In 2011, there was no elementary school in Constanza, a small town in a lush mountain valley in the Dominican Republic. By 2015, the outlook for the children of the village that lies northwest of the coastal capital of Santo Domingo had brightened dramatically.
That’s when the two-story, cinderblock Cecaini Constanza School — which was constructed by North American educators and corporate volunteers working side by side with Dominican workers — opened to students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
Three years later, Cecaini Rio Grande School was opened nearby to meet the growing needs of the agrarian community with a population of around 80,000. The two campuses serve nearly 400 students.
On Monday, Clemens Crossing Elementary School Principal Edward Cosentino will leave for the Caribbean nation to work with 50 educators and others under a Dominican foreman to build a library, computer lab and infirmary at Cecaini Rio Grande.
Cosentino, who is 45 and has served as the Columbia school’s principal since 2015, said he almost can’t believe his good fortune in being selected in a random drawing at a National Association of Elementary School Principals conference after applying for the trip multiple times.
“This is an incredible opportunity to be part of a project that’s really developed roots over the years,” said the Pennsylvania native who grew up in Columbia and attended nearby Bryant Woods Elementary School.
The annual trips to various countries are organized and funded by Lifetouch, a Minnesota-based school photography company. Since 2000, the firm has sponsored 17 Memory Mission trips to places such as the Appalachian region, Kosovo, Jamaica and Puerto Rico.
This year, only 44 of the 1,200 applicants got the opportunity to spend a week in the rural village, said Jan Haeg, a Lifetouch coordinator. Most days will be dedicated to construction work, with a day off for sightseeing, and the group is scheduled to return Jan. 21.
“When my name was picked in November, I did call my wife first” before agreeing to go, Cosentino said with a laugh. Carolyn Cosentino, a former high school Spanish teacher, stays at home with the couple’s two young daughters, he said.
Cosentino will participate in a 15-minute live video chat at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 16 with Clemens Crossing educators and students. The event is open for public viewing on the Lifetouch Memory Mission page on Facebook.
Haeg, who manages Give Back programs for Lifetouch and goes on the annual trips, said questions from the school will be typed in by staff during the chat and then read aloud to Cosentino, who will respond in real time.
“We like the experience to unfold for each volunteer while they’re there,” she said, explaining why participants aren’t overloaded with too many pre-set expectations before they go.
Cosentino, who has spent his 23-year career in Howard County, will become president of the Maryland Association of Elementary School Principals on July 1. He was also named the Maryland 2019 National Distinguished Principal in October by the association.
The construction crew will mostly be comprised of new volunteers working under the supervision of a local foreman, he said. Projects such as laying concrete block, mixing mortar and painting may test their stamina.
“I’ve been going to the gym a bit more and doing some weightlifting to prepare” for the physical demands, Cosentino said.
At 3,850 feet above sea level, Constanza is higher than the Allegheny Mountains in Western Maryland, he said, while adding that the current daily temperature highs and lows there range from the 70s to the 50s.
While visitors to the Dominican Republic are told not to drink the water and are advised to get certain shots before traveling, the Memory Mission volunteers stay in a hotel in Constanza, even though it’s “a pretty third-world village,” Cosentino said.
Volunteers will receive cultural training before going to the construction site, where they will be transported along dirt roads by bus each day.
“It’s important to us that this is a Dominican-led project,” Haeg said, explaining the Dominican workers will put the finishing touches on the construction “to make the school their own” after the American crew departs.
While Haeg says volunteers “deliver muscle and energy” to the project, Lifetouch also “ties in photography wherever we go” and presents complementary portraits to the students.
Most of the children have never seen what they look like, not even in a mirror.
“Their friends have to tell them, ‘That’s you!’ when we hold up the photos,” Haeg said.
Though interpreters will assist in translating instructions given in Spanish, Cosentino believes their shared focus on the children will rule the day.
“I’ll be very interested to see that we have more commonalities than differences,” he said. “Kids are kids around the world.”
A colleague cautioned him from personal experience that “whatever he thinks the trip will be like right now, it will end up being completely different,” he said.
Dana McCauley, 51, principal at a Garrett County elementary school, went on the same trip to the Cecaini Rio Grande School in 2017 and has shared her experiences with Cosentino at principals’ meetings they both attend.
McCauley, in her 18th year at Crellin Elementary in Oakland and the 2016 president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said she “wanted to go so, so badly” before her name was finally drawn.
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One of the highlights of her trip was playing with the children in town each day with new equipment the principals had brought them.
“They love baseball and were playing in their bare feet with a bat with a hole and a ripped-up ball,” she recalled.
McCauley also watched a kid take a torn trash bag and add a stick and string to make a kite.
“I learned so much [on that trip] — about construction and about myself,” she said. “I developed a sense of awe over their ability to make do with what they have, and I’m never going to complain again.
“Ed is not afraid to jump in and try something new, so he will get a ton out of this experience,” she said.
Cosentino said a quality education is something Howard County residents and many Americans take for granted.
“I’ve been preparing myself for the idea that if we didn’t do this, they wouldn’t have a school,” he said. “We live in one of the wealthiest counties in the country, so it will be neat to give these kids an opportunity for hope.”