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How Two Philadelphians Are Bringing Sustainability to the Dominican Republic

March 6, 2015 Category: Method

By age 15, Alyssa Ramos-Reynoso had already experienced the realities of poverty and hunger. At the time, Alyssa was attending high school, where she was an honor roll student. She had plenty of friends at school, and she would frequent their houses for study sessions. Her friends’ parents loved Ramos-Reynoso — she encouraged their children to work harder at school.

What neither Ramos-Reynoso’s friends nor their parents realized was that she was homeless. She lived most of her early teenage life without steady shelter, and was often forced to find her own food, shelter and meet other basic needs. She lived in a subway concourse for three months, and was altogether homeless for about three years.

Somehow, Ramos-Reynoso made it to school each day. She said it’s because she had a vision of sorts, of a world where the impoverished had the skills and resources necessary for living a self-sustaining life. Getting an education was the only thing, she said, that would keep her motivated enough to make that vision become a reality.

“I wanted to make sure no one experienced what I did,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that not only did other people have all of their basic needs met, but also had a way of acquiring skills.”

Ramos-Reynoso trudged through the rest of her high school education getting by on the hospitality of her friends alone. She would relocate to another house each week, pitching in by doing chores and helping her friends with their homework.

“I had friends that weren’t oblivious and were able to put two and two together,” she said. “I would always want to shower. They didn’t really care; they had really great parents.”

By the time Ramos-Reynoso graduated from Arcadia University in 2013, she was prepared to give her vision a go.

In August 2013, Ramos-Reynoso formed Schools for Sustainability. With the help of her friend Jackie Crutchley, Schools for Sustainability would, in Ramos-Reynoso’s words, “alleviate poverty and address climate change through education.”


“We’re building self-supporting high schools that teach students sustainable skills, along with business acumen,” said Ramos-Reynoso, who heads Schools for Sustainability out of her home in Northeast Philly. “That way, they can be the next generation to create green jobs.”

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“The goal is to create project-based curriculum that teaches students math, science, English and history through sustainable projects,” she said. Four months after committing to the idea and just one month after becoming incorporated, Ramos-Reynoso and her team visited the Dominican Republic, where they hope to pilot their first school.

Copy of pond on the site of the first School for Sustainability

The pond site for the first School for Sustainability. 

They landed a one-hour meeting with former Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez, in which the team laid out their plan:

  • The first year, students at the school will learn to farm food organically.
  • The second year, students will collect and purify water via a hydroponics unit.
  • The third year, students will learn to harness and properly utilize renewable energy sources.
  • The fourth year, students will study a curriculum focused on waste management, graduating with a regular high school degree.

The moment Fernandez extended the one-hour meeting to four hours, Ramos-Reynoso knew she had something. Soon after, Fernandez offered Schools for Sustainability 22 acres of land in Monte Plata — one of the poorest provinces in the Dominican Republic.

“It was crazy,” Ramos-Reynoso said.

That was a year ago.

Now, over 70 members strong, with teams in Columbia, Argentina, Thailand and Vietnam, Schools for Sustainability is gearing up for its first official trip to the Dominican Republic March 13 to 20 — thanks to a successful IndieGoGo campaign.

The team, consisting of 30 members, will build their first aquaponics unit in Monte Plata.

“Aquaponics basically started in the Dominican Republic,” Ramos-Reynoso said. “It’s this new sexy thing now in the green community. This is a way to bring this technology back to its origins and empower the local community.”


An aquaponics unit.

Overcoming obstacles

Before they can head to the Dominican Republic, Schools for Sustainability still has a few obstacles to hurdle – some major, some minor.

For instance, obtaining legal ownership of those 22 acres hasn’t been easy but Ramos-Reynoso is confident that Schools for Sustainability will be able to break through the inevitable red tape of acquiring foreign real estate.

They’re also in need of a veteran grant writer and a fundraising expert who can help them raise the necessary $1 million for building the school.

“We’re breaking ground this year,” said Schools for Sustainability COO Crutchley, who has become Ramos-Reynoso’s “right hand woman” since the organization’s inception.

Crutchley handles marketing, team management and developing a family-style culture within the organization.

“We want to raise enough money to get our salaries going and start construction. We hope that in the next five years we’ll have our curriculum enough along the way that we can start recruiting teachers and get students in there.”

In the future, Schools for Sustainability wants to help local Philly schools too. The plan is to begin recruiting board members this coming April, and start working with Philly public schools this coming June.

“We want Philly to be our second home,” said Ramos-Reynoso. “It’s going to be more working with established schools to help them become more green.”

Images via Alyssa Ramos-Reynoso

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