BY MEREDITH MASON
Magazine Feature Writing Class: October 6, 2013
With passports in hand and four students in tow, Kimberly Cunningham, a mathematics teacher at Portsmouth High School, boarded the six-hour flight from Boston to the Dominican Republic. For one week, Cunningham and her students left behind the glamour of Bellevue Avenue and historic mansions to work in one of the world’s most impoverished countries. Using basic tools and limited resources, the students built a school for Haitian refugees. To the Portsmouth students, school stood for early mornings, standardized tests and no cell phones. To the Haitian students, school stood for something entirely different: a chance at freedom, an attitude that struck the Portsmouth students like a freight train.
One week later, Cunningham was back to her daily routine in the Portsmouth Public School System. It wasn’t until she answered an incoming call on her cell phone and heard the words, “my child has changed,” that she really understood the impact of the trip.
Seven years later, Cunningham has grown this small service trip into an official non-profit organization called Infinity Volunteers. Nicole Kelly, the parent who told Cunningham of the change she noticed in her child after the Dominican Republic trip, now works as a partner in the organization.
With the original mission of providing service to others intact, Infinity Volunteers takes students from around Aquidneck Island throughout the world to complete humanitarian trips. The group has completed projects in Africa, India, Nicaragua, Guatemala and New Orleans, Louisiana.
“I think it is really important for the students to participate on these trips,” says Cunningham. “As a teacher, I got to see all of these wonderful kids with big hearts every day of the week, but they didn’t have an outlet to participate in something like this.”
This February, Cunningham and sixteen students are traveling back to the same village they visited two years ago: Pueblo Modelo, Guatemala. For one week, the Aquidneck Island students are trading their warm beds for sleeping bags and mosquito nets at a local orphanage. Although all of the countries and cities that the organization serves are in dire need, Pueblo Modelo is the poorest city that the group travels to. The locals struggle, with no running water or electricity, they survive on beans and corn tortillas. Even rice is too expensive.
The mission of this trip is to build a school for children in the village. In addition, the students plan to check on the water filtration system and other projects that were established on the previous trip. All students are required to fundraise 3,400 dollars before the February departure date to cover expenses and supplies that can be used to serve the Pueblo Modelo residents.
To become a member of Infinity Volunteers, students must show their commitment to local service before traveling abroad. Beach clean-ups, peer tutoring and cooking for the homeless are just a few ways that students have given back to Aquidneck Island.
Although the organization is made up entirely of high school students, their newfound global citizenship does not end when they receive their diplomas at graduation. Many Infinity alumni have gone on to start similar organizations at their universities across the country. Cunningham has also noticed that a number of students have chosen careers in service such as international nursing, law and the Peace Corps.
“These students are changing the way that they view the world,” says Cunningham. What started as a one-time service-learning trip has evolved into a life-changing experience for dozens of Aquidneck Island students. Their new perceptions of the world carry them well beyond the Pell Bridge.