lemonade to the table for the entire group, voluntarily – without prompting or request.

“It seems like these are simple things, but they’re not. In fact, it’s completely the opposite of what you normally see,” he says.

Norgate had always longed to participate in this type of volunteer experience, and instead of doing it on his own, wanted to give students the opportunity to do the same. He views the trip as not only part of his personal journey, and part of each participant’s personal journey, but the journey of the group as the cohesive unit they became.

All of this was in addition to the impact they would have on a local community in Nicaragua – and that was no small endeavour. Norgate points out that knowing they made a difference had a profound impact on the group. On their final day, when a small ceremony was held for them before their departure, students were noticeably moved; in some cases, to tears.

“The students felt as if they were leaving a part of themselves behind,” he said. Now that they are home, he knows that no one who participated will ever be the same.

“They won’t look at things the same way anymore, or think about things the same anymore, they won’t make the same judgments or have the same preconceived notions,” he says.

He believes that the experience is particularly valuable one for those entering the field of policing.

“It proved to the students that they truly feel good about helping people, which is the key to policing. It also gives them a greater understanding that everyone’s got their own story and they have to be careful about judgments or opinions,” he says. “This is a benefit for anyone, anywhere in life, but there’s absolutely no doubt that it helps in the practical application of policing.”

Before they left for Nicaragua, Norgate wanted to provide the students with the opportunity. Now that it’s over, Norgate views it differently. “I’m honoured they allowed me to do it,” he says.

Norgate isn’t only a teacher at Niagara College; he’s a graduate. While growing up in Niagara Falls, he knew that he wanted to become a police officer at a young age. His passion for the field led him to enroll in Niagara College’s Law and Security program. Just days after he graduated from the College in 1990, he began working for the police force in Peterborough.

Over the years, his involvement as a hockey coach led him to turn his interest to teaching. That’s when he spotted a job opening at Niagara College and has been a part of NC ever since.

“Teaching suits my personality. Not many people have the opportunity to do what they love and make a living out of it,” says Norgate. “I’m the luckiest person on the planet and I know it.”

Jim Norgate is on a mission, and he’s bringing 23 students along with him.

The coordinator for NC’s Police Foundations program is not only leading a group of Justice Studies students to Nicaragua in February on an international volunteer opportunity, he’s determined to ensure that even those who wouldn’t be able to afford the trip are able to take part.

The nine-day trip, to take place between Feb. 22 to March 2, 2014, is part of a Me to We volunteer travel experience that takes participants to a developing country to volunteer alongside local community members on a development project. There, they will be able to put real faces, names and stories to the impacts of their work; experience a new culture; and make an impact that will last for generations.

Norgate, who initiated the trip earlier this year, believes it will be a life-changing experience for participating students.

“What I like most about  Me to We trips is that the fundamental goal is to not only help others while they’re on the trip, but to plant the seed for them to continue contributing once they return home,” said Norgate.

After an initial presentation from Me to We in September, interested students were asked to submit a one-page essay about why they were interested in going on the trip and what benefit it would be to them and the college community. Students were selected by Norgate and Walter Greczko, chair, School of Justice Studies.

Essays revealed that some of the students have been doing volunteer work locally and wanted the opportunity to make a difference internationally; some had always thought about getting involved in a trip such as this but never had the opportunity. Some applicants have never been on a plane or outside of Canada. One Police Foundations and Civil Engineering student plans on building housing and schools in poor countries after she graduates.

After selecting the group, Norgate is now working on making sure that they are all able to go, regardless of their financial situations. The volunteer trip comes with a price tag of about $3,000 a person. Each had a discussion with Norgate about how much they could contribute, and plans are in the works to raise the rest of the money –$30,000.

A bowling fundraiser has already taken place. The major fundraiser is scheduled for Nov. 21, from 4-9 p.m. at The Core, complete with a silent auction (view event information here). Students are also knocking on doors, seeking support  from local businesses.

The entire group is participating in fundraising, regardless of whether or not they personally require financial assistance. They have committed to attending team meetings, selling tickets and approaching local businesses for support. They will also be giving back to the community through volunteering.

“This isn’t charity. The opportunity for them to help others started the moment they were selected for the trip. They are all working so that the entire group is able to go and sacrificing for the greater good,” said Norgate. “The students are earning it.”

Those who donate money, are not only making it possible for financially-challenged students to participate in the volunteer experience, they’re helping students help others, as they work to make a difference by impacting lives in Nicaragua. With research revealing that a strong majority of Me to We trips have a lasting impact on their participants – who become empowered to contribute in other impactful ways both globally and locally after they return home – there’s no telling how far-reaching the impacts of one’s donation will go.

“It’s the gift that gives twice, and then keeps on giving,” said Norgate.

Among the group of students who have signed up for the trip is Amber Ziomick. The student in the Advanced Law Enforcement and Investigations Graduate Certificate program, who is also executive vice-president (Welland Campus), for the Student Administrative Council, is happy to be a part of it. She was involved in a missions trip to Yraz, Mexico when I was 14 in 2008 and believes the experience has had a lasting impact on her.

“From that day forward, I always believed in giving back to the community, and lending a hand where ever I could. As much as I believe in the good of helping our neighbors in our own backyard, the learning experience I gained abroad was truly transformational,” she said. “The most rewarding part, I believe, is I will be able to see the impact this trip has on students who have never had the opportunity to volunteer abroad.”

Ziomick has been helping Norgate plan the trip for months and has taken a lead role in organizing fundraisers.

“I don’t believe that anyone with the want to lend a helping hand should be limited by their financial situations. I know, as a student, money can always be a struggle, and a trip that costs almost as much as a year’s tuition can be difficult to justify,” she said. “The team bond we are gaining when planning and fulfilling these fundraising events is crucial when a group of 23 are heading to an unfamiliar country.”

How to help

Those interested in making a donation to the Be World Ready – Justice Studies Fund to help provide a life-changing experience for the students may do so in the following ways:

* Cheque – make payable to Niagara College and write Justice Studies on the memo line. Provide your name, address, telephone number and email address.;

* Credit card – call 905-735-2211 x7775 (Visa, MasterCard or America Express);

* Online donations – click here  (mention Justice Studies);

* Pledge forms may be accessed here.

A charitable tax receipt will be provided for donations of $10 or more. Donors of $100 or more will be recognized in the spring edition of the College’s Encore magazine.