By Amanda Hatfield
ROCKLEDGE -- A 40th birthday revelation has been the drive for a local teacher to give back to her community and beyond.
On March 16, Suzanne Strain, along with five other volunteers, will travel to the Dominican Republic for a week of fellowship and giving.
"I had been dreading my 40th birthday since I was 37," said Mrs. Strain, a first-grade teacher at St. Mary's Catholic School in Rockledge.
Chastising herself for dreading the milestone birthday, Mrs. Strain decided to give more of herself.
"I was sitting at a teacher in-service and they showed a slideshow in the Dominican Republic," Mr. Strain said. "I thought, 'Okay, there's something I'll do this year.'"
Since 2003, the Orlando Catholic Dioceses has worked closely with the Dominican Republic community of La Loma -- a mountainous region of the country.
Early this year, the Dioceses called out for volunteers to travel to La Loma; Mrs. Strain is one who answered the call.
"If something interested me, I become passionate about it," Mrs. Strain said. "I want to keep alive the mission of the Sisters of Mercy who started St. Mary's over 50 years ago."
In her 18 years at St. Mary's, Mrs. Strain has served as a first- and second-grade teacher, as well as the driving force behind many school events.
"I started with a SMILE butterfly project for hospice when we lost Sister Joan Cahill to cancer, as well as many others that year," Mrs. Strain said.
Since then, Mrs. Strain has played an integral role in Diabetes awareness, Rachel's Challenge -- an anti-bullying program -- an organ donation campaign and 9/11 prayer services.
With her trip to the Dominican Republic rapidly approaching, Mrs. Strain is excited and nervous all at once.
"I'm excited to meet people who really have nothing, but don't know it," Mrs. Strain said. "Everything they have is a gift from God and, from what I hear, they are so gracious and content with their lives, though they are extremely difficult."
Fear for her health and the scarcity of water are Mrs. Strain's only anxieties.
While in the Dominican Republic, Mrs. Strain and the five other volunteers will spend the week with 30 local teachers. Many of these local educators will walk for miles on unpaved roads to listen to the American volunteers, as they offer tips for making math, science and reading more engaging for their students.
"I had to help create in-service material for the teachers," Mrs. Strain said. "I bought a book from the Diocese about the area, sat down one day, and in about seven hours, I had all the plans to accompany each chapter."
St. Mary's Catholic School Spanish teacher Sean Paul Pichardo translated a copy of Mrs. Strain's lesson plans for the teachers in La Loma to use.
The school that Mrs. Strain loves so dearly stands behind her on the journey to La Loma.
"We are happy to support someone who walks the walk," said St. Mary's principal Sandra Basinger. "It's one thing to be here teaching children every day to do the right thing -- to look beyond themselves. But to actually lead by example, that's more challenging and we have to support that."
As Mrs. Strain packs her bags for La Loma, she'll say goodbye to her husband and three young children.
"I jokingly tell my son 8-year-old son Patrick, that his teacher probably wouldn't mind going in my place. Mary Ellen, who is 12, is sad because we are so close, but wants to go when she turns 16," Mrs. Strain said. "Ella Grace, who is almost 3, will be fine, but I'll miss her nonstop giggles."
Mrs. Strain's husband, Thomas, however, is in for a surprise, according to his wife.
"My hubby will have a new sense of what it really takes to make our lives run as smoothly as they do!" Mrs. Strain said.