Befitting the international cultural compatibility which attracted Sarah Ross to the Dominican Republican, these students are from Germany, Haiti and the Dominican Republican. Her 16 Montessori students also include Chinese twins. (Photo courtesy Sarah Ross)
Befitting the international cultural compatibility which attracted Sarah Ross to the Dominican Republican, these students are from Germany, Haiti and the Dominican Republican. Her 16 Montessori students also include Chinese twins. (Photo courtesy Sarah Ross)

Archived Story

Sarah Ross founds school in Dominican Republic

Published 10:28am Monday, January 11, 2010

Dowagiac Daily News

At no time during the Great Recession does quitting your job to start a school on a shoestring make sense.

That’s certainly not the advice film director Spike Lee gave Sarah Ross at the conference in New Orleans where she decided, to quote Lee’s old Mars Blackmon Air Jordan commercials for Nike, to “Just Do It.”

Ross, 35, a 1992 Union High School graduate, is, as stated on her business card, founder and lead teacher of 3 Mariposas Montessori on the Dominican Republic’s north shore.
The name in Spanish means “three butterflies,” which not only encompasses training students, parents and teachers (maestros), but further packs historical punch, for there were three “butterfly” sisters a dictator killed.

“Three died, but there is one still living. One’s daughter was 1 when she died. She’s grown up and is honorary chair of my friend’s new organization that supports my school. My friend started the non-profit I used to work with,” Ross explains.

“Butterflies symbolize hope.”

Early on, the youngest of Harvey and Janet Ross’s three children felt pulled by adventure and craved commingled cultures, though she belatedly learned Spanish after French.
“I’m so passionate about what I do I think that I always knew the capability was there,” Ross said, “but until I found myself between a rock and a hard place, that’s when I finally made the decision to do this. I was happy at the non-profit. I’ve always been pleased to help support the boss, but I never thought I’d be opening something on my own like this. This is definitely a risk, but I am happy as can be. I love, love, love so much what I do, working with the kids and seeing their progress. At the end of the day we have circle time and give hugs as they go home. Some just cling on me so tightly. They’re loved, but very, very poor and deprived in many ways.”

The Ross clan is nothing if not well-traveled.

Sarah spent a summer in Switzerland and traveled to Nigeria, Africa, through Rotary and the St. Denys Foundation.

Her mother is Dowagiac’s retired school nurse.

Her parents went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Their most recent mission trip took them to Senegal.

“I was born unique in the sense that I have an adventurous side and I love change and I love meeting people from all over the world and learning about different cultures,” Sarah said at the Daily News Friday. “Their culture is so different than ours. I was in the bank the other day when someone walked in and said, ‘Hola! Buenos dias!’ There were 25 people standing in line,” so a chorus echoed his greeting.

“They’re very friendly, very social. Their houses are small with not much going on inside, so people are outside all the time, sitting on the road, hanging out. That’s where the action is. You can pack a family of five on a motorcycle.”

Or, they travel by mini-van, which is how her parents and former school board president Ed Schmidt and his wife Donna get around when they visit.

Sarah, who heads back Jan. 16, has lived on the north coast for five of her eight years in the Dominican Republic.

She went her senior year of college at Michigan State University to learn Spanish language by living with a local family. That was in 1997.

In 1999, Sarah returned as a coordinator for the same exchange program in which she studied.

“I arranged excursions and was a liaison with the university and helped with home issues if there were any living with Dominican families.”

After finishing her teaching degree at MSU, Ross taught English as a second language three years in Wyoming, Mich.

“I loved being with my family,” she said, “but I missed the Dominican Republic’s culture and warm weather, so I went back again and worked for a non-profit for almost five years doing teacher training and working with volunteers who came down to help in the various schools.”

When Ross left Dowagiac for East Lansing, “I knew I was going to study elementary education, but I always had a love for different cultures and languages” going back to when she worked a few summers for Dowagiac’s migrant program based at Sister Lakes Elementary, where she attended grade school.

“I remember talking to my father’s best friend’s daughter, who studied on the same program in the same city in the Dominican Republic. I talked to her for an hour on the phone. She told me all sorts of wonderful things. Then I opened an atlas because I had no idea where it was. That was even before (baseball slugger) Sammy Sosa. When I saw it was an island in the Caribbean, I thought, bingo!’ I don’t mind (Dowagiac’s abundant snow) because I know it’s just temporary, but as far as living in it … I was looking into schools in Texas and California to maintain my Spanish.

“I thought I might as well do the year abroad thing before I got married and started a family. Eight years later, no family, no husband,” she laughed. “I love all the experiences I’ve had, but it’s a little scary because I think I might be living abroad the rest of my life.”

Her boyfriend of three years is Austrian. He lived in California, where he learned to surf. A mechanic, he operates a garage near the school.

Katie, who lives in Grand Rapids, followed her mother into nursing, though now she stays home with her four boys with Troy Silvernale.

Her brother, John, also has four kids – two sons and two daughters. He is an attorney in AM General’s military division.

Sarah had been at the non-profit five years when its founder, a good friend of hers, was forced out by the board.

“I didn’t agree with its decision so I left.” she said. “I thought, now what? Starting a school was my only option without going backwards in my job. I’m going forward in my responsibilities and very backwards in the money. I don’t make anything right now.”
Three Mariposas Montessori, which occupies the house where Sarah used to live, opened in November.

Ross had to become certified in the Montessori system of instruction for children ages 3 to 6 devised by Dr. Maria Montessori, of Rome, Italy. She was born in 1870.

Leading features are free physical activity, informal and individual instruction, early development of writing and reading and expanded sensory and motor training.

“I have 16 children,” Sarah said. “The majority are poor Haitians and Dominicans who cannot afford quality education, but I do have two Chinese twins. I purposefully left spots open for other kids because I wanted a good mix of ethnicities. My small town is very touristy. It’s one of the windsurfing Meccas of the world. Many people come down for that or to open hotels, bars and restaurants. There are all sorts of Europeans, Canadians, Americans and the one Chinese family who own a restaurant and are able to pay tuition. I have three paying students. It’s been very fulfilling and the progress I’ve seen is amazing, even though now I’m not making any money.

“These kids have come a long way with self-esteem, independence, discipline and hygiene. First they take off their shoes. We keep the floor nice and clean because they can choose to work on the floor or at a table. They wash their hands, they take a vitamin and then they take their own attendance. It is sort of like Head Start. My boyfriend made a stage in the kitchen so they can prepare their own snacks. There is a Dominican teacher in training who has not yet finished high school.”

She works with her students in the morning.

Two afternoons a week Sarah focuses on teacher training. Two other afternoons she makes home visits, building relationships and reinforcing health and hygiene.

In the classroom they “wash our hands constantly” and brush their teeth. “Do they have toothpaste? Do they have a wastebasket?” which seems an odd question until she flips her laptop to an image of a trash-strewn backyard because the family is too impoverished to afford garbage collection.

Parenting skills come into play talking with adults who admit, “I know how I’m disciplining my child isn’t right. Taking my belt off and whipping them isn’t working.”
Many of her parents – one a former prostitute – are illiterate.

“Eventually we’ll be giving literacy classes to our illiterate parents and English classes to our literate parents,” Ross said.

A cousin of Al and Sandy Springsteen’s family is coming Jan. 27 to spend six months volunteering at Three Butterflies.

“He wanted a break from school,” she said. “He doesn’t speak Spanish, so he’ll be teaching English and helping me in the classroom. The kids love life and come to school (eager to learn).”
Like Habitat for Humanity, parents who don’t pay money are expected to pay with their time by volunteering.
Sarah received a rooster as a Christmas present from a man she found a job.
That isn’t any weirder than spending a winter holiday on a tropical island.
“I don’t care how many lights and ornaments you put up, it doesn’t feel like Christmas when there’s no snow and it’s so hot you’re wearing a bathing suit or shorts. There’s Christmas music,” but she’s more likely to hear loud meringue tunes.
“I didn’t feel like it was Christmas until I came back and saw our tree in my parents’ living room with the snow behind it in the window.”
Her Austrian boyfriend celebrates the holiday on Dec. 24.
They drove four hours south to the capital, Santo Domingo, for Christmas to avoid the temptation to spend it working.
“I’m not a water sports person,” she said, but there are beach volleyball and hiking.”
She flew to Dowagiac for vacation Dec. 28, tense days after the underwear bomber’s aborted Christmas Day terrorist attack on a flight landing in Detroit from Amsterdam.
“All the bars, restaurants and fancy homes are on the ocean side. There’s not a lot of middle ground. I’m the middle ground,” Sarah says of the layout.
“My school is right at the entrance leading into one of the poorest communities. I live right around the corner, so I walk to work. A large population of Haitians has immigrated, like our thing with Mexico. The Haitians take the lower-end jobs, get paid very little and kind of stick together in pockets where they live. There’s racism, so I’m very careful with the poor population to keep it 50 percent Haitian, 50 percent Dominican. Talking about different skin colors and languages is part of my curriculum,” as is peace.
A Haitian father balked at posing in pictures and refused to snap the photo.
She learned later that he practiced voodoo and feared a camera could steal his soul.
“They see the rich population every day,” she said. “Some of them work in rich people’s homes. I don’t consider myself wealthy, but I have someone clean my house. My kitchen is the size of the house of my friend who cleans.”
Sarah drives a red ’98 Volkswagen made in Mexico.
“They are so friendly and there’s no looking at us like, ‘How dare you? What are you doing in our country?’ They’re very wonderful people.”
It’s winter in the Dominican Republic.
Though daytime remains warm and sunny, it cools at night.
If there is no school it’s because of “rain days.”
“Hurricanes usually don’t hit the north coast as bad,” she said. “I was there for Hurricane David, but I was in Santiago, which is surrounded by mountains.
“Where I live is quite beautiful because you’ve got the ocean and a little flat part, with the hills behind.”

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