The Shoes Off Their Feet
and The Shirt Off Their Back

Interact Club Goes International

A sandy, sweaty trip to the Dominican Republic was all it took for Andrew Borre to change the way he felt about Southwest Michigan.

“You go to those conditions and then return home and you’re ashamed at how spoiled we’ve been with phones and cars, and it helps you appreciate the simple things we neglect here in Southwest Michigan,” stated Borre, the 2017–2018 President of the Interact Club of St. Joseph High School.

On July 22, Borre along with 30 other students and nine chaperones involved in the Rotary Sponsored Interact Clubs of Southwest Michigan, returned from a mission trip to La Romana, Dominican Republic after joining forces with the Good Samaritan Hospital. Interact took the trip in an effort to provide clean water, medical needs and shelter to the people living in the sugarcane villages.

A tin home in the heart of the Bateyes of La Romana, Dominican Republic
A tin home in the heart of the Bateyes of La Romana, Dominican Republic. (Photo Credit: Nick Moen)

This was Borre’s second trip with the Interact Club and like many other students, he describes it as life-changing.

“When I first got there, I was amazed because I thought that it would resemble any poor area I’m used to seeing, but it was so different.”

In 2012, Maria Kibler, Vice President, Relationship Banking Officer of Edgewater Bank and Rotarian, and Lead Advisor to local Interact Clubs, helped organize the first Southwest Michigan Interact Club after witnessing the impact that students could make in schools across Michigan. The Interact Club is the oldest service group for youth in the world and Kibler helped bring the club to Southwest Michigan, beginning with just five local schools. Not long after, Kibler and fellow Rotarians decided to lead a trip for Interact members to La Romana, Dominican Republic.

“We had about 21 people go (the first time) including chaperones and we went without a project,” said Kibler. “We just wanted to help. We learned so much on that first trip.”

But Kibler’s first trip was not the beginning of the Rotarian effort to help change the lives and safety of those living in the sugarcane settlements, otherwise known as the Bateyes, of La Romana. In 2003, Rotarian Charles Jespersen was looking for an international project for Rotary. And by all means, he got one.

“I had looked all over for a project where Rotary could help those at an international level,” said Jespersen.

With the World Wide Web being a bit less inclusive than it is today, Jespersen began an uphill battle in finding the perfect project. That is until he attended a Rotary Foundation seminar in Lansing, Mich.

“I met a couple at the Rotary seminar and before I could finish my sentence in explaining that I was there looking for an international project, the couple chimed in to tell me about Dominican Republic and the water crisis they were facing, “ Jespersen recalls, as if it were yesterday. “I knew then that I had a project.”

But Jespersen also needed a plan. As a former member of the Benton Harbor Sunrise Rotary Club, and a then-current member of the Rotary Club of St. Joseph-Benton Harbor, he knew the ties that could bind the local clubs together, including also the Rotary Club of Lakeshore. Within months from the fateful day in Lansing, Mich., Jespersen , with the help of others, traveled to La Romana, Dominican Republic and presented a check for $10,000. After that first trip, Jespersen’s uphill climb had suddenly become less about the project, and more about the people.

Photo of a Dominican Boy
(Photo Credit: Nick Moen)

“Every day, about 5,000 children in the world die from unsafe drinking water,” Jespersen said. “It became more about teaching them safe water habits rather than giving them money or tools. The simple things we do each day that help us stay healthy are the things the people in these Bateyes can do to help save the lives of them and their children.”

Eventually, Jespersen’s Rotary International project grew. In 2012, the Rotary Sponsored Interact Club of Southwest Michigan was born and with that, the concept of a life-changing trip opened the eyes of teenagers throughout Southwest Michigan.

“The Bateyes we went to had no water, no toilets, no showers. You can’t even call their shelter houses,” explained Borre. “Most kids didn’t have clothes and they were just running around stepping on stuff, but they didn’t care.”

When thinking about how to build his college application, Borre admits that he was merely looking for a club he could add to his list of credentials. He was recruited into the Interact Club by his older brother, Mat Borre, who had previously served as the President of Southwest Michigan Interact Club members at St. Joseph High School. But soon after adding Interact Club to his list of extracurricular activities, Borre realized that what he was involved in was more about serving the community and the world, rather than himself.

“I started becoming more passionate about it when I saw what it was really doing in my community and beyond,” said Borre.

Throughout the years, the Rotary Sponsored Interact Clubs of Southwest Michigan flock to local communities to read with children, rake leaves for elderly neighbors, volunteer at educational and service events, and hold fundraisers to earn money for international needs, such as the trip to La Romana.

“The Dominican trip was made possible thanks to the over 300 Interact Club members of Southwest Michigan who worked throughout the year to raise funds. However, the focus of Interact is both community and international. While fundraising for the trip happens throughout the year, we also have local initiatives that give students that chance to experience helping others in need in our own backyard. There are several initiatives going on that serve local needs, including ‘Reading with Countryside,’ a reading program with second grade students that will be year-round in the new school year,” said Rotarian Jackie Huie, CEO of JohnsonRauhoff, Past President of the Rotary Club of St. Joseph-Benton Harbor and Lead Chaperone for the 2016 and 2017 Dominican trips.

The work from every Interact Club member contributes not only to community service and fundraising, but the Dominican Republic trip as well. Additional support comes from local businesses, like JohnsonRauhoff, which donates communication support to Rotary and Interact and buys water filters annually during the holidays, in honor of clients.

And while the monetary value has a price, the experience does not.

“We were doing work that teenagers just don’t typically do in the U.S.” Borre says. “We built a beautiful home for a family. We spent a lot of time shoveling or carrying dirt. Some of the kids were painting roofs and walls. We put grass on the outside. A family that moved from a tin house now has a new home with a beautiful roof and some decorative landscaping. The final outcome was like a work of art.”

Interact Club of St. Joseph High School Past President, Taylor Huie and Members Donovan Cool and Patrick Sohn work on the house built for a multi-generation family in La Romana, Dominican Republic
Interact Club of St. Joseph High School Past President, Taylor Huie and Members Donovan Cool and Patrick Sohn work on the house built for a multi-generation family in La Romana, Dominican Republic. (Photo Credit: Jackie Huie)

The first trip to La Romana began as an effort to help the water crisis, but nearly ten years later it has emerged into helping the people and building relationships overseas.

“We teamed up with the Rotary and Interact Clubs in La Romana to truly focus on the needs of those in the sugarcane villages,” Huie explained. “There was a vital need for backpacks through a program started by the Roteract Club in La Romana and we were able to donate 40 backpacks and school supplies for children in the villages to help give them their best educational start.”

This year, 40 Rotarians, Interact Club members and chaperones from Southwest Michigan traveled to Dominican Republic. Three chaperones, were Rotarians — Jane Hild, a retired Lakeshore High School Teacher from the Rotary Club of Lakeshore and Jackie Huie as well as Club Member, Mike Huie, COO of JohnsonRauhoff. Joining Jackie and Mike Huie, were two of their children who are in Interact Club, past President Taylor Huie and member Grant Huie. Other chaperones were Tim Adams, who attended the trip with daughters Alyssa Adams and International Director, Grace Adams; Kathy Tuthill, who attended the trip with daughter Brooke Tuthill and son Marc Tuthill; and Heidi and Rob Winkelmann, who attended the trip with Heidi’s mother, Jane Hild. For the first time this year, past Interact Club Members attended the trip as college chaperones — Alyssa Berry and Sarah McCoy, whose brother, Will McCoy was an International Director on the trip.

“It was a moving experience to see Interact Club members giving so much of themselves,” added Huie. “It was everything about the trip — from helping a family move from a tin hut to a cement home, to installing 40 water filters in homes where families were drinking muddy water, to study water filters previously installed in 5 homes, to 4 days assisting with doctors and nurses in far away villages, called barrios. And, it wasn’t planned, but a few of us had the opportunity to visit an orphanage — for me, personally, that was the most moving experience of all.”

As the students prepared to leave the Dominican Republic, there was one last thing they had to do.

Will Lage and Grant Huie of the Interact Club of St. Joseph High School
Will Lage and Grant Huie of the Interact Club of St. Joseph High School. (Photo credit: Jackie Huie)

“It’s something we do every year,” Huie explains. “We each remove our shoes and give them to one person in the Batey, walking away in our socks. We leave the experience giving away everything we can.”

So as the tradition lives on, so do the memories and hope that our local students have left in the hearts of the people in La Romana.

To learn more about the Rotary Interact Club and the BioSand® Water Filtration Program, contact Tiffany Griffin, tgriffin@johnsonrauhoff.com or visit Interact Rotary Sponsored Clubs of Southwest Michigan on Facebook.

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