Connecticut Teen Gives Gift of Identity to Haitian Immigrants

Name: Ellen McNeill
Hometown: Avon, CT
Education: Avon High School, Class of 2013 – Northeastern University, Class of 2017

Check out other Gamechangers on The Young Leader.

Interests and Passions:
Enjoys sing and play guitar, and participated in the a capella group Rhapsody.
Loves animals and has a dog, a fish, and a bearded dragon.
Says musicians Jack Johnson and Ed Sheeran are her “favorite people ever”.

Transformational Experience: Building a Sustainable World™, Dominican Republic

Making an Impact: Founder of “Hope for Ascension” Sponsor a Child Program

“Although we were the same age, our lives couldn’t have been more different. And that bothered me.”

Ellen McNeill

A Wonderfully Unexpected Change

When Ellen McNeill decided to travel to the Dominican Republic with the Global Leadership Adventures “Building a Sustainable World” Program in Summer 2012, she expected to work hard. She expected to learn a lot. She expected to make friends. She even expected to have a new perspective on her own life and opportunities.

But did she expect to spend the following 14 months working tirelessly to provide legal documentation to hundreds of Haitian immigrants stuck in a refugee camp there?

Not a chance.

“I had such an amazing time in the Dominican Republic with GLA. Dave, the Director of my program, is so passionate about sustainability. That passion really manifested itself in every activity that we participated in, and I learned so much from him about sustainable ways to contribute to developing communities.”

Their work led the group of teenage volunteers to Ascension- a refugee camp for Haitian immigrants who have come to the Dominican Republic to find a better life. Unfortunately, most of them lack birth certificates and passports, which are necessary in order to have access to public education, job opportunities, and health care. Since neither the Dominican Republic nor the Haitian government will recognize these people, they live a life of poverty and hunger. And unless they can afford the expensive process of obtaining legal identification, they are stuck in Ascension.

This realization was life changing for Ellen.

“I’ll never forget my first day at Ascension. We were there to work in the garden, and I met a teenage girl named Alaina. She was 16, like me, but even though we were the same age, our lives couldn’t have been more different. She told me about her life in the camp, and that she wasn’t allowed to go to school. Her parents were stuck in Haiti and she couldn’t see them. When I asked her why, she explained to me that she didn’t have a passport or a birth certificate, so she couldn’t leave. I was shocked, and I promised her that I would find out how to get her a passport once I returned to the U.S.”

Unfortunately, when Ellen returned home and began researching how best to help Alaina, she discovered that her new friend’s story was far from unique.

“I was horrified to find out how many people were living without legal identifications in the Dominican Republic, and I knew I needed to do something to help. Being there and seeing it made a tremendous impact on me.”

From there, Ellen joined forces with two other GLA Dominican Republic alumni (Hunter Bryson and James Dojerty), and they formed Hope for Ascension. This organization is devoted solely to raising funds to purchase Haitian passports and birth certificates for stateless refugees. While Hunter and James worked on establishing a website for the group to spread awareness, Ellen immediately began fundraising.

“I hosted a talent show at my school and raised $2,500. We also began taking donations through our website, and we’ve raised over $10,000 to date.” This funding has provided hundreds of people with legal identification in the form of passports and birth certificates. In addition, it opens them up to employment opportunities, access to health care, and secondary education.

In July 2013, Ellen returned to the Dominican Republic alongside 7 other GLA alumni. Each of them were working on their own projects to give additional support to the Dominican Republic community they stayed in on their program, and some of had never met before.

“The coolest part about returning to the Dominican Republic this summer was seeing that I was not alone in wanting to continue giving back. Now I have so many connections with local people, grassroots organizations, and other GLA alumni who have similar goals for the region. It’s an amazing community of people to be a part of, and everyone is working on amazing things that interest them. Dave and GLA have really fostered an environment that not only allows, but encourages, further work in the area.”

Now, Ellen is focusing on starting her freshman year at Northeastern University, where she is majoring in International Studies. But giving “the gift of recognition” to the people of Ascension continues to be a priority for her.

“I started a club at my high school that will continue to raise money for Hope for Ascension, even though I’m no longer there. It’s amazing. I can go to college, focus on my future, and know that our mission is continuing to gain exposure.”