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The sticky air of a North Carolina summer hangs heavy in the air as nervous freshman scatter and relaxed upperclassmen saunter across NC State‘s campus. Inside, the smell of recently shaved pencils faintly lingers and new rubber soles squeak on the freshly polished tiles.  To usher in the new academic semester, most classrooms are perfunctorily reviewing syllabi or dutifully engaging in ice-breaking exercises during which students ramble off their favorite foods or hometown — and forget the answers of their fellow classmates almost immediately.

Stepping into Marcie Fisher-Borne‘s Advanced Social Work and Evaluation course reveals a conversation that is markedly different. Work has already begun and deep conversations are well underway. The students in the class are strategizing on how to apply their lessons not just outside the classroom, but outside the country, to evaluate and refine Stop Hunger Now‘s hunger relief programs abroad.  As a fairly new member of the NCSU faculty, Professor Fisher-Borne considers herself “incredibly lucky to have found an academic home that prioritizes community engagement and community-based research.”

Although the partnership began in August 2013, students were recently able to collect their own primary data through a trip to the Dominican Republic with Stop Hunger Now in February 2014. Students and staff traveled across the Dominican countryside with local NGO,  CitiHope  International. With 41% of the population below the poverty line, food shortage is prevalent throughout the Dominican Republic. CitiHope provides food and other resources to health facilities including maternity hospitals, schools, orphanages and other needy people and takes an active role in distributing and monitoring resources. CitiHope supports sustainable educational and development programs that empower locals to create strong, self-sufficient communities.

CitiHope’s Carribbean Director, Tim Tuccelli, doesn’t consider their work “‘charity’, but a real investment in humanity. The school and orphanage programs help our country so much by creating a future of responsible citizens that contribute to the improvement of our society. These children come from families that cannot supply even one meal a day for their children and don’t understand the purpose of education. So the motivation comes from the food!…Stop Hunger Now donations are a defining component that heals a nation, multi-dimensionally.”

The aim of the class trip was three-fold:

    1. To capture information about the schools, orphanages, centers (and individuals within each) receiving Stop Hunger Now meals;
    2. To monitor these institutions’ specific strategies in using the aid to address the causes of hunger; and,
    3. To evaluate Stop Hunger Now’s overall success in moving towards its mission to “end hunger in our lifetime” in the Dominican Republic.

Upon arriving in the capital, the group immediately observed the stark juxtaposition of different socioeconomic groups within the Dominican Republic. In the shared travel journal, Jared Husketh (’14) described the prevalent sights in Santo Domingo: “There are just as many glamorous boutiques as there are people laying out sheets on the sidewalk right next to oncoming traffic to sell you a toothbrush.”

As the group traversed the island – from Punta Cana to facilitate a 100, 000 meal packaging event with Terminix to Puerta Plata to collect data and record testimonies of meal distribution partners – they continued to witness poverty firsthand. However, where one would expect dejection and depression among the people, the students discovered a far different, pervasive attitude among the population, both rural and urban. On the third day, Lauren Chesson (’14) penned,

We are experiencing both the deprivation present here as well as the richness. So many people are unable to purchase or supply enough food to their families, and live in houses that most Americans would not be able to tolerate. Their children suffer from parasites from the dirty water and are stunted by malnutrition and disease. This is devastating to me, but what I’ve seen is that it’s not the whole story.

There is a tremendous amount of faith, celebration, and vibrant energy that flows through this culture. There is community and kindness, sharing of resources. The children make beautiful art and sing energetic songs. There are individuals who are devoting their lives to relieving the suffering of poverty.

Half of Dominicans younger than 18 live in poverty. Only 30 percent of Dominican children complete primary school; a mere 18 percent finish secondary school on time. Nearly half lack access to safe drinking water. Almost 60 percent have no toilets. And yet, hope endures.

Through the small investment of Stop Hunger Now meals, organizations around the world are spreading hope. The meals become a tool to encourage school enrollment, to allow patients to digest fat-soluble medicines, heal and return to work, and to teach mothers how to properly nourish their children so they don’t become developmentally challenged. Those seeds of hope are causing people to overhaul not only their own lives, but by breaking the cycle of poverty, they are transforming the status, health and abilities of entire future generations.

Change happens when we act on our hopes with purpose and courage.  If you had the uncontainable hope of the people of the Dominican Republic, what would you accomplish? Perhaps more importantly, if you don’t have the same level of hope as those living in extreme poverty, why not?

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Photos by NC State MSW student Audrie Webster

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