Before I moved to the Dominican Republic, I was asked a very deep question by a very intelligent friend. I hoped to find the answer on my journey, and with four whole months down, I finally feel that I am starting to figure it out. The people in the DR aren’t necessarily future-focused the way we are in the United States. In America, everyone wants to know what your plans are, where you are going to school, what you want to do when you grow up… but in the DR, 80% of students don’t make it to high school. They drop out and get jobs; it is what they need to do to help provide for their families, even though a different sacrifice now could change the direction of their lives later. While discussing this, the following question was proposed: Is the lack of future-focused behavior the result of a cultural trend or the circumstances of poverty? I hoped this friend would tell me her theory, but I am grateful that she didn’t.
Many of you know that my mom spent the last two weeks in the DR with me. The first week she volunteered (more on that later) and the second week she treated me to a vacation a few hours east of Montecristi in a tourist town (more on that later, too). This change of scenery enlightened me as to why I couldn’t answer the question before.
When I ask my second graders what they want to be when they grow up, I get some typical responses: doctor, teacher, firefighter, artist. (It is fair to note, however, some responses, such as Brayan’s are unique; he wants to be a tree, for example). At ages 6, 7, 8, and 9, my students aren’t thinking about the logistics of attending university, something significantly beyond many of their financial means. Their parents, however, are fully aware of this and their ambitions for their children’s futures are matched with a different path.
Living where we live, a parent’s priority is to make sure his or her child learns English so the child can go to the cities and get a job in tourism. It pays. And that money will help them get out. But after a week in Puerto Plata, I have seen what that kind of job looks like and I want more for these kids. Their potential greatly exceeds selling trinkets on a beach where tourists pretend not to see them or hear them.
Reflecting on the dissonance of what I hope for the kids and what their parents hope for the kids, I figured it out. Of course every one of my student’s parents wants the very best for their child and they want to support them in any way they can. The love they have for their kids is so beautiful and clear and so great, but it is the circumstance of poverty that determines whether someone pursues a job that provides fulfillment and builds on his character or a job that provides a paycheck.
When I look at graduate schools and career paths, I am looking for something that supports what I want my life to say and the salary is secondary. But when you grow up without enough to eat or running water or constant electricity, your priority is to provide for yourself and your family’s basic needs.
(I know this is a long post, and I hope you are still reading). This is why I love the organization I volunteer with. Outreach360 is constantly setting aside donations to build up their scholarship fund so that all of our kids can go to college and make choices in their lives. We have 48 bright and wonderful children at our learning center this year and every single one of them, if they work hard and persevere, will have the opportunity to choose a path that fills them up. I feel so blessed to be a part of this journey.
Let me start by saying this is probably the best Christmas I have ever had, even though I am sad to not be spending the holiday season with those I care most about. During the last week of the semester, two things happened that I will remember for the rest of my life. Firstly, I had a Christmas wish that every student at the Learning Center would be able to read a sentence, no matter how simple, but the end of the first semester and that wish came true. Secondly, we gave Christmas presents to the students and it was the easily the most beautiful experience of my life.
With a quick look at the student’s faces, it was clear that some of them have never received a Christmas gift before. Their confused looks remained until the kids saw what was in their bags and I explained that they could take everything home with them at the end of the day.
You may be wondering, what does a non-profit Christmas gift look like? Well, basically it is a montage of donations in a brown paper sack. Every student went home with a baseball, a sheet of stickers, five colored pencils, a couple of writing pencils, one pencil sharpener, one eraser, a few mini bouncy balls, a mini beanie baby, a little matchbox car, and a bible. The Bible was, to my surprise, the biggest hit of all, and one kiddo, who thrust his into the air with excitement, explained that it was his favorite gift because it came from God. Regardless of the seemingly simplistic gift, these kids treated it like gold and expressed their gratitude with the most sincere hugs. There was more than one moment, where I had to turn away with tears in my eyes.
I think I now know what it might feel like to be Oprah during one of her “favorite things” episodes—“You get a car, and you get a car; everybody gets a car!” Although our gifts weren’t as grand as a new car in material worth, they seemed to be worth so much more in kindness.
For those of you who really knew me before I left for the DR, what I am about to tell you may be a bit unbelievable, but it is all true. I am a jungle woman through and through. Aside from adjusting to the day to day life of the developing world, I have also realized that I am capable of more than I ever thought possible. The first example of this came about a week ago when I woke up to find a giant, thick lizard in my bedroom, next to my head. Sure I was dreaming and that it was actually outside, I grabbed my flashlight and gently brought the light to the would-be killer lizard. Yep. It was real and less than a foot from my pillow. Thinking quickly at 2am, which was actually probably a bit slow, I devised a clever plan to remove the lizard without harm. While my roommate slept, completely undisturbed, I broke apart a plastic container and found a folder in my school supplies. Knowing that the smaller lizards like this move extremely quickly, I was afraid I could lose him in my room, but knew I needed to risk it for the biscuit. I was successful, probably because I am now a woman of the jungle. I released him outside, but admittedly, when I held the makeshift container in one hand with my chin pressing down on top so I could open the door with my other hand and the lizard squirmed around, I squealed.
The second reason I am now considering myself a jungle woman: there was a tiny bee in the van and, without giving it a second thought, I smashed the bug with my bare hand.
The third reason, I just used the bathroom with a bat hanging above me.
I love Thanksgiving! First of all, it is always on a Thursday and Thursdays are always “Thankful Thursday” which means Thanksgiving is a day of super gratitude!!
This is my second Thanksgiving out of the country and away from my family, but definitely one for the books. Surrounded by 31 volunteers from all over the country with some of the biggest hearts I have ever seen, homesickness was fleeting. (Plus a wonderful skype date with my family and Hanna helped). Together, we worked at our Learning Center and a local school all week (including Thanksgiving day) and the kids LOVED all the extra attention.
This year, I found many reasons to be thankful. I am surrounded by wonderful people, I have the greatest of support systems in the states to help me through the tougher times, I feel like my work matters, my kids (despite some questionable moments) are all healthy and they are all learning. So many things. My heart is full!
There is one other thing that I am super thankful for… my mom is coming to the Dominican Republic for two weeks in January! One week to volunteer and teach my students and another week of vacation just the two of us. It is going to be a very special treat! These last few months have taught me so much and I am so grateful to be here, living this life, meeting these people, loving these kids.
Back home, I used to love to curl up on the couch with a book while listening to a really good thunderstorm. Here, the sound of rain churns my stomach. Living in farm country for the last five years, I know what it is like to pray for rain; but living here, I now know what it is like to pray for it to stop.
Montecristi hasn’t experienced a storm like the one we had this week in over nine years (according to the locals). Just after midnight, Thursday morning, a earth-shattering clap of thunder and subsequent downpour, sent people running from their homes in search of higher ground. Many homes in my community do not have real floors and the front doors are a step down from the sidewalk, which funnels water inside. Without a sturdy foundation to their home, rushing water can literally shift walls.
The infrastructure in Montecristi wasn’t designed to handle storms like this; there isn’t even a sewer system. Instead, there are bowling-alley like gutters running along both sides of every street guiding water to the ocean. These gutters fill with rubble and debris from the crumbling streets and the roads literally turn into rushing rivers.
This rain lasted two full days and more is in the forecast for this week. The salt flats, which employ a number of people in my area have been destroyed and farms resemble lakes. I don’t know what people will do; lost income in a place like this is devastating. The CCR minor in me wants to get out and help, but the only defense people have is to wait out the storm and barricade the entrance to their homes with a row of cinder-blocks.
I have met a lot of really wonderful people down here in the Dominican Republic, but there is one person who stands out among all others. She is my best Dominican friend.
No, we don’t know each other’s names and no, we don’t communicate very well; but I walk by her home four times a day and whenever we see each other, I give my most genuine wave and “buena” greeting and she blows me a kiss. She is a constant light in my day and I feel as though she is sincerely excited to greet me as I pass.
One thing you have to know about my dear friend is that she is no spring chicken. Her age is one of the things I love most about her. Without discussing any of the particulars, I know that she is living history. Her 88th birthday was this week and in celebration, we embraced and I gave her a traditional kiss on the cheek. Now, despite her injuries from a recent fall (which she said without missing a beat, “It’s all part of God’s plan”) she jumps a little in excitement when I pass.
I love my friend.
Now that we are a month into this thing, I guess it’s time to talk about what my life is actually like down here.
Monday through Friday, I teach at the Solomon Jorge Learning Center where we have 53 students. In the mornings, I co-teach a level one group of students ages 5-8. Spanish Literacy first, recess, and then English Language. We dismiss around 11:30 and head back for lunch. In the afternoons, I teach level two students alone (ages 7-8) and I teach in the same pattern. 95% of my students cannot read, but we re working on that and my Spanish improves every day because of it.
After school, we often have time to spend at the park across the street where lots of guys from the community hang out. I have a few close friends who help me with Spanish and there is always a volleyball game to join in on. They taught me another game that is pretty tricky… when a ball is thrown to you, you have to catch it in the air and through it all in the same jump. If you don’t jump correctly or you don’t throw the ball *to* someone, you are out! I’m getting better and it is definitely a work out!! Other days we go to the beach or watch the sunset from the pier. I guess those are the things you do when you live in the Caribbean!
On weekends, we have ADVENTURES all over the country! We have been to the Capitol (Santo Domingo) and Santiago… walked through the very first church of the Americas, crossed the very first street built in the new world, and put our feet in ancient cave waters (some of Jursassic Park was filmed there, haha). Recently, we hoped on a boat that came right up to our beach and travelled to the mangroves for a swim! It was incredible! One of these days, I will have a solid internet connection and I will upload some photos.
Ok, so the story behind this title: my Spanish is improving a lot but while talking with someone in the capitol yesterday, I accidentally told a woman that I would be here for seven tables (mesas) instead of months (meses). Oh, the technicalities!
I know I didn’t have a chance to update last weekend, so here’s the deal. I am teaching Spanish literacy and English to a group of first and second graders. Some of these kiddos are technically third graders and the ages range from about 5-10. Oh all my students, only two or three can read and the rest have yet to learn to recognize letters. I have an 8 year old in my level one class who, when I met him, couldn’t even write his own name. As bad as the situation is though, these kids are hungry for knowledge and absorb everything I put in front of them. Still, I wish I knew more about teaching kids to read.
My community is poor. Not in the American sense, but more accurately, developing world poor. Coming from the states, there are so many things I feel like these kids need and deserve. Crayons, for example are a luxury that most have never had and as a result, their fine motor skills are poorly developed and at age 8 or 9 the kids color like 3 and 4 year olds. But in all honesty, there is a whole level of necessities overlooked before we even get to a child’s right to play. We might consciously know that there are places around the world without clean or running water, but it is not likely that we can genuinely empathize with the people there. For the last 10 days, my community hasn’t had water. How do you go to the bathroom? Cook food? Bathe? Wash your hands without water? … In the Dominican Republic, you use a lagoon or any standing water that you can find, even though it has been contaminated with animal feces and breeds diseased mosquitoes. You risk it because no one can survive 10 days without water.
One last thing, I love what I am doing here and I feel like I am exactly where I should be right now. The kids are wonderful! Brayan wants to grow up to be a tree! Cesar is “curious about” love! (We recently had a Curious George unit and the kids drew what they were curious about). Jean Luis volunteers to read allowed in class even though he knows he is going to struggle! They have made so many positive changes over the last three weeks and I believe these kids can do anything! All they need is a chance and for someone to believe in them.
After one week in the Dominican, I have learned a few things:
1. If you are worried that people are making kissy-faces at you, they aren’t; Dominicans point with their lips.
2. My feet are always dirty and they always will be.
3. It is HOT (like everybody sweats through their clothes kind of hot).
4. The roosters are confused and crow from 11pm-7am every night.
5. There isn’t any place I’d rather be.
I came here completely tabula rosa, ready to accept the experience for what is; nothing more, nothing less. And so far, that has been a great attitude to have because I couldn’t have imagined what this would be like if I tried. I want to tell you more about the school and what I am doing, but that will wait until next week. For now, just know that some things break my heart and other things mend my broken heart with joy and optimism. I love what I am doing, the people I am meeting, and the experience I am having. It was really hard to say good-bye to my home, but maybe it was time after all?
I am looking forward to telling you all about my students and the projects we are working on!!!! There are exciting and wonderful things happening in Monte Cristi!
Today is the day. Today I take my last hot shower, send my last text message, and give my last hug to my grandparents for 210 days. Wow. It’s 1:30 in the morning, and I am sitting in my room with so many thoughts passing through my brain. Everything from, “I wonder if my mom will clean my room while I’m gone” to “I wonder who I will be when I get back” is pondered for a few minutes before something new interrupts.
I don’t know if anyone else, on the eve of something great, questions how the subsequent events will impact their lives… but I do; I’m a thinker. I cannot predict how this whole experience will play out, but I do have three goals: share the idea of Thankful Thursdays, show the kids how much I care about them, and enjoy this time for exactly what it is.
(September 29, 2012)
~One more thing! While I am away, I hope to keep in touch with as many people as possible. I will have occasional access to the internet, which is when I will update the blog, check facebook, and respond to e-mails (firstname.lastname@example.org). I also have a mailing address and if you are up for a pen pal, I would LOVE to exchange letters via snail mail.
Outreach360 Calle Sanchez #68 Esquina Colon
Montecristi, Dominican Republic