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Love of Her Life

Elizabeth Conklin-Ballester '00 went on a "yearlong" service trip to the Dominican Republic after graduation. She's still there.

CSA volunteers working on a home-building project

This wasn’t exactly the plan,” admits Elizabeth Conklin-Ballester ’00. “My plan was to come and volunteer [in the Dominican Republic] for a year. But I met the love of my life and have gotten the opportunity to be involved in really interesting development work in public health and education.” The best-laid plans sometimes go awry, but Elizabeth, who graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in health education, isn’t feeling the slightest bit disappointed. Just the opposite, in fact.

“I thought that one year would be a long time,” Elizabeth says of the Catholic Church volunteer program she enlisted in to help educate Haitian and Dominican children and adults. “As it turned out, after my year I felt like I had mastered the language, understood the culture, and was more prepared to be effective in community outreach work.”

She met Rigil-Kent Ballester soon after arriving in the D.R. “I took Spanish immersion classes with his mom,” Elizabeth says. “She is good friends with the nuns I worked with.” After falling in love with the country and with Rigil-Kent—who was training Peace Corps volunteers at the time—she knew she wanted to stay in the island country and work in development. The couple worked together for a study abroad program the summer after her commitment was over, and she later worked at a bilingual school for upper-class Dominicans, while networking with development professionals and exploring job possibilities.

After several development projects, Elizabeth and Rigil-Kent, who also had experience teaching Spanish, decided to start a program of their own. “We were involved in a project where a group of talented doctors was directed to a rural community, knowing nothing about the culture or language, nor about the health system in the country they were working in,” Elizabeth says. “This inspired us to want to [help] channel these valuable human and economic resources to needy communities.” So they did—in June 2004 the Community Service Alliance was born.

CSA offers short-term service experiences, Spanish immersion programs, university courses, and volunteer and internship placements. Elizabeth works with the program 10 to 15 hours a week (in addition to her fulltime job with a USAID-funded HIV/AIDS initiative); her husband works fulltime as director and program coordinator; and there are five fulltime staff members and numerous consultants and collaborators.

In addition to individuals coming to volunteer, study, and intern, CSA hosts, on average, a handful of individuals and two groups of 10–15 students each month; each group stays between one and two weeks and usually works on CSA’s ongoing community development projects. A group of Ithaca College Martin Luther King Jr. Scholars, under the supervision of politics professor Charles Santiago and education professor Jeff Claus, spent 10 days on a study tour in January 2005, and three Ithaca College students have come on their own (IC students are “always my favorites,” Elizabeth says).

“Going to the Dominican Republic and working with the Community Service Alliance fundamentally changed the way I view everything in my life,” says Michelle Diemer ’08, who participated in the program in summer 2005, volunteering with children in a poor neighborhood outside Santo Domingo. “CSA has an amazing international perspective and pushed me to understand how difficult life can be for those in developing countries.”

Creating a nonprofit organization with such far-reaching goals has been challenging but worthwhile. “We have had our ups and downs,” says Elizabeth, “but I feel satisfied knowing that we’ve developed an organization from the ground up and our efforts have helped numerous families and communities.”

Elizabeth spends most of her time at CSA on management duties—reviewing program calendars, budgets, administration, and finances—and planning. She also communicates with universities and other potential clients. “My favorite part,” she says, “is that I know that all the time I am investing is going towards a personal life project that will allow Rigil and me to do the kind of work we love and contribute to the development of local communities.”

CSA is funded by the services it provides to volunteers. Elizabeth sees many organizations that are funded solely by outside grants and doesn’t want to be one—possibly compromising grassroots ideals and community-level development goals. Fees for Spanish language classes, English as a second language classes for Dominicans, and internship and volunteer placements all contribute to the pot. CSA plans to begin applying for some grants, and it accepts donations—100 percent of which go to the community. 

This past July, Rigil-Kent Ballester and Elizabeth Conklin-Ballester were honored for their work by the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Hans H. Hertell; Elizabeth received the embassy’s Distinguished American Citizen Award for her “tireless efforts on behalf of the Dominican people, [which] exemplify the very best of American values and reflect honorably on [her] and [her] country,” and Rigil-Kent was honored for his “example, efforts, and dedication in favor of [his] country, [which] are values that Americans admire and recognize.”

Elizabeth modestly shares credit. “My education at Ithaca has a lot to do with the path I took,” she says. “Ithaca allowed me access to numerous opportunities to be involved in service throughout college. . . . The people I met in the Ithaca community working at the Learning Web, GIAC, and Lincoln Street group home helped me feel that my education and talents were useful to others.” She credits her professors, specifically Claus, health promotion and physical education professor Mary Bentley, and politics professor Zillah Eisenstein, for encouraging students to think critically, expose themselves to different cultures, and take advantage of the opportunities an academic community offers. Prompted to do just that, Elizabeth elected to study abroad in Brazil, where she says she fell in love with Latino culture.

Combined with her cultural interest, Elizabeth’s enthusiasm for service has propelled her: “I am witness to the impact a volunteer experience can have on your life.” CSA has received numerous e-mails from past participants who, upon returning home, have changed their major in school, gotten involved with Latino groups, begun community service work, and reported viewing life in an altogether different way. “I am convinced that these types of experiences change everyone, even in small ways,” Elizabeth says.

She knows the CSA experience is invaluable for participants, but Elizabeth herself leaves an impression, as well. “Elizabeth has been able to enact so much change in the Dominican Republic in such a short time,” says current IC student and former CSA volunteer Diemer, who is currently studying in Ecuador. “Whether she is working in the countryside or in Santo Domingo, she is always looking to grow and improve others through her work. She has an amazing vision.”

Elizabeth says she plans to return to the United States next year to work toward a master’s degree in public health but will remain connected to the D.R. “Rigil and I hope to continue to work to help CSA grow, and eventually we would like to spend part of the year in the D.R. working on programs and the other part of the year in the U.S., making connections and recruiting groups,” she says. And, as usual, her plans are flexible: “We’ll see what the future brings!”

But for now, life in the D.R. is a perfect fit for Elizabeth and her husband. “The best part is working together in the countryside on projects with students and volunteers and feeling like we as a couple are developing a life project together,” she says. “This work is like a dream for both of us.”

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