By Alisha McDarris
For Hometown News
MARTIN COUNTY -- Mary Cameron, a teacher at Bessey Creek Elementary School in Palm City, is no stranger to overseas volunteer work, but her most recent trip to the Dominican Republic was possibly the most affecting.
Lifetouch, a national school and family photography company, invited educators from all over the U.S. to participate in a Memory Mission to Constanza, Dominican Republic. In 2011 and 2012, program volunteers built an elementary school alongside local workers and this year Ms. Cameron helped build a vocational school for the students.
Most Dominican nationals don't have the option to go to a university, so a vocational school is their best bet to develop skills and be a productive member of their community, Ms. Cameron explained.
Ms. Cameron has been on seven similar trips to various countries before, but this is the first where she actually built something from scratch. She's painted schools in Malaysia, Turkey and Morocco and worked on turtle preservation projects in Costa Rico, among others, but now she can say that construction is her favorite.
"For me it's really the sense of accomplishment," Ms. Cameron said.
She mixed cement and erected block walls and worked with rebar and shoveled dirt and when she left there was a school, much more than the simple framework that stood in its place when she first arrived.
But any service projects are good service projects and she is dedicated to being part of one every summer. She was thrilled to go on an extra one this January thanks to funding from Lifetouch.
"I'm ridiculously passionate about going and doing these trips and helping people," Ms. Cameron said.
She knows the places she visits often don't have the money or resources to complete such large projects on their own and it's her pleasure to help. But it's not just the lives of those she's helping that are touched; she was, too.
"These trips put my life in perspective and this one really sledge hammered me over the head with perspective," Ms. Cameron said. "The island is absolutely beautiful but the poverty is unbelievable."
She said it makes her thankful for everything she has.
"I feel unbelievably blessed in my life," Ms. Cameron said. "We take so much for granted."
It was an emotional trip for Ms. Cameron. She'd never been so closely knitted with the local community before and she found it hard to leave the children and families she had come to love in the week she was there.
Now that she's back she can't wait to show photos and videos of the trip to her students and show them how other parts of the world go about their lives and are thrilled to head to school every day.
Ms. Cameron was thrilled that Lifetouch provided her with the experience and she can't wait to go on another service trip this summer.