No one in Amanda Nocera's family had ever traveled outside of the United States, so when she approached family members about going on a mission trip last spring they were less than enthusiastic.
"My dad really didn't want me to go -- I hadn't even been on a plane before. My whole family was just so nervous about me traveling," the senior at Sewickley Academy said.
So nervous, in fact, that Amanda decided not to apply for a McAdams Global Fellowship, which funds Sewickley Academy students who wish to travel internationally.
"But my teachers kept telling me that I should apply, so I finally did," she said.
When she received the fellowship, Amanda said it was easy to eliminate some of the travel opportunities such as Africa.
"I knew that if I went to Africa, my dad would freak out even more," she said, laughing. "And I really wanted to see a Caribbean Island."
Amanda chose the Dominican Republic. The fellowship paid for all of her expenses including the passport.
Amanda and other students from around the world traveled through Rustic Pathways, a program that places them in various areas for mission work. The students who went to the Dominican Republic worked at bateyes, villages in sugarcane plantations that, according to Amanda, are only a few miles from the beaches that host thousands of tourists each year.
Amanda arrived in the Dominican at night, so she didn't really appreciate her surroundings until the next day when she left the hotel where she had spent the night to travel to the batey.
"It was just so odd -- we would see all of these expensive cars in front of houses with beggars in the street right next door. It was really a culture shock," she said.
The bateyes are small villages where sugarcane workers live. Each village has about 30 to 50 residents, many of them displaced Haitian immigrants. There are hundreds of bateyes located throughout the fields, she said.
"They are brought to the Dominican to work in the sugar fields, and then they strip them of all of their papers and documents. The most critical issue is that they don't have any birth certificates, so they are illegal aliens," Amanda said.
Because of that status, Amanda said, they can't work anywhere but the fields in slave-like conditions.
Last summer, Amanda and other students stayed at a base house and put in 50 French drains for a village. Amanda also learned about the plight of the displaced Haitians and those born at the bateyes.
"There are people that are just a couple of years older than me who have no hope. I decided I wanted to help stop the cycle," she said.
Amanda learned from an attorney at the batey that through the international organization Save the Children, birth certificates can be bought for the batey residents, but they cost $40, an amount much too expensive for the residents. When she returned to the United States, she organized Project Batey: Giving Dominicans a Future.
Amanda shared her summer experience with her adviser, Joan Cucinotta, an English teacher at Sewickley Academy.
"She had been overcome by the struggles of the people living in the bateyes and, in her heart, she knew she had to do something. She sat in my classroom just saying: 'I don't know what to do, but I have to do something,' " Mrs. Cucinotta said. "The idea of giving back was germinating."
Then Amanda came up with an idea.
"My goal is to get 100 birth certificates, so I know that I need to raise $4,000," she said.
With a group of about eight other students, Amanda has raised more than $3,500. Sewickley Academy hosted its annual International Dinner on Jan. 26 and many of the guests bought mock birth certificates as a fundraiser for Amanda's project.
According to Mrs. Cucinotta, Amanda's enthusiasm has spread.
"Fundraising can be a tough way to accumulate money for a cause, but Amanda worked doggedly on candy sales, recruiting other students into her club and galvanizing them to help via the passion she shared for her cause," she said.
Amanda said, "Everyone has been so hardworking. I'm so lucky to have my friends help with this project."
In May, Amanda will return to the Dominican Republic to present the money to Save the Children and to see how the process of obtaining birth certificates with that money is achieved. Her trip will again be funded by the McAdams Fellowship program. And this time, her family is excited about her trip.
"They warmed up to the idea and now they are extremely proud," she said.
Amanda hopes to study engineering and business management at college next year but wants to continue international service work. "This is an important part of my life now," she said.
Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.