Down the Road Sioux Center: Local Schools Expand, Jewelry Business Helps Haitians

We head Down the Road for the last time this week to Sioux Center, Iowa. Yesterday we told you how the local Christian school is undertaking a big expansion project, but they're not the only ones. The Sioux Center Community School district is undertaking a more than 9 million dollar expansion and renovation this year, in part to keep up with the 86 additional students the district has added in the past two years. The project includes adding six classrooms to the elementary school, which already underwent big additions in 2009. At the high school, they're developing a learning center which will include a "STEM" room, designed for 21st century technology and more interaction. STEM stands for "science, technology, engineering, and mathematics." The school received a 50 thousand dollar grant from the Iowa STEM council to help build it. Superintendent Patrick O'Donnell" said, "it used to be that kids would go into the library and everybody would say, ' quiet you know.' We want it to be a collaborative center, where going to have pockets of collaboration areas." O'Donnell says it's a tight timeline, but they're hoping to have these projects ready to go by the start of the new school year August 26th. The trend to focus on more science and engineering skills hasn't been lost in Sioux Center either. More than half of the students attending Dordt come from more than 500 miles away. The flags of 25 nations fly on campus, representing students who've come from other countries. Dordt is in the process of finishing a science building it hopes to open by late August. The 12 million dollar project is just the first of three phases Dordt is under taking to provide a campus hub for science, technology, engineering, and math. Dordt president Dr. Erik Hoekstra said, "one of the reasons that we're growing in the sciences is we're one of the unique small colleges with less than 2,000 students that have programs in agriculture and engineering. You know we've been accredited in engineering for 32 years and our pass rate on the engineering placement test is higher than most technical or state universities." Hoekstra adds a research greenhouse to serve agriculture and biology, along with more laboratory space will cap off the project. Meanwhile, not far from Dordt and the community school district, construction is underway on a new childhood learning center. The center is a cooperative effort among the city, the school district, the hospital and Dordt College. Superintendent Patrick O'Donnell said, "What we're trying to create is a Campus that is totally dedicated to the education of 3 and 4 year olds." The new childhood learning center will also be connected to an existing childcare and preschool center operated by the hospital. Dort president Erik Hoekstra said, "Our teacher education department owns a preschool, Stepping Stones Preschool, that will be housed in that facility. And it's really a public-private partnership to carry that off. And I believe there will be 150 students... including a lot of English language learners in that preschool." The new childhood learning is targeted for opening by mid-January. Hopefully these new additions and programs will help change lives. But there's already one little business in Sioux Center that's not only making a big impact at home, but in other countries as well. Vi Bella Jewelry founder Julie Hulstein said, "It all started with a mission trip that I took to Haiti in June of 2010. And it was the first time that I'd ever seen poverty at the extreme level." For months Hulstein tried to come up with an idea that could help the people she'd seen. Then a chance meeting with a world traveler hit home. Hulstein said, "she had heard of someone who figured out how to make beads out of old plastic bottles. Which really struck a chord with me because there's so much garbage everywhere in Haiti." After experimenting making beads out of old plastic in her house, Hulstein hired her first employee, and began the task of eventually establishing two work places in Haiti and one in Mexico. But it was a steep learning curve for everyone involved. "So we just assumed we could tell them what time you needed to be at work, and that a work day lasts this long" Hulstein said, "and since nobody in their family or anyone they knew had had jobs, that didn't translate well. So, and the other things is they didn't have clocks." Now, the company has grown to 30 full time workers and managers, and it's become more than a job for the people involved. Hulstein said, "We also give school sponsorships so that their children can attend school, and they get a good meal every day that they're at work, and it's amazing how the women have bonded and become family." Just how do you purchase Vi Bella products? By going through their website, or through home parties and gatherings thrown by the company's "ambassadors."