It took a single church trip to the Dominican Republic when she was 16 to spawn a lifelong commitment to volunteerism for Molly Roach.
Now 24, she’s gone back every year with the La Crescenta Presbyterian Church to an impoverished community where she teaches English to the children of Haitian immigrants at a local school.
Roach says she typically spends at least a month in Kilometer 6, a neighborhood of about a 1,000 people, though she also lived there for a while after graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2011.
From the beginning, it was peoples’ attitudes and outlooks that kept bringing her back.
“Everyone was so welcoming, so happy even though they had so little,” she said. “They just found joy in their lives.”
Kilometer 6 got its name because of its proximity to La Romana, the third-largest city in the Dominican Republic.
The community is viewed as a transitioning point from the surrounding sugarcane plantations, where many Haitian immigrants live and work, to La Romana, where better-paying jobs can be found.
“They have more freedom in the barrio,” Roach said, referring to Kilometer 6. “But there’s also less structure which makes it harder life for some people.”
In 2005, the local Beraca Church opened the Joe Hartman School for 200 students in kindergarten through third grade.
La Crescenta Presbyterian Church, along with other churches, takes turns making trips up there to help with construction of additional classrooms and maintenance.
Math is one of the classes offered, along with Spanish since it’s the main Dominican language and Haitian immigrants arrive only knowing Haitian Creole.
But knowing English also proves very valuable and that’s driven Roach to try to pass it on to as many young Haitians as she can at the Joe Hartman School.
Those who learn English have a good chance of scoring a job in the tourism industry at one of the Dominican Republic’s many resorts, rather than ending up at a sugarcane plantation, she said.
“Seeing these kids learn English and how it excited it made them, it made me realize that just by teaching a new language, it gives a little hope to these kids who, at that point, didn’t have any hope,” Roach said.
When she’s not abroad, Roach teaches kindergarten at Franklin Magnet School.
She said she pictures herself moving back to Kilometer 6 again one day, but also realizes as that she’s inching toward that point in her life when her friends are getting married and starting families.
“I’m getting to that part of my life where I need to find a place to settle down, I guess,” Roach said. “At the same time, I’m not worried about it because the Dominican Republic is such a big part of me.”
Though that’s not to discount her friends and family back home.
“Sometimes, I get frustrated because I love these two places and yet they’re so far away from each other,” Roach said.
La Crescenta Presbyterian Church plans to do its annual Project Dominicana trip with volunteers and medical staff in June.
To help fund the trip, the church will hold a fundraiser from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday called “Hollywood Glamour: Movie Music With a Mission.” The show will feature local singers performing classic tunes from movies such as “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Lion King” and “Frozen.”
Tickets are $15 at the door. Advance tickets cost $10 and can be purchased by calling (818) 249-6137.
Follow Arin Mikailian on Twitter: @ArinMikailian.