21 August 2011

Volunteer vacation has a photonics focus

How I spent my summer vacation: volunteering in the tropics.

Three student friends of SPIE Fellow Dr. Carmiña Londoño will have some great stories to tell about their summer break as they go back to school in the next few weeks. They spent a week this summer as volunteers teaching optics and other topics at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic.

Supported financially by SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, and the Optical Society of America, and by Kreischer Optics who provided lenses and prisms, Londoño’s group added an optics component to the arts and crafts, sports, language classes, and other activities organized by Orphanage Outreach.

The students -- Lillian, Nora, and Matthew -- also spent part of the week hoeing, weeding, and preparing the orphanage’s gardens for future planting.

For Londoño and Lillian -- her daughter -- this was the second such trip, and part of their tradition of taking a one-week volunteer vacation each summer.

“For reading classes, we used many of the books that Nora and Lillian brought as a gift from their school,” Londoño said. A teacher at the girls’ school had helped organize a bake sale that raised nearly $250 that was used to buy Spanish books for the orphanage.
Carmina Londono tests a kaleidoscope built at optics camp.

“Optics camp” was held Wednesday evening.

“We made a presentation about the human eye, animal vision, rainbows, fiber optics, lasers and cameras’” Londoño said. “We distributed small diffraction gratings, had fun looking at different light sources and optical illusions, and distributed some ‘optics goodies’,” such as the kits for laser targeting and building kaleidoscopes and telescopes, fiber-optic pens, and other items donated by SPIE.

The evening was so successful that Orphanage Outreach Executive Director Tom Eklund challenged Londoño -- Program Director of the Americas Program in the Office of International Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation (NSF) -- to recruit more scientists and engineers for more science camps.

“This is truly a tall order,” said Londoño, who pointed out the trip was a volunteer activity for her, not an NSF program. “I committed to trying to convince four of my friends (who are scientists and engineers) to perhaps go for one week next year. I have already lined up one geologist friend, so I have three more to go.”

Toward the end of the week, they visited a market town on the border with Haiti.

“The Haitians walk across the border to buy supplies from the Dominicans,” Londoño said. “They carry really heavy loads of chickens, eggs, vegetables, clothing, and building supplies on their heads … men, women, children, old people, young people, all working non-stop.

“There was lots of noise, honking, and no room to move. There were many tired faces, faces, strong smells, a sea of human activity with a palpable sense of desperation.

“We volunteers stood out with our colorful Orphanage Outreach T-shirts and our uncomfortable demeanor trying to make sense of what we were seeing and perhaps what we were feeling.”
A memorable moment in a memorable vacation, indeed.


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