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Auburn woman and classmates hope to help village in Dominican Republic

SPU’s Courtney Johnson, left, Nyareu Thong,  middle, and Haley Miller are planning a trip of a lifetime.  - Courtesy photo
SPU’s Courtney Johnson, left, Nyareu Thong, middle, and Haley Miller are planning a trip of a lifetime.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

With the violent, protracted war in South Sudan snapping at her back, 11-year-old Nyareu Thong fled with her family to the United States.

Ultimately the family of seven sank its new roots into Auburn. That's where Nyareu started middle school and took her first painful steps learning a new language.

A childhood spent without the most basic necessities in a homeland where families had to relocate every month just to stay alive and where attending school was impossible, has given the 2008 Auburn High School graduate insight and compassion for others.

Her later experience as a refugee grappling with a strange language inspired her to become a teacher.

One of Courtney Johnson's formative lessons in compassion was the help she got as a child to correct her speech and sight deficiencies.

These young women and their classmate Haley Miller hope to travel this summer to a small village in the Dominican Republic and do what they can for the people there. The plan is to put 80 hours of community service in a month teaching people a bit of English, instructing them about health and fitness and working on community projects like repainting old buildings and mending sidewalks.

"I'm going because I know what it's like to not have anything," said Thong, now a soft-spoken, 22-year-old student at Seattle Pacific University. "It means a lot to me to teach somebody to just to say a word in English. While teaching I will also be learning about myself. It's like helping me gain hands-on experience, because I want to teach some day, and working with kids in another country that is probably as close as I can get to a hands-on experience right now."

What moves her classmate Johnson, 19, also a student at SPU, to volunteer her time in the Dominican Republic is a burning desire to make a difference in the lives of her fellow human beings.

"It's a great opportunity for me to go abroad and help others in need," Johnson said. "It's a totally different lifestyle, and I think I'd learn a lot about myself and others and what's going on in other countries as well, instead of just focusing on the United States.

"I took Spanish all the way through high school," said Johnson, recalling how much she struggled to learn a second language. Johnson believes she can relate to villagers trying to learn English.

The organization that offers this opportunity requires the students to raise the $5,000.

Since winter break Johnson has been handing out sponsorship forms to doctors, to business people, to local companies, to people she meets. Both women, and a third classmate, Haley Miller, are working together to put together a fundraiser at the school to get the SPU community involved.

"We're trying to get as much as we possibly can," Nyareu added.

But raising the money has proven to be a tough, even disheartening task. After two months at it, the women have raised about $125 each.

Anybody interested in helping the women reach their goals or to pick up sponsorship forms may contact Thong at thongn@spu.edu.

Miller, a senior studying psychology at Seattle Pacific University went on her first mission trip in June 2012 to Tijuana, Mexico, to build houses. The experience, she said, changed her life.

"That first mission trip went beyond a rewarding experience but also created an internal motivation to continue helping communities outside my culture and safe zone," Miller said. "This trip to the Dominican Republic will expand my cultural knowledge and will also give me the opportunity to work with kids who are truly in need of help.

"Our project's focus is specifically geared towards exercise science and a healthy lifestyle. International Student Volunteers' mission is to provide the developing countries tools for success. Therefore, our group's time spent in the Dominican Republican will give the (villagers) opportunity and insight into how they can help themselves and their family to overcome the poverty that greatly affects the country."

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