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Mission builds new school, provides portraits

POSTED: December 10, 2011 1:30 a.m.
/Photos for The Times

Steve McDaniel, right, principal of Spout Springs School of Enrichment in Flowery Branch, recently traveled to the Dominican Republic with Lifetouch's "Memory Mission" project on a trip to help build a church-run school in an impoverished community.

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Although the separation of church and state is a clear cut issue for most people, Steve McDaniel is pleased that he was able to blur the lines a bit.

McDaniel, a Flowery Branch principal, recently traveled to the Dominican Republic on a mission trip to help build a church-run school in an impoverished community.

"I’ve been on mission trips here in the United States (through churches), but I’d never been on an international mission trip or any place like Constanza in the Dominican Republic," said McDaniel, principal of Spout Springs School of Enrichment.

"The needs there for basic educational supplies and materials, it touched me. The level of poverty is so extreme it’s difficult to describe unless you’ve seen it.

"One of the lasting impressions on me was the stark contrast of the natural beauty with the sad images of poverty. It was a real contrast."

Upon arriving in Constanza, McDaniel and the other members of the team were given a tour of the "primitive" school they would be helping to improve.

There were 1,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade students, but only 10 classrooms. By comparison, McDaniel’s elementary school in Flowery Branch has about 800 students and around 50 classrooms.

"Because there were so many students, they had to go to school in shifts. Each session is only three hours, so the students were only able to go to school for three hours each day," McDaniel said.

"The resources were so limited. Here we have what we call classroom libraries where a teacher may have 50 books that stay in her room for the kids to read. That would be the library for their entire school in Constanza.

"They have very few instructional resources."

With its tiny classrooms and overhead lighting consisting of light bulbs hanging from exposed wiring, the school didn’t have a lot by way of materials, but its mission was a big one.

"When the pastor of the church came there 12 years ago, they decided to really reach out in the community and make a difference," McDaniel said.

"His vision is that we should feed the body, the mind and the spirit. As a result of that, they’ve built an orphanage, a free food pantry and now they’re building the school. It was really inspiring to see that vision at work. It’s going to have an impact throughout the country."

McDaniel’s trip was a part of Lifetouch’s "Memory Mission" project, which is a partnership between the school photography company and World Servants, a nonprofit, nondenominational faith-based organization.

The pair work to build schools in impoverished communities worldwide. This trip, which McDaniel just returned from on Tuesday, was the first time that principals from all over the United States came together for a Memory Mission.

McDaniel became involved through his affiliation with the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

During their weeklong stay, the team constructed a new building containing eight additional classrooms for the school.

"I mostly built concrete walls and mixed concrete the old fashioned way. Here, whenever we do a project and need concrete, a truck comes and dumps it out at the site and someone smooths it out," McDaniel said.

"Down there, you have to mix it in a mixer and people carry it bucket by bucket to the site. It’s a slow process. There are no power tools and no electricity at the work site. Everything is done by hand."

Their portion is half of the overall project for the school.

"We built the first floor of what will become a two-story building. They can start using it after Christmas.

Hopefully by the fall of next year they’ll have the funding in place to complete the second story," McDaniel said.

"The eight classrooms that we built will allow them to start having their students go to school for a full day. It’s going to be a big improvement to their experience."

In addition to a servant’s heart, McDaniel also took along a suitcase filled with books and other school supplies as a gift for the school. During their stay, the Lifetouch team also took individual portraits of the students and class photos for the local schools.

"Most of the students hadn’t had their picture taken before. If they had, they’d never seen the end result — the portrait of themselves.

"When we went back and presented them with their pictures, they were just overwhelmed. The school was out of control with excitement."

Although his trip is over, McDaniel’s work is far from finished.

"I want to bring the experience back to this community so that people can realize there is a great need and we can make a difference. I think it’s a great opportunity to teach our students," McDaniel said.

"I’m so honored to have been a part of it. As the pastor said, ‘You provided more than a building. What you’ve provided was hope. So many of these kids didn’t have hope.’

"We provided a structure, but what he said we provided was hope for his community for a better future. It’s a week that I’ll never forget. I think it’s an important message, especially this time of year — we are truly blessed in this country.

"These are tough times, but we are still incredibly blessed."



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