Side by Side

It is raining on our last morning. A warm spray from the fat Caribbean raindrops that hit the louvers at the foot of my bunk mists my feet. Through the night, the wet air magnified the smell of cinnamon wafting from the kitchen below. This was the sweet scent that engulfed us all evening, instead of chicken poop, it was a welcome relief.

Our team leader leans into her daughter’s bunk next to mine, waking her gently.  Then I overhear her speaking in low tones to another member of our team.  She shares there was a terrible car crash involving a drunk driver as they drove home. They were on the new (unopened) freeway heading back to the school when the driver crossed into them. They avoided a head-on, with the drunk driver just barely skimming their car. But the truck behind them was not so lucky, although they did see the driver get out of the truck after being hit. We are grateful they are ok. Further conversation about the crash reveals that no one involved seemed to stop, at least not as far as our team leader and others in her car could see in their rearview. And it seems to be the norm, we uncover as we speak with others later about the incidence. Someone probably called 911 but it’s not a full-on disaster reaction like we would find in the US. This island is on the razor’s edge of primitive. Such a juxtaposition of Christ-like love and self-preservation. More primitive than I anticipated.

We pack as we get up, wash up, and dress. Breakfast is at 7am and the van arrives at 7:30 for our departure to La Romana. I pull the band from my hair- I’m still trying to tame this mess in this climate and condition- and peer one last time into the single mirror in our dorm room. Seeing keenly through the foggy glass, peeling mercury back, and the grime, peering back at me is someone I maybe remember. Someone who once didn’t require thirteen different hair products and designer face wash. Someone who spent warm summer days barefoot in the New England grass, digging her toes into the dirt pushed up by earthworms into little mounds. The face of a girl who braved cold mornings to muck a stall, feed, and water a horse, before even brushing her teeth. Someone who was connected to more spiritually revealing and soul-nourishing things- like listening to others chatter about nothing of any importance and yet knowing it truly mattered. She blinks back at me and smiles. I invite her to stay.

Down in the dining hall, the morning’s breakfast is rushed, as the guys are moving quickly to pack the van. We peek into the kitchen to hug Mari and others goodbye. The morning seems anti-climactic.  After last night’s let down- no departure talks, no debriefing from the week-  I’m sad it ends like this.

Yada enters the hall, smiles hello and says “I go with you today!” I notice her little black wheelie suitcase, and Neomi and Emanuel and Jadiel in tow. I’m thrilled she and others will join us at the resort. I look forward to sharing fellowship in downtime with them all. It’s funny how quickly you can make an attachment to people, desiring to know more about them and seeking their friendship. Especially with so little in common on earthly comparisons.  God-driven.

We fill our water bottles one last time from the bubbler, the rush of clear water from Juan Tomas for our trip. I reflect on my arrival just a short week earlier, I was so concerned about the quality of the water in Juan Tomas. It felt like potential poison, pain, and distress.  Little did I know that the Juan Tomas water at the Fountain of Life school would be so sweet. So fresh, so thirst-quenching. So reliable. I take two big swigs and refill my bottle. For the road.

Our bags get tucked into the trailer attached to the now-familiar white van. The same van that spirited us away from the Santo Domingo airport. In reverse play, we now load back into the van, with a few extra. A van that I thought was built to hold 15, held 17 on the way here, no holds 21 on our departure with Richard, Yada, her niece Haiti, their daughter Neomi and sons Jadiel and Emanuel, as well as Pumpa. I marvel at how but leave that little miracle to God. We are full.

The van is now surrounded by villagers. Now our friends. Yoan. Willi. Anabelle. Ingrid. Rosmery. More than I can name gather around the van. As we pull away, they smile and wave and step forward. We arch our necks to continue our goodbyes and then turn to settle into our long ride.  We still have a full day of visiting a mission in La Romana before we can rejuvenate ourselves at the resort. We guard ourselves for the final stretch.

Soon we turn off the red dirt-packed road and onto the tarmac. The narrow-paved street widens and then we are back in the Santo Domingo city center traffic. It’s even crazier than it was last week. Slowly, as I watch the passing traffic and buildings in various states of disrepair, the pillars of the overhead highways, and the crowds of people passing by, I am reminded of the Bronx. The similarity is now undeniable and for a moment I think I am driving under the el on Jerome Ave near Yankee Stadium. I realize that our immigrant citizens recreate the land of their comfort and familiarity. My grandfather did the same at one time. I close my eyes to the swirl of activity outside my seat window and the rocking, jolting images through the front windshield and try to rest for the two-hour ride east.

An hour in, I have to pee. I open my eyes and see the ocean ahead. As the van veers left, the ocean is vast and the small narrow park that runs along it is empty. How is no one there—it’s beautiful. The day is sunny. The water is sparkling. The sand looks like sugar. Every metaphor known to man about the blue ocean is true here.  I reflect that we immortalize the Caribbean ocean and yet it is just home to the people of Hispaniola. Just the saltwater that surrounds this hot rock in the middle of the south sea.

I lean forward and ask if we can possibly stop somewhere. Richard translates to Javier our driver and they talk for a minute. I receive no response, but I am confident we are ok.  Soon we are pulling into a Sunoco on the left side of the highway that runs along the ocean. We pile out, aware of how much we look like tourists. Except for our hosts. This is the first time in seven days we have seen commercial food. It looks pale and weak in its bright packaged cellophane and foil bags- Doritos, Sour Cream Chips, Gummy Bears. Cokes. The young girls gather bags of chips and soda, thrilled at this chance. I spend time waiting in line for the bano thinking about how fortunate we truly are to be able to obtain such food at will. Or maybe not.

We are all packed into the van and continue our trek east. Another forty-five minutes and we arrive at La Romana. This part of the trip is mostly for the two volunteers who have been our team leaders here. They support a school and church and hospital here with another mission trip in which they participate. The countryside here is so vastly different- the jungles of Juan Tomas and the parched, fauna-less, pale pink dust and cement of La Romana.  The streets are not so dissimilar, they are the same narrow, hilly, and pothole-filled paths that crisscross Juan Tomas. But as you gaze over the landscape you can see farther, sightlines uninterrupted by the palm trees and brush with which we have become accustomed.

The van lurches forward up a steep hill, past a landfill and some whitewashed factory looking building, Recycling Factory I am told.  We turn right and merge left, resting briefly along a curb in front of a gated schoolyard, with a looming cement building at its center, the color of Band-Aids. The name of this school stands out in contrast against its flesh-colored walls, “Colegio Evangelica Joe Hartman”.

The gates roll back and our van enters into the courtyard, coming to a halt. We pile out in groups, our leaders first in eager anticipation of seeing their friends once again. I think I get that now. I’m not even gone and I already anticipate with joy my return to Juan Tomas.  As I step down onto the white crushed rock driveway, they are greeting everyone at the school. Our leaders are thrilled to see their friends.

Escorted into the building, which is pristine compared to Fountain of Life, we are greeted and quickly given the history of the school. This building is much more contemporary than Juan Tomas. It is a self-contained, single building with three floors, with a central courtyard open to the sky, and outside hallways around the perimeter. Our guide continues with her tour, and we follow along class to class. It is strikingly beautiful when I compare it to Fountain of Life.  But it doesn’t feel like family here. It feels like a school.

The children are sharp in their uniforms. The teachers are friendly. We move from the school building to the preschool area. Children rush forth out the classroom and scramble in the yard way, their eyes scanning the crowd, seeking out someone to grab onto and hug. I’m not sure how to react and so I hang back. It doesn’t feel authentic. But then again, this is a sharp juxtaposition from where we have just spent seven days. The tour moves on, some of my teammates peeling arms and children off from around their waists. We enter the newly built cafeteria. It is gorgeous and big and empty. It was finished last year, and our leaders seem momentarily surprised that it is not in use. The director of the school mentions that they cannot use it until they have something in place in the kitchen that the government demands. Before this particular thing, it was something else. And before that something else again. At that moment I am happy for the little Fountain of Life school, hidden from government eyes in the jungles of Juan Tomas. Richard and Yada talk to the school’s director about the new and gleaming cafeteria.  I can see their eyes dreaming.

Today, thanks to the coordination of our volunteer leaders, we are serving lunch to the 198 kids at this school. While our team waits, sipping our bottles of Juan Tomas water at pristine tables in the new cafeteria, our kitchen team from Fountain of Life arrives with tubs of beans and rice, chicken, pasta, and salad. We are called into the kitchen space, empty except for a sink and a line of small tables, groaning under the weight of the tubs of food, now uncovered and steaming into the damp air. Some of our team are organized into an assembly line and begin to make massive plates, bugger than I can imagine any child of the age of 10 and under could eat! Each plate has no less than a cup of rice, a cup of beans, a large chicken leg, a cup of pasta with a creamy red sauce and a cup of dressed salad. A large slice of bread is tossed on top for good measure. I turn to my teammates and question the size of these portions- how can such little people eat so much I wonder?

Kids begin to file in, in orderly lines, directed by their classroom teachers. We won’t see this in Juan Tomas, I think!  They are seated at tables by class- pre-K, 1st, 2nd, all the way up to 8th grade. I notice sadly this last class level is much, much smaller than the elementary classes.

The noise level slowly rises and soon exceeds 100 decibels! We scurry to place plates in front of children. Someone hosts to extra-large Gatorade orange-colored water coolers onto the new granite counter. We shift it closer to the edge and begin to pour fruit juice from the spigot into plastic cups. Pretty soon we are scurrying behind plate fetchers, dropping cups of juice in front of hungry children.  

Within minutes everyone is served. We retreat to the kitchen central and grab the last of the stack of plates once piled high a few shorts minutes ago.  We look to make our own lunch plates, but the buckets once heaped with beans and rice and chicken are now clearly empty We scrape some rice from the edges and bean and chicken juice from the corners and eat, observing the noisy, joyful, Festa happening just on the other side of the service window. A line begins again at the Gatorade cooler and we move to help out, pouring until the cooler is dry. I just can’t imagine this happening in America’s schools for lunchtime. I’m still fretting about the size of the dishes, waste is such a present concern for me now when I see a young boy, no older than 6, ask for an empty plate. A teacher scrounges up a clean on and he carefully covers the remains of his dish and, balancing it between his two small hands, goes to stand in line with his class. I look around and notice more teachers helping more students to do the same.  Aside from the piles of rice and beans that hit the floor, none of these plates will be wasted These precious gifts are for Moms, and maybe Dads or siblings, back home. No sense worrying about refrigeration or careful packaging. If just a portion makes it home, that is a feast. Food is scarce in this community, and it is not only appreciated by shared.

My water bottle is empty and I check on the water tub next to the kitchen, to ensure it is good to drink. I’m feeling dehydrated, tired, and somehow lacking purpose. I look around to be productive and see the cleanup crew from this school in action. I join in to begin to clear tables and chairs and sweep floors. Piles of rice and beans collect in mounds across the shiny tile floor. I see a plastic garbage bag filling up with the remains and ask how this will be used. Animals I am told. I feel satisfied that this is sound. It’s such a unique concern for me, I guess.

Soon we are called outside as our volunteer leaders hand out gifts from large trash bags to the children and teachers assembled. It starts to rain.

I sneak a peek at my watch and see it is only 12:30 pm. Just an hour and a half has passed since we arrived. The team is being encouraged to go visit the director’s new house, built last year by the mission our leaders were on. I want to be excited and pleased, but I am just not connecting. My mind wanders back to the orange crème homes of Richard and Argenis, across the red dirt path road, and feel that anything new and shiny just wouldn’t feel grounded right now. I check in with God- is this judgment on my part?  Jealousy? I pray for him to clear my heart and reveal my purpose as I sit out the house visit. Argenis, who also has passed on the home tour, sits down beside me and the few other teammates resting on the low stone wall next to the school courtyard and we begin to talk.  I’m not so eager to move on from Juan Tomas.

Argenis suddenly asks me to pray for him as his role changes in the school. He feels more drawn, more inspired to be the school advocate, the one reaching out to mission leaders, and churches, and donors, to help grow, through God’s grace, the finances and facilities of the school, church, and medical mission. We discuss how to connect with people who want to help the school, who desire to support their mission. He asks me to read 1Samuel 3:9 to understand what he is feeling. Later in the night, I do. It reads in part “If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’.  So, Samuel went and lay down in his place.”

God’s word revealed to a woman, in a foreign land, struggling with purpose in the moment, by a man struggling with his own purpose in his role. Speak Lord for your servant is listening. I pray that God will shout into my ears and glean my path of everything NOT in his will for my purpose. Dangerous, risky, and bold prayers with abandon!

As we chat, Argenis disciplines Emanuel, Richard’s son, and I’m amazed again at how fluid parenting is in this community. Everyone is a parent to anyone. Argenis reveals that it’s because they are all grounded on God’s word and trust each other. They all have the same foundational belief and they all believe that God, in this community, is leading their thoughts and actions every day. Dear Lord, please lead me to this.

The house tour group returns and we reload people into our van for the hospital tour. Our travels through La Romana are narrated by Javier our driver. He shares that it is the hotspot of the area, these narrow city streets with boutiques and bodegas, next to trimmed parks and classic stone sculptures. Just 40 minutes from the slums in which the school sat, we arrive at a tall hospital in a city that is decidedly more civilized than Santo Domingo and certainly much more than Juan Tomas. We enter an open-air lobby and are guided on our tour by a man known well by our volunteer leaders. The hospital has no working elevator it appears, so we slowly trudge up one, two, four, five flights of stairs. We lose half our team on each floor as they choose to sit the tour out. This day doesn’t feel connected to the purpose of this trip at all, and I think the team all feels that now. Just a few more hours until we can rest.

The hospital is lovely and it is very meaningful to our leaders who helped build it. It is shiny and new and still being built. The raw construction is happening right next to the patient rooms, exposing sky, bird, and bacteria to everything in reach. So close to quality and yet so far.

The hospital guide is asked if the group can see a room. The first room he shows us is occupied, but that doesn’t stop him. I remain in the hall. A second room houses an infant child born with hydro encephalitis. He has a bacterial infection. The very young parents ask us to come in and pray for him. Of course, this we will do, it has a purpose. Yada leads us in prayer. She speaks with the parents once we are through. It turns out they live near Juan Tomas. Yada invites them to her church. I am reminded that I should not stress when this trip seems to brush against the grain of my moral fibers. God knows what he is doing and uses all things for his purpose.

The hospital tour completes and we are back in the van for the hour and a half ride back to the resort we will stay in tonight, courtesy of Richard and Yada. For the entire ride, the van is deathly silent. We have reached the end of our resiliency as a team. We need to rest.

The van exits in Juan Dolio, drives 10km east then does a u-turn and drives 5km west, exits again and we turn off the exit ramp amongst the hotels that cover the shoreline of the Dominican Republic. Things are decidedly commercial here. Bursting floral plants in brilliant oranges, and pinks, and greens, overflowing from ceramic tureens four feet high. Amber glass front stores and neon signs compelling tourists to come inside. Soon we pull into a small gate with the name of our resort. We are here.

In an instant, we can see that our van and trailer are a stark visual contrast to the black SUVs and silver Mercedes sedans pulling into the Porte Cochere of the resort. Javier squeezes the white box van for 15, seating 21, into a space between two luxury cars. He jumps out of the driver’s seat and begins to open our passenger doors. We disembark, blinking into the sun and the glare of the commercial space surrounding us: tropical print fabrics against dark wood wicker settees, glass ball lamps hanging from brass chains, planters and ceramic tile screening the electrical boxes of the resort from the eyes of guests. In Juan Tomas, the metal box covering the well mechanics is home base in stickball. We gather under the outside seating area for resort arrivals. Richard takes the copies that have been made of our passports and heads inside, telling us to wait. Time passes. A hotel waitress mingles around the Porte Cochere, greeting new guests with a tray of mesmerizing ruby pink drinks. But she avoids us. Our clothes are markedly more camp counselor than camp. And our hair and nails are in desperate need of a wash and trim.

We wander a bit to view the pool, bars, restaurants and coffee shops of this all-inclusive. Soon Richard emerges and calls us into the cool lobby. It is understated and filled with foreign languages, guests speaking amongst themselves in German, Dutch, French, Spanish. Richard is at the desk speaking with a friend who helps book these rooms for mission workers on their last night in Juan Tomas. As a thank you for their work. Grace and Mercy received, thank you very much!

One by one, we are called up to the lobby desk to get registered and receive our keys. We sign, get wristbands and are set free. My roommate and I head up to our VIP suite on the beach overlooking the bars and pools. We enter, drop our bags and shower. Forever.

My roommate and I have booked massages at the resort spa for 6PM. With glowing skin, scrubbed free of red dirt in the powerful and warm shower, almost too warm for me, we wander through the resort toward our muscle rejuvenation. The quietness of the spa sinks into our souls and we are in meditation for the next two hours.

Our crew is at the buffet when we emerge and we join them for some interesting cuisine. Shortly after, Argenis approaches our table and invites everyone out to the beachfront for an evening meeting. Argenis leads us in a sharing circle to debrief from the week on blessings, God’s insight, and our dreams. There under the yellow light circles cast from the palm tree floods, with beetles, and palmettos, and other bugs hopping around the sand at our feet, the spirit that is Juan Tomas is unpacked and shared. The trip feels complete.

Joy has no price tag

Bless the Lord oh my soul, oh my soul, worship his holy name.

Day six in Juan Tomas, Santo Domingo Norte, no street address, DR. Our mission trip is coming to a close. Last day here before we head over to La Romana to visit a different mission our leaders support. Tomorrow we tour a hospital and school which they helped to build.

But today is still here. Today we work with the kids. And paint.

The nights have become very short. Last nights worship service ended at 9pm. I went straight to bed when we got to the dorm at 9:30. And then it was 7am. Seventy five tarantulas could have clung to my mosquito netting and I would not have stirred. I’m going to miss such sound sleep back in the states.

Our little group is very quiet this morning in the dining hall. We are dotted across the benches, in our own cocoons of thought and morning grogginess. Worship music emanates from our leaders Bluetooth speaker. The electricity gets turned on and the fans begin to hum. We hear Mari and her team in the kitchen behind the sheeted gates, rattling off conversation periodically dotted with peals of laughter. Joy. We pray before breakfast, the serving window opens but not one of us moves. We sit huddled over our coffees, the ache of our bones and muscles extinguishing our hunger. The school staff and team are fresh faced and energetic in contrast to our sad bunch. I’m humiliated at my lack of resiliency. Lol.

Argenis sits aside us and we share coffee and conversation about his changing role here (teacher to ambassador), travel, the possibility he might visit Cornerstone in the coming months, and how to make the best pasta sauce. He cooks the garlic in oil until it is dark brown. He uses pork and tomato paste. He also adds a little coconut milk at the end. We agree, when he comes, he should cook us sauce.

After breakfast we try to find Yada. She is to take us to the last house to deliver the food. Ashley tells us she is in Richards office so we call in through the louvres of the front window. Yada shouts back that she will be right out. Which means within the next hour. Or so.

The night was cool so we are bundled still in sweat shirts and pants. We meander past the 5th grade classrooms and head into the courtyard. The sun becomes a bit stronger and so we walk into the shade and settle into two of the five school desks out on the cement. We watch children buying chips and water (in bags) at the little cement block store. We watch the upper grades pose and flirt. About an hour in, we see Yada approach carrying Emanuel, her 18 month old son. She tells us she needs to wait for a response from the woman’s friend. So we all sit and chat for a bit, watching Emanuel play in the cement. Some students come up to us shyly, gazing into our faces and say “Halo”. They hug us and hang on our shoulders, as if we are their aunties or staff here at the very least. I think it’s the intentionality of the gaze, the open, vulnerable eye contact, hanging in anticipation, that I will remember. Joy speaks for the eyes of these children. It beams from their faces even when they are not smiling.

Yada wanders off and we think this may be longer than we thought. But soon she is back carrying a bag of salami from the fridge, and we know we are now leaving. She hands me the keys as we cross into her gated yard. Her van sits in front of her orange creme colored cement home, with white iron ornate grates on the windows and doors, and wet clothing hanging all along the iron swirls like pendant flags.

Her van is tucked under some banana leaf plants. We get in – my teammate, Yada and I – and I release the parking brake beginning to back out. I tell Yada that today she learns how to drive and she laughs “Really? Ok!”

A group of men have gathered at the driveway gate which closes off Yada and Richards yard from the street. I back up slowly, not wanting to hit anyone as I maneuver out to the red dirt road. But these men aren’t moving. Yada says “Is ok, go, go”. I can’t beleive she means it and I continue to back slowly. My teammate videos the second drive of the week, and as she is speaking and aiming her phone camera, Yada is chattering and I am watching the group of men. As if in slow motion, suddenly a loud crunch and the whole van shifts to a stop and rocks for a moment. All three of us women stop talking. I stop breathing. The moment hangs like a judgement in the air. No one moves.

Yada speaks first “Oh” is all she says.

“Oh my God” I croak out, just above a whisper but not quite a howl, and put my hands to my face. In the rear window I see the side of a red SUV, stuck up against the back hatchway of the van. “Oh my God” I say again, because I can’t remember if I already said it. And for good measure, once more “Oh. My. God”

My teammate exclaims my name from her post in the back seat– “SONDRA!”, and Yada turns to me in a wide eyed stare. I’ve never seen her get excited, but at this moment her face is expressing humor, surprise, even excitement. I turn to her and declare, in a voice much louder than required or even intended, what we all now know and what everyone on the red dirt road knows “I hit a car!”

In the commotion of the backing out and female chatter and avoiding the men, I never even saw the red SUV parked across the road from Yada’s driveway gate. “Is ok” Yada says again. I cannot conceive that it is, and remain frozen with my hands against my face, mouth open in horror. “Go up, go up” she says. I put the van in drive and pull forward. “Ok “ Yada says and makes a motion with her left hand somewhere down around my right knee, “Wait here”. She opens her door before I even stop the van. She leaves her door open as she slides off the passenger seat and walks toward the back of the car. I want to crawl under the seat. I’m humiliated and saddened by what I have done. Yada comes back and slides back into her seat “Go, go” she chastises as she waves her hands in a swiping motion toward the front of the van. I slowly pull forward to where she is now pointing and stop on her cue. She gets out again. I momentarily think to get out too, but realize that I am not the best negotiator in this moment. A few minutes later she gets back to the van “Is ok. I told him we take care of it. Is not bad, just paint scratch.” I cannot believe it’s just paint, given the sound and jolt of the impact. But then again it may be my paranoia interpreting that moment so…

I slowly- oh so slowly– inch south down the road, until Yada yelps “Wait” at which point I slam on the brakes causing us all to wrench forward like a trio of crazy spring loaded dolls. Apparently we are picking up one person. Of course we are. I have learned that in Juan Tomas, every excursion becomes an adventurous journey, attracting friends and neighbors like lemmings.

We wait mid road journey and shortly, the Haitian pastors wife Liliana approaches with one of her children and they both climb into the van. “She is bringing breakfast to her husband at the farm” Yada says. The door slams shut and we head off down the road. I am rambling to Yada my apologies, my regret, my sorrow at the “accidente de carro”, to which she says repeatedly “Is OK, Sondra”. I love how she says my name. It feels more rich when she trolls it in he Dominican accent.

Graciously, Yada takes the blame. And shares it with my teammate. “Me y Gabriella were talking to you”, she explains. I’m still mortified and begin to try to calculate how much I should give each of them – Yada and the car owner– to cover the cost. 50 Dominican pesos is about one American dollar. But 50 Dominican pesos goes so much farther. So $50 American dollars is about 2,500 Dominican pesos. Each. Is that enough? I just don’t know.

As I am doing these mental recompense finance calculations in my mind, we reach the end of the red dirt road. Yada tells me to turn left onto the tarmac road, which I do. The traffic is light but the sides of the roads are littered with people walking, milling in groups, and generally hanging out. A little 3×4 foot cement cafeteria kiosk built on the edge of the break down area of the two lane street has cars and people gathered around it. The van rattled over a speed bump, which I find a comical attempt at controlling traffic on this island. Yada points to a dirt road on the right. “Here” she says “Lilliana’s husband works down here”.

We ease down this narrow road, the van rumbling and bouncing up and down the rivets in the dirt worn by rain and tires. We pass some men on the left behind fencing, working in the brush with long sticks. They reach up into tall palm trees. “Coconuts” Yada says. Here she points out a parcel of land to our right, cordoned off with hurricane fencing “We are building our house here” she says “My brother is building over there” she points to another parcel secured behind fencing. “And Argenis and Rosmery over there”. Yada gazes our onto the mostly treeless field of grass behind the fence. “I don’t like to move here but Richard says we need space from the school”

The parcels are beautiful, they sit atop a hill with open space surrounding them. Views and breezes abound. “My brother owns this parcel too. He has too many lands” Yada says, with a scoffing laugh as she flaps here hands in dismissal. Then she points to a freshly plowed field, with even divots in rows of black soil running from street to back acres. “Yucca” she says “This is my brothers farm” We come over a hill and down a slope. At the bottom is a baseball field filled with men playing. “Slow” Yada says “Lilliana’s husband is working in this field somewhere.” We all peer into the dark earth backdrop, straining for a sighting of a man. Then Yada sees him and we pull up along the fencing. Lilliana jumps out with a plastic bag filled with foil covered bowls and hands them to her husband. She quickly bounces back into the van and we back up slowly and k-turn to head back up the road.

On the main road again Yada points to another dirt road on the right. This one is even more narrow. As we turn onto it I see two beautiful white stucco porches affront homes being built behind fencing. The gleam of the whitewash primer on the cement is jarring against the filth in the streets and the hovels that are houses across the road and down the small hill. I ask Yada about these newly built homes, as palaces along this slash of road, and she says, people are trying to move in. They make no where for people to live when they buy their home and build. I think she means that this area is being gentrified. Like Brooklyn, I consider.

We bounce down to a dead end. I slow the van to a halt, having no further ability to drive forward on this strip of dirt. Lilliana and Yada are suddenly animated, chattering back and forth between the front and back seat in Spanish, hands flying. Then they both stop

talking. “Ok” Yada says turning to me, “I understand now. Go forward and turn right”. I follow carefully and there to our right appears a narrow alley. Or road as it may be in the DR. I turn cautiously and soon we are heading back up the hill from which we came, on a different road. Lilliana reaches forward and simultaneously points and thrusts her hand into a stop position. I stop the car, but there is no where to pull over, so we just park it. Right there. In the middle of this narrow dirt road. This is the Dominican way. If someone comes along they will either wait or try to drive around it, navigating the side grass-knolls and low cement walls that frame the van.

Yada and I open the hatch and hoist the bag from the back of the van. She puts in two big salami’s and we begin to walk where Lilliana is pointing. My teammate, Lilliana and her son follow.

The path on which we walk is littered in broken glass. Shacks are nestled into the slight angle of the land all around us. To the left and right of the path are mounds of bottles. All sorted by types. Green bottles that used to hold sparkling water in one pile. Brown bottles of ale in another pile. An interesting pile of glass bottles that have a decorative weave of rope around them like netting. Clear bottles from refresco de naranja. All neatly piled into mounds by style, amidst plantings and black earth.

We soon approach a shack painted shades of blue, its walls of hand ripped boards from trees and aluminum sheeting. A door of aluminum is held closed on the back with a stone. Lilliana goes along the side of the house to a little ground level front porch at the far end. We cannot see her know, but hear her as she calls loudly, then knocks. She waits and calls again. Turning around the corner back into our view, she shakes her head and

raises her arms and shoulders. “No one is home” Yada says out loud. “She is pregnant and at the hospital maybe”. I’m not sure if this is a story Yada is fabricating or an actual explanation for the empty home.

We turn and make our way back through the Willy Wonka playland of

Glass. I suggest Yada keep the bag of food and try again tomorrow or Saturday after we leave. She agrees.

We emerge from this small community, driving carefully past more dogs then I have ever seen. Puppies even, here. Two men watch us quizzically. I say to Yada that this small group is so much easier than the big parade of people we had a few days ago. She nods in agreement. “Yes” she says “That’s too many. And people talk about us”. We agree that smaller is better. I think our volunteer leaders will be happy too.

We bump along in relative silence for a spell. Periodically Yada gestures to the steering wheel, flapping her left hand gesturing for me to stop. As I do, she rolls down her window to talk with someone along the road. A couple walking with their three yr old boy. A single woman, very thin. “She was Pentecostal and fasted too much. Now she is sick”. I don’t disagree or try to correct, although I am aware of how

primitive some of their beliefs and explanations are, very similar to things and ways my immigrant grandmother believed.

We drive a bit more and stop a bit more. I fear we will pick up more passengers, but no, it’s just Yada on tour. I forgot I am driving the unofficial mayor around the communities here. I remind myself to ask Yada again for the rest of her story about Juan Tomas and Richard.

On a flat space of road, back in the outskirts

of the village, I stop the car and gesture to Yada– “You drive now”, I say. At first she feigns to turn the offer down, but quickly is opening her door to come around the van to the drivers side. I crawl over the center console and assess how easily I might be able to save us from disaster with this driving lesson.

Yada settles into the seat and moves it closer to the wheel. I show her the brake and the gas. I tell her to punch the silver button on the side of the shifter and pull it down to D. As she does so, I instruct her to remove her foot from the brake. The van slowly lurches forward. Yada moves the wheel back and forth in animation as the straight section of the road dictates. Wildly ricocheting between both road aides, but she is driving!!

Soon her steering evens out and we are smoothly gliding down the road. I intended to have her only drive the straight length but she isn’t showing any desire to stop. And so we went with it. I take a picture of her driving. I instruct her to step on the gas through deep mud puddles, so as not to get stuck. She oversteers on turns but I grab the wheel and bring her back. Soon she is pulling up along the low wall and fencing of the school. Still driving, she reaches to roll down her window and hanging her head out, shouting to the female teachers in the yard tending the younger grades. She sees her daughter Naomi and waves both hands yelling “Look”. I grab the wheel, because someone has to drive. Yada pulls her head back in, and we steer the van to the side of the road in front of her house. I place it in park. Yada is beaming. We all clap.

Back in the school compound I tell no one yet of my misfortune with the car accident. I’ll wait till dinner. Our teammates are playing with the pre-K and Kinder group. This is a shift in plans. Painting primer onto the porous cement blocks had to wait, for lack of a mixer. It was there, somewhere, but no one can find it now. So they returned to play games. We blow bubbles and receive hugs until our volunteer leader gets a text that the mixer is now there. Playtime is over.

We amble down to the school. I forget my work shoes and have to return to the dorm to retrieve them. On my way back, the church courtyard is crowded with high school students. I assume they are on break, but one can never tell, the kids schedules are so fluid and they are often outside. I am reminded that Stephanie invited us to her classroom at 11am to help with English. Just another hour. I join the others, now painting the cement blocks outside the vocational building, with a very liquid primer. It’s difficult because the blocks absorb so much. As I am rolling the wall, three students approach. They ask if they can interview me. They are interviewing many of our mission team. They ask me questions in English, fairly well. They get to “How old are you?” And we all laugh. I tell them I’m a grandmother and they write that down.

The hour of painting passes quickly and soon my teammate and I are in a classroom of 25 Dominican teenagers. Stephanie, our connection from Converge and a teacher at the school, stands in front speaking English. She is teaching them simile, metaphor, alliteration, and theme. They barely listen. She is good natured and calm. She continues forward with the lesson. Surprisingly, despite their boisterous behavior and loud voices, they appear to be learning. Stephanie reveals to us that when she first started she was struggling to figure out how to get better control over her class. So she visited some other classrooms in the school. They all looked like hers. So she just went with it! And it seems to work. The Dominican way.

The personalities in the class are so familiar. Except for the language differences, it could be any high school classroom in America:

The quiet studious girl and boy.

The boisterous rambunctious girl and boy.

The beautiful girl and handsome boy.

The loud obnoxious pair.

The helpers.

The leaders.

And those students who just want to get through the day!

The lesson descends into chaos when Stephanie directs the children to form groups and she calls out the groupings. In typical teenage style, instead of just getting up and moving to another desk, half the class begins to lift their desks and carry them- over their heads, on their backs- to where their group is forming.

Chaos.

Fifteen minutes later the children are settled in their seats. Stephanie writes on the board 10 simile statements: My hair is like_____. My eyes are like _______. I dance like _______. She gives the class directions, to write a poem about themselves using these ten sentences. And to help each other come up with the simile. And be nice!

We wander through the class and try to assist. The kids are more interested in us and ask us many questions. We oblige.

Around noon, other of our teammates pop their heads in the (Dominican always open) doorway. We gather our things, bless Stephanie and her zoo, and head to the dorm to wash up. While in the dorm, I hear Yada calling Gabriella’s name. Yada needs no megaphone. I come out to the steps landing and see her below, at the base of the stairs, with one of the young cleaning women for the school. “Ay, this is the women whose car you hit” Yada smiles. Oh. My. God.

I scamper down the stairs and plead forgiveness again. Yada laughs and the women shakes her head and smiles. No worries, Yada says. I say “No! Please tell her I am embarrassed and I will cover the cost.” Yada translates. “She says it is nothing. Just a little paint” I am firm and the this beautiful young woman hugs me. I smash her car and she hugs me! And smiles and laughs. Joy in all things. Remarkable. Yada pats my back. And they leave.

Lunch is served at 12:30pm. When I reach the front of the serving line, Mari from the kitchen winks and puts her finger to her lips as she places a third fried yucca nugget in my plate, alongside the pasta with chicken cream sauce and vegetables. She is a blessing in her quite servant leadership. I captain of this food emporium. And a mother all wrapped up into one.

Lunch goes down slowly. The food is too much and too heavy, but it is so tasty. During lunch, I can no longer keep silent and I confess to my team about my accident. My teammate shares the video of the moment of the crash. They are gasping and laughing and rambunctious over this all. I can feel the heat in my face from shame. I let them know I am going to give both Yada and the woman $50 American dollars each for damages. Someone mentions the condition of the cars here, what is one more dent or scrape. But that’s not the point. It is my fault. I caused this and I have to recompense for it. In good humor, Yada approaches the table and laughs as well. I feel slightly reconciled but not until cash changes hands. And yet, despite this crash, battered cars, long dusty, hot walks to feed sick and impoverished people, the joy in this community is palpable. Singing. Laughing. Caring for any child within arms reach – yours and others. Living life by the moment and not the clock. Aluminum wood shacks and red dirt yards. Barbed wire makeshift fences and gates. Rice and beans three times a day. Barefeet and garbage and stray dogs . This village, this school, this church exudes joy. Joy has no price tag. Currency not accepted.

We linger over our after lunch coffee and Yada brings a big plate of sliced dessert bread. I think we all feel more comfortable with each other. I’m sad it ends tomorrow.

We gather our paint things and head back down to the school. One of our volunteer team leaders stays back, waiting for Yada to take her to bring a walker purchased for a village child. Yada said 1:30pm. We all know what time means here now. And we are ok with it.

The painting at the school continues. We cut in trim in the roof of the porch and roll outside walls. I am shocked at how my muscles and sinew scream in pain. I vow to use them more going forward back in the states.

We soon run out of paint and paintable surfaces. It is only 3:15. We move back toward the dorm to lay down, taking advantage of the reprieve the Lord seemed to lay before us. We pass our volunteer leader pulling out of the school yard, driving Yada and Pumpa and a gaggle of kids to deliver the walker. The same walker that she was waiting to deliver at 1:30pm. It is currently 3:30. She slows the van and rolls the window. I lean in and point to Yada “Watch out, she will talk and make you crash” The van erupts in laughter as they drive off.

Back in the dorm I drop to the cot. I’m not even showering I’m so tired. A few hours of rest and I’ll be good.

At 5:30 I awake. Our volunteer leaders come back to the dorm. They have been invited to a barbecue at one of the staffs homes so we will make our way to dinner on our own. They remind us that at 7pm Richard and Argenis will lead a scholarship discussion. They will be back by then, they say. It’s remarkable that even after six days here, we still believe the clock controls the people here as it does in America. Dinner is quiet. We eat slowly, some of us reading some speaking in small groups. 7pm rolls around. Richard and Argenis arrive and ask to wait for our volunteer leaders. 7:15. 7:30. 7:45. We yearn to go to bed even though it’s still light out. 8pm and we call it a night. We can chat over breakfast about scholarships.

Day Five

I recently had the honor of being part of a small group of people headed down to the Dominican Republic to work beside a team from the area expanding on a school, teaching children and caring for those in the village center. In the next few days, I’ll be posting a series of reflections on this trip from my daily journal.

Day five and I wake up with the realization that the dorm in which we are currently housed- with its slatted walls that reveal spotlights at night which pierce our sleeping eyes, with its semi-open lavatories where full-on conversations continue between us all without missing a beat, with its cold water shower that propels water in a single weak stream, with its constant smell of chicken poop and it’s nighttime parade of bugs and spiders and other unidentifiable skittering critters, this space we have had to learn to endure, is better living conditions than 100% of the places we visited yesterday. I appreciate this space.

Breakfast this morning is a flavorless oatmeal bread, with sides of papaya and pina. I wonder if the papaya and ina are from school payments made this month by villagers. That’s a real thing here- trade for services still exists and it is remarkably valuable and a reasonable approach. Along with our dry bread is our strong coffee. We eat quietly. Tiredness, both physical and emotional has set in for all of us. I can see the age of our group showing around our edges and the neophyte energy, brought on by the excitement early on in our mission, waning day by day.

Can we talk about my hair? Yes, it is now clean. But good lord! It’s untamable and bushy. I pull out the clips I placed into is last night to sleep and it literally stands up straight facing north, east, and west. I have captured it under a wide Lycra band and for the moment it behaves. But I feel it trying to escape at every minute of hard work. On my next mission, I will shave my head before I go. One less thing to worry about.

It is with a tired body and soul that we rise from the picnic benches in the dining hall and prepare ourselves for a morning of games and devotion with 5,6, and 7 graders. But today we do not have our Converge missionary teacher, Stephanie, to guide and organize the school. We are on our own, floating on Dominican Time. And so our start time of 9 am comes and goes. At 9:15 Richard appears and we ask if the classes are ready. He says he can help assemble everyone and he mentions the size of the combined grades. 70 children at a minimum! So we decide to divide and conquer. Half the class will go to games, half to devotion and then we will switch. The seventh graders arrive and our teammates begin devotions. At the halfway mark, we attempt to switch. But no, a change of school schedule. It appears that today is another half day of school, so they now have recess. We sit momentarily, stealing precious moments of peaceful rest before we decide to go paint the vocational school instead. Painting is possibly the one task I despise the most. And yet here it has become a spiritual activity. Communal. Shared. I relish the opportunity to pace through the brush strokes quietly in conversation with the six other women of this group. We work through the morning this way, talking of nothing and everything until Pumpa arrives to announce lunch.

After our lunch of pork, rice and pigeon peas, as well as coleslaw, we go out to do bubbles with the kids. It’s 1:30 and school is out. But the yard is still filled. Young girls say “Halo”, practicing their English. They smile and hug our waists. They love to practice their Inglese! We teach them the words for lollipop, soda, lunch, and other common items. When we are done with bubble play (when the boys turned it into killed the guy with the bubble jar), we walk once more to the vocational high school building to do some more painting. Pumpa now joins us and soon, because this is what we do what we aspire to solve in life, the women all begin to discuss who she should marry. Yoan is a wonderful choice. And maybe some others. We talk about our own sons. I offer my pictures. “I like their eyes” she says. Its resolved then, she will somehow marry into one of our families “But they must live here” she says. Pumpa, along with everyone in this village, is devoted to staying, or returning as the case may be from colleges, and building up this little Juan Tomas. What a dream. What a purpose. I think of our ancient forefathers growing distant lands they claim as home. What a joy to be a part of that legacy.

At 3pm a teammate and I prepare to transition to more village work. We await Yada who will be leading us in delivering the final five bags of food in the village. After the parade that was inspired a few days ago doing the same thing, we have agreed it is better to go in much, much smaller groups. Or at least that’s the plan. It is Juan Tomas after all. Every outing is an adventure for all to join. Yada tells us to meet at 4pm. We realize after six days that the time noted is an average time of day, but we do arrive in the dining hall at 4pm as directed. And wait. Pumpa comes through. Ishmael wanders in. Village children play outside, yelling through the screens “Halo Americana’s!”. At 4:30 Yada comes in, she points to me and says “Do you drive?” Me? Visions of the Santo Domingo city center cross my thoughts. But I quickly realize that we won’t be going that far. “Sure!” I’m always up for an adventure.

The three of us carry the final four bags to the school compound courtyard. Yada walks through the commons wall door and beckons me to walk with her to her house across the dirt road. She hands me a ring of keys and we get into her van. The van has seen better days. The windows have months of Juan Tomas dust and grime embedded in them, along with children’s fingerprints. The interior is lived in. I stress about the dashboard, brake, and gas pedals. Is it standard!?! No, it’s automatic. That’s a relief. I put the key in the ignition, release the parking brake and start her up. All good!

We swing the van around in the narrow red dirt-packed road and park in front of the compound door. Four-year-old Naomi appears and her mother hoists her into the van. She climbs to the far back. Car seats not required. Willi appears and helps to load the four bags of food laden with rice and beans, and sardines, and oatmeal, and more into the back. We wait for the salami’s which have been kept in the fridge. They arrive and we close the doors – Off we go!

We bump along more divots and potholes than flat lane ahead of us. I quickly learn the most important thing is to avoid killing dogs. They are everywhere. Lying on the road. Crossing the road. Standing in it.
Yada points us to a house on the right. She says “This is me Mamas house.” Next to it and up a set of cement stairs, Yada explains, lives a Haitian refugee family. The father was a deacon at a church in Haiti. Richard met him at a conference. The family needed to get out of Haiti and so Richard and Yada got them to the Dominican. They rent this three-room flat from Yada’s mom.

We park the car in front of the two-family buildings and disembark. Yada calls hello between the iron fencing to her Mom’s house. Small cousins emerge and shout back to Yada. Yada laughs and waves her hands at them, while they giggle and scamper toward us, curious as to our mission. We climb the stairs with the hoisted bag between the three of us. It is heavy but we make it.

At the top of the crumbling steps we are greeted by an open door (open doors are so common I wonder why they have any at all). Inside is a radiant woman, petite, with a perfect smile. Yada introduces us, she is Liliana, and my teammate speaks to the woman in Spanish, asking the names of her children. My teammate explains who we are and from where. She asks if the woman has any “peticiones” for us, as we would like to pray for her. Liliana asks for prayer for someone from her church back in Haiti. He has broken his arm. Now obviously in the U.S. that’s not necessarily always a dire situation. But in a torn and squalidly poor country like Haiti, it can mean life or death. We pray in Spanish and hug and kiss goodbye all around.

We descend the stairs and head back to the van. Our next stop is one of the cleaning women from school. I’ve seen her all week. Yada approaches her yard and reaches to unhook a makeshift gate, contrived from tree limbs and barbed wire. It is held up by a wire looped around a tree. Once released, it collapses to the ground in a heap, a trap for dogs and children. We enter her yard and she sits in a chair on the front cement slab that abuts the front door- which is open. Inside is a jumble of furniture and curtains separate the spaces. A TV plays from the back of the small house. On her lap is a baby no more than 10 months. At her knees is a young girl about five, half of her hair unbraided and she is holding a jar of Vaseline. The woman has a pink wide-toothed comb in her hand, as she uses the Vaseline and comb to try to capture the hair. From the house emerge two young boys, between ages 8 and 9. One takes the baby from the woman. My teammate introduces us and offers the bag of food we have brought from the van. We also offer a bag of clothes. The other boy takes them both inside. My teammate asks the woman if we can pray. She tells us of her needs: her husband wants to go back to Haiti, and he has been ‘being away from her” could we pray for her matrimony? Yada later explains what “being away” means- infidelity. The woman also asks that we pray fervently that her children will stay close to God as they grow. We pray and make our goodbyes.

Back in the car, on the travel back toward the school, Yada reveals that she doesn’t drive, but wants to learn. I tell her I can teach her and we laugh.
Our next stop on the return trip is a small (even smaller than any we have been in) house. We enter and Jarri calls our greetings. Inside is another beautiful young woman, also Haitian. She tells us of her trouble having children. She has lost two already. Her face is sad and I feel torn. On the one hand, she has nothing. This small house, her husband and … nothing. On the other- well she has nothing. Children would be a blessing. They would give her purpose. They would help pay expenses through work as they come of age. They would take care of her someday when she is old. We pray for healing and lay hands upon her and then say goodbye.

We head back to the van, as I come around to the driver’s side a pack of no less than eight dogs is hanging around my driver’s side door. I stop and call Yada, who saunters around the front and chases them off.

We drive back toward the school compound. One more bag but Yada does not know the address. Who are we kidding, there ARE no addresses lol! Yada needs someone from the school to come with us in the AM and point directions. I say we can give her a driving lesson then as well. She seems skeptical but pleased.

We park and enter the gates of the school. Bone tired and ready for a shower we head upstairs to the dorm. Dinner is at 6:30 and Wednesday service is at 7. Or thereabout.

At 6:30pm, Yada and others serve us fried salami, mashed plantain, mashed potato, and more coleslaw. This food is heeeeeavy. I eat only half. I contemplate skipping the worship service. I look over at our teammate who has been stomach sick since Monday evening. If he is up, I can be, so a few minutes of rest on the dining table bench and I rally.

The church looks amazing after the work from the men in our team all week. Walking in I see Annabelle, who was so upset yesterday at one of the homes we blessed. We wave hello. Over the week the staff and villagers have warmed up. Gone are the wary glances. The frozen stares. Yada hugged me hello today and laughed at our conversation. She even promised to tell me more about how she and Richard met. All she revealed today was that she was thirteen and helping her father work on Paul’s goat farm. Richard also worked there milking goats. They went to school together and then Richard went into college getting his MBA.

The 7pm service starts at 7:20. Close. We sing in Spanish, the words becoming easier. Then we break into prayer groups before coming back together as a congregation. I catch sight of the petite Haitian woman whose husband is a deacon, seated a few rows back, I go over and we hug. She smiles.

Later we drag ourselves back to the dorm. It’s been a long week. Tomorrow is our last day here before we move on to La Romana. Until then we have more children to Bless and walls to be painted.

Today was very intense

Today was a very intense journey. So I’ll start with something light.

My bra dried overnight. I told you yesterday we have begun to wash needed article of clothing in the cold showers. This was such an item. And to my surprise, it dried. Which is a miracle in and of itself given the deluge of rain last night.

The smell of chickens wafted through our dorm all night. The wind and the fans dropped the temperature but not the dew point overnight.

Every thing remains a mild level of wet this morning, despite the bright sun.

Primping in the AM has become easier. I’ve stripped away all that has become obviously nonessential. Focus on just The basics. Face. Teeth. Hairband. Deodorant. Clothes. Done. Easy to do while here, of course.

We join together for worship, coffee and breakfast. We take a short fifteen minutes to digest and then gather our work gloves and water bottles and head back to the vocational high school for more painting. It’s a national holiday today – “Something Catholic” a villager tells us. So no school for us.

Painting the school starts out with enthusiasm and missing parts. Who has a ladder that is stable? Where is the water to wash brushes? Anyone find me a stirring stick for the paint? A teammate retrieved a scrap of wood from the pile abutting the front porch, one without rusty nails.

Do we paint the ceiling first? Yes. Wait – the rollers don’t fit the sticks. A minute or two trying all permutations of 16 rollers and seven sticks. Where’s the tape? Young Ishmael, out of school on his holiday day, shows us how to tape the roller to the pole. It works beautifully. A child will lead them.

A rain of fine white paint falls on us in the 6 x 12 room where we are all painting- ceiling, walls, ledges. One teammate cuts the corners in, to avoid any paint over. We discuss the afternoon schedule which includes more painting and then a 4:30 distribution of 20 bags food in the village to 20 different households. We all pause talking for a moment- everyone of us women to a tee, including Pumpa, are realizing the fatal flaw in this plan. A mile walk to town, stopping at twenty chosen homes to deliver and pray. Starting at 4:30pm, we won’t be back until 9pm. Or later! And we will be interrupting people during their dinner.

Pumpa speaks first. “I don’t think that is a good time”, she says in her straight forward way into the silence. We all burst out in agreement at once, our chatter heralding our relief. We elect Pumpa to tell our leader volunteer. She laughs and says she must ask Argenis first. We agree a 3pm start is better. Or maybe even right after lunch.

It’s resolved then. We continue painting, satisfied that our gift of organization is being used to the benefit of all.

I go to wash some rollers, but we cannot find the end to the hose, pieced together from actual hoses and some lengths of plastic piping. First we climb the temporary slanted boards to the second floor, using paint poles as our support, hosting our bodies up an awkwardly and brilliantly angled scrap of wood. We find the hose end but it looks to be set up for the cement man. We shlog back down the temporary boards. Ishmael disconnects the hose at a point near some rocks in the deconstructed yard outside the schools first floor. Richard is tying the coupling of the hose to the faucet up the steps and along the cement path of the high school buildings. It’s the wrong size and doesn’t stay secured. He uses a rubber band type material. Ever thing here is Gerry rigged. I have a keen sense of deja vu, my friends and I as a gang of children in the back field creating makeshift tools and home spaces to play amongst. That’s the sense I get here.

He turns on the spigot and we have water. I settle in on. The newly poured (and cured) cement side walk and find a naturally inclined stone near my feet to roll the rollers against as I rinse the white from it’s fuzz. The water pools quickly in the clay and turns a milk blue white from the paints.

A break from this and

a quick FaceTime with my son in Brooklyn NY. He seems a world away. He is a world away. And yet technology makes it so close. I love technology. It’s expanded our world. God drives innovation to connect his people and breathes life into the gifts of us all.

I return to paint more walls inside the vocational school – a turquoise blue. 12 women in one room yielding brushes and rollers in blues and whites. Music from America- country, Sinatra, Rock. Pumpa and Ishmael join us in painting bringing our number to 14 in the room. Our male teammate retreats to paint the front porch ceiling. Smart man.

We go to wash brushes once again. Pumpa is seated by our makeshift wash hole. The spigot is detached once more. I hike up to the tin church and find Richard. He brings helpers and re -attaches it in seconds. Again we have water. Life.

God attaches our hose of life giving water- Jesus. When we neglect the connection through which Jesus flows and our connection becomes detached he is always there to help us reconnect. He is always responsive like that. What a comforting thought!

I settle in next to Pumpa. We speak nothing, but we share this moment, cleaning, rinse, resolving. It’s a beautiful snapshot. I will bank this as a memory that brings me peace.

There is a quiet contentedness to these people of the Dominican. A silent firm presence in the moment. Neither marked as good nor bad. Just- present. I’m trying to tap into this and brush off my American activity – constantly doing or preparing to do, my need to talk or fill air, my internal voice of judgment and direction. Because it is in this space I believe God waits for me. Maybe that is the peace that Pumpa is feeling as we sit silently working side by side in this wash pit.

Children play in and around the unfinished building. They play in our makeshift water hole now filled with paint. They play on the pile of discarded wood. Climbing up the makeshift boards to lean over the second floor wall.

This was our childhood. Not an adult around. Entertaining ourselves with things that were probably 90% dangerous for us. The adult in me wants to shout warnings. The child in me rejoices in their play. I let them be.

The clock turns to noon and we begin to clean up until the afternoon A teammate and I walk back to the compound. She directs me to the water trough, a location that has excellent water pressure (in low supply here) and where she washed her hair before. We scrub and scrub our hands and arms, the blue and white dots of paint melting into streams of colored water swirling down the drain. We talk about teams and collaboration; personalities and how God uses us to help others in their struggles. Divinely created, a use for each of our flaws.

We wander wearily into the dining hall, trying desperately to keep the thought of afternoon labor at bay. Let us enjoy this hour of rest, as God directs.

We notice a towel on the floor at the door threshold. The poor staff is trying to keep their beautiful tile floor clean. We diligently wipe or remove our shoes. We slump onto benches. Others from the church and school file in. Soon there are children chanting, music playing, people jabbering in Spanish and English. This community draws together and nourishes strength in each body, in the way they each require.

After lunch we lounge. In Italy and Spain and Latin American countries the tradition of rest after a mid day meal is common. We have come to appreciate why. We also appreciate the fluidity of decision making and plans. Maybe, maybe not. We change our mind mid stream and no one is fazed in the least. It’s acceptable. I appreciate that.

We decide to rearrange the afternoon and head out to deliver food in the village earlier. So a rest until 2:30 is ideal. A teammate offers to wash my hair in the trough out in the yard. I eagerly accept and head off to our dorm for shampoo and towels.

She meets me downstairs. I’m ridiculously excited about the prospect of clean hair. It’s not been washed since Friday.

We head over and some of the villagers are on picnic tables in the shade. They speak to her in Spanish “you’re doing a hair salon” and we laugh.

Honestly, time could have stood still and I would not have noticed. The cool water against my scalp and the shampoo massage was delicious. We chatted while she washed and laughed at – really nothing. Comfortable in our shared female spirit. Again, a memory awoken from dna of ancestry, female bonding over common activities. The spirit of sharing. God created us to be together. Isolation is the devils playground.

Freshly washed and feeling revived I head up to rest until it’s time to pack the truck and head into the village.

We lose track of time and soon Pumpa is in the doorway admonishing us to come, hurry, we are ready. It’s 3:15.

Here’s where it gets hard.

The van gets packed with 15 bags. Ishmael, Johan, Pumpa, Jonathon, Joshua, Willi, Annalisa, Yara, little Neomi, brilliant Rose, and half a dozen more from the church and school join us. The van follows behind and we walk. Yara, Richards wife has the list of families we will bless this afternoon. It’s clear as we enter town Yara is the unofficial mayor. The majority of staff here at the school grew up here, went away to college, and came back. They love this village. They love the people. They know them all.

We stop at our first house. There are many of us, so only half our group moves forward with the staff. Our teammate who speaks Spanish translates. The family receives us well. We pray over them and they thank us. We move on.

The next house is a bit of a challenge, but we are currently unaware. As we follow Johan and Yara into a yard it’s clear we are not at the chosen home yet. We pass close to some sheds and houses. Then we cross into someone’s front yard (no bigger than a two by four foot patch) and walk along their small house close enough to lean against it. Then we turn left and walk over a knoll. A tiny field is to our right and a cow stands tied to a tree.

We are still not there.

Then we turn left again and suddenly our line of people comes to a halt. As I move closer to the bottle neck I see that we must climb over a fence board in a narrow passage that is lined with barbed wire. We make our way slowly. When we are through we walk again through someone’s postage stamp yard and more barbed wire, this time its laying on the ground.

Suddenly we are in an alcove of trees. And sheds- leaning, twisted, battened together with aluminum and knotted boards, tin and plastic. The ground is red dirt. As I look up we are approaching a circle of plastic chairs in which sit and stand women. Wizened faces, multi colors of hair and clothing. And smiles. And poverty. An older woman approaches in a bra and a tartan plaid longer skirt, held together at the zipper with a safety pin. She wears a small necklace with a pendant that I cannot make out. Her salt and pepper hair is twisted into multiple knots. Curiosity turns to smiles when she sees the staff, with whom she is familiar.

Yara greats them with hugs. We step forward as a group- our team, school staff, and church folks- and our teammate translates again, asking names of those women in the chairs, seeking info and connection. For me, the air is deeply silent.

More women from this alcove come toward the gathering. Listening, watching, pulling at their hair and shuffling their feet in a rhythm to music no one can hear. Our teammate who translates is such a blessing. She bridges our gaps, our deficits in this foreign place. And more importantly, for the people we are here to serve, she is the salve. She soothes their wariness and smooths the way for the Holy Spirit to work in all of us to serve without obstacle. She is a true blessing.

We pray and deliver three bags here. Then we turn and make our way back through the barbed wire, fence posts, postage stamp yards, and the cow.

On the street we walk some more. Yara calls greetings to people every thirty paces. Our group has grown, as we gather people along the way who join us in our journey and makes the street clogged with our numbers. Mini bikes maneuver in and out of us as we move forward.

Cars beep for us to part. Our van follows behind. A bus (a bus!) heads toward us and we split to move around it.

Then we stop and pull another bag. This time one of the school staff who I have seen frequently, leads us down a narrow path from the road. We are now about 25 people strong at least. As we get to the end of this tiny footpath we cross into a small yard.

There a woman approaches wearing a clean johnny coat. Here movements telegraph a deep illness. Cerebral palsy? Muscular Dystrophy? Tourettes? Johan tells us no one is home at this house except this woman making her way, and he seems to move to lead us back. We stand firm. She will be blessed with food and prayer.

The woman makes her way slowly to the small porch that serves as the entry to this tiny house. When I think she will stop and turn around toward us, she turns but continues in an awkward slow pirouette. Her head arches to the ceiling of the porch. Her arms are wracked at angles unfamiliar to many. She is saying something. Johan says “She says thank you”. I whisper to my teammate “Please pray for healing”. My throat closes. The woman pirouettes slowly again, unable to control her body’s movements. We pray harder. It seems to go on and on.

And then it ends. And we recess from the front yard. I turn and the school staff member who led us here is crying. As is her friend. My heart lurches in my chest and I reach out, pulling her into a hug. She hugs fiercely back.

We all walk silently back down the narrow path. I feel- I feel- I just feel.

When we reach the road I am desperate for prayer as a group. This we didn’t do before we stepped off on this journey today. Our hunan nature in this is so evident and raw.

The group forms in a close cluster, almost without encouragement. And we pray. I pray out loud. I am not the words. They are just there. I cannot keep the tears inside. We shout amen. And I am broken.

It is close to 5:30 and we have so many more to serve. A decision is made to break into two groups and this allows us to finish by 6pm. Dinner is delayed because the staff is with us, but no one cares. We have felt God move in us today. We have felt the Holy Spirit lead our steps and use our voices. We have experienced Jesus in our presence. The great “I am” has made himself known. We can never be the same.

Day Three

Morning came quickly and so did a light rain and clouds.  It is a relief.  The Dominicans tell us it is winter. It lasts for three weeks.  Highs of low 80’s, lows of high 70’s.  But the humidity never ceases. My hair is wet. My bed is wet. My clothes are wet.  Certainly mold may follow. It’s glorious. 😊

We gather for devotional at 7:30AM in the dining area. Sweet Spanish voices are our background music from the kitchen.  Joy in all you do.  It’s biblical.  

After breakfast we proceed to the cement and gravel courtyard in the compound to observe school opening.  Children have begun arriving, shiny in blue and bright yellow uniforms. Ribbons and bows adorn tightly combed hair. Young boys swagger across the expanse In crisp blue pants and borox white golf shirts. Over their left breast on the shirt is written “Centro Educativo Manantial de Vida” in blue embroidery thread. As ten children turn to twenty turn to thirty and more, orderly lines form under the watchful eyes of a dozen or more teachers.  The ranks of children swell until I think they may have no more room to fit in the space. And this is just the elementary grades. A similar gathering is happening across the street for the high school students.  

A corner cement-block kiosk opens its gates. A child approaches and exchanges pesos for a water bottle.  Children swarm by our legs and begin to close rank in the lines facing the white cement compound wall with Spanish writing on it and the Dominican flag hanging ready to hoist. 

Morning assembly, 7:30AM

The space becomes more clear and the children’s group more condensed. They do fit after all. 

A teacher steps to the front with a megaphone, addresses the group in Spanish. They pray en masse, sing the national anthem and raise the flag.  Then the lower grades file by us into the schools yard toward their classrooms.  They slap high fives to Paul, the founder of the church here more than thirty years ago. The remaining grades hang their backpacks along the far fence near the water purifying plant and begin to walk, and then run, in line around the perimeter of the courtyard.  We retreat to breakfast before our morning games with the preschool and kindergarteners. 

Heading to class

The coffee this morning is exceptionally satisfying. They’ve added real leche to our offerings as well.  And there seems to be less flies.  Maybe it’s the weather. 

Two cheese quesadillas, small sauteed Vienna sausages and melon and pineapple. And hot sauce.  Always the hot sauce. We pray over our meal and eat quickly. We review the mornings activities: games and then bible study activities. We give them start and end times but really, who are we kidding, we are on Dominican time. The only answer to the question “When does the activity start?” is “When it starts”. Lol!

I steal away a moment to talk more with Richard, the administrator of the school.  He offers to share some donor records and their website. His office is across the small walkaway between buildings. It’s surprisingly contemporary compared to our dorm and the dining area.

Richard is quite brilliant. He holds an MBA and his business acumen on what this school needs to survive and then grow is spot on.  The school is in good hands under his leadership. He is a product of this school. He grew up in the village and worked on Paul’s goat farm while going to school here. This is where he met his wife. This is where he chose to come back after getting his MBA. This is where is heart is.

With the voices of children in the background we review his programs, which now include a medical care ministry. Hypertension is a number one health issue in the Dominican.  The school offers medical care specific to this disease. They have a stateside doctor who works with their local nurse to diagnose and write prescriptions for patients, some of whom travel two hours once a month to the school to receive their care.  The drugs come from the states- drugs locally distributed tend to be inferior quality.  I cannot understand how that is even legally allowed let alone the inhumanity of such a thing.  Social justice seems absent in this democratic socialist country.  

Similarly, the donor base he shares reveals very few local contributors.  The majority are from the state of Ohio and locally there within one county. It is where the main office of Partners in Christ is housed. Partners in Christ is the fiduciary to the school. And so that appears to be the extent of their philanthropic reach at the moment. 

I ask about the absence of local donors. Richard says that it is not culturally observed to contribute to charity. Even the wealthy do not support much. 

We can’t change that. But I believe we can expand their reach.  Richard suggests we speak with Argenis and then possibly a call to Carl Key, the founder of Partners.  The octogenarian remains involved In leadership, although a seasoned nurse now leads as President of the organization.  I ask Richard if anyone  leading Partners in Ohio is a business professional. He says the Treasurer which whom he has a strong relationship. Richard mentions again a possible call to the main office and I make it clear that I do not want to intervene. Do the leaders stateside seek help? I’m weary of interjecting where I don’t know the history, the dynamics, or the expectation of the home office and the school. Are they concerned about survival and growth? Oh Yes! Richard exclaims.  I mention that I do not want to be seen in anyway as telling them to do what they already may be doing, however I feel it on my heart to make seasoned recommendations and provide guidance in specific ways, ways that they can use to improve their financial position.  I have so many ideas already!

I thank Richard, who says he wants to keep in touch this week.  I think – that will be easy, the compound is so small it’s hard not to see people.

I return to the dining hall and we head out the pre-school field to lead some games: Pato Pato Gondo (Duck Duck Goose), caterpillar tag, and wheelbarrow races. We divide the 70 children into three groups by class age.  A young seventh grade student, Rose, who is Argenis’ daughter, serves as our groups translator.  She speaks perfect English, with no trace of an accent. She is also brilliant. She began learning English at age 4.  She loves reading. We discuss some books we both enjoy, while the kids are assembled into a circle. Rose directs them in caterpillar tag rules. A child volunteers to be it and stands in the center of the circle. We all count aloud to three: Uno, Dos, Tres! And we drop hands. Kids scatter everywhere. I mean EVERYWHERE! Out of the yard, behind buildings, into doorways!!! Oops.  Lesson two in The Dominican Republic. Be very specific. 

We regather the group and try again. This time they are more successful.  I leave them with other teammates to head over to the pre-k area to assess if it’s time to switch groups. Affirmative, and so the switch begins. 

Kids move everywhere. Truly herding cats in the dark would be easier. But not as fun! We semi successfully steward three separate groupings of 24 pre-k children through each other to the next game station. I’m certain some have been lost in the mix, but children here seem to never be without some to care for them, so I am not worried.

In this next group of caterpillar tag, we are without our interpreter, Rose.  She appears to have been a casualty of the switch and so we try to stumble through directions on the game with the preschoolers in Spanglish. We animate a lot and abandon our dignity with actions meant to convey English words into Spanish understanding. It’s truly comical. 

And a failure!

The count to three commences. There is a sweet young girl in the center this time, pink ribbons tied neatly into the braids that pop up joyfully from her head. She smiles and half twirls looking at the children surrounding her, hands linked, counting to three. The hands drop – and every child RUSHES her!!! The poor thing looks like a rabbit among a pack of dogs. A handful of boys reach her first and do not restrain from a full body tackle. She face plants into the hard packed dirt. Children scream with delight and begin to tackle each other in the maelstrom.  I rush to pick her up and check her over quickly. Tears come even faster, but she is physically fine. Just terrified. I hold her for the rest of this game that my teammates are trying to salvage. She nestles into my neck and I can feel her heartbeat like a hummingbird wing. Pobrecita.  

The playtime ends and kids head to lunch. Some unpack bright thermos bags of food, others head to the cement kiosk in the courtyard and return with what looks like hotdogs and cheese wrapped in a puff pastry.  Honestly it looks delicious!

We have thirty minutes of rest and then at it again. 

Bible study in the dining hall

The dining hall is now filled with children once more. All pre school and kindergarten.  70 of them. It is not quiet. Our spanish speaking colleague gathers their attention and leads the kids in prayer and then explains the story of Esther. We hand out coloring sheets and crayons. The kids are being kids- pushing, giggling, yelling, grabbing arms and shoving papers in our face for attention.  We wander through each table, taking video, for which the kids ham it up.  We teach simple English with colors and images on the coloring sheet.  Blue. Angel. Orange. Donkey.  A table of boys is exceptionally boisterous, flexing for the camera and asking my name. I tell them “Mi Llamo Sondra“. They clamor to each tell my “El nombre de mi Mama SONDRA”.  I laugh. It’s a sparkling vibrant room. I’m so happy to be in the center of it. Thank you Jesus for blessing me this way. You know my heart ❤️ 

Bible study over, the kids filter back to their classroom. The bags of food for distribution, which we assembled as a team yesterday, line a corner of the dining area floor. Suddenly a commotion. Someone sees a spider crawling into a bag.  I briefly consider burning the whole building down. Honestly God. Spiders? You could send me anything but spiders.  I remove myself from the building and follow the students and other teammates into the classroom for English lessons, safely away from the hideous arachnid. 

Our spanish speaking colleague again takes the lead. I mentally note to brush up on my Spanish if I plan to return. She introduces them to learning the names of animals in English and the kids respond with enthusiasm.  They are barking and mooing and clucking all over the classroom. These children are bright, enthusiastic, and energized.  

Mind you this is not an American classroom.  One must gain a tolerance for organized chaos. The teachers are calm and flow through the students providing correction, direction, and encouragement like salmon swimming upstream. 

But despite the unorthodox, rambunctious, and disorderly environment, it must work. Fountain of Life School has hundreds of graduate students all successfully employed and coming back to share and help.  This is mission work that has powerful, visible results.  

The lesson ends and I walk back to the dining area with Stephanie from Converge. We discuss the school and my conversation with Richard. She provides further insight and validates much of what Richard spoke on.  She is a blessing to this school, teaching English to high school students.  She has her children with her today and a young dog.  This puppy is healthy, more than can be said for the dozens of dogs wandering the area.  

Another thirty minutes of rest. Benches and stoops have never felt so comforting.  

And then lunch. A lasagna with a bechemel. Vegetables mostly identifiable.  And fried plantains.  We rest for a bit after lunch and I take a call with Richard from the President of Partners in Christ, Lisa, which Richard has set up.  Our conversation is a blessing. I praise God for allowing me to hear his still small voice, for working in my heart, for equipping me with courage. For his love. 

Lisa and I agree to host a Zoom meeting on my return to the states, with others from her group. I believe God speaks in this and I await his further words. 

An hour later we have work gloves on holding sanding stones and we are scrapping and smoothing the cinder blocks in the backside of the newly built vocational high school.  This is brutal work, made even more challenging by the heavy massive lunch and the humidity. Cement dust is in my hair, on my arms, in my mouth.  My biceps burn. It begins to rain. Standing in the rain, covered in cement sludge seems really natural right now.  It’s amazing how much we don’t need to worry about anything in life except the thing we are doing. Right now.  

The rain continues and we finish our task. We decide to walk back down toward the bush filled parcel of land stamped with the vision of baseball and soccer.  We talk about Gods voice. About purpose.  About life values. Gratitude. 

As we head back to the tin church in the light drizzle to meet up with the rest of our team there, we each silently pray, I suspect, that our journey here is of God and that we can honor him beyond this trip.  

After the rain, the sun. It heats up the stone patio in front of the tin church as we emerge to head back to the school compound. We are ahead of schedule but we are beat.  The cold shower I step into is exactly what is needed to wash off the cement dust and sweat.  We have begun to recycle clothes and washing them in the shower, realizing we may indeed run out. 

It’s still two hours until dinner, so most pass the time chatting, reading, napping until we are called to eat.  Tonight it is beef (from yesterday’s lunch) boiled yucca, salad, fried cheese, and a mashed tuber no one can identify, including the staff LOL!  The rain has returned with vengeance and our leaders volunteer to run through it to close our jalousie louvres. I anticipate my bed is a puddle! We rest after dinner playing cards, spoiling children and babies Who ramble about with blow pops and stickers, we chat with staff.  I engage Paul, the one who originally planted the church here, in a conversation about his life. I ask him how he thinks his life might be different if he hadn’t come here. Paul shares that he and his wife were originally going to be sent as missionaries to Nigeria in the early seventies. But that plan fell through and they were offered the Dominican instead. They arrived in 1978, lived in the city of Santo Domingo for seven years were they had three girls and raised goats. They moved to Juan Tomas then and have been here ever since. Paul’s one daughter, who still lives here, has four children, all of whom  attend the Fountain of Life School.  What a legacy. 

Remarkable day. Remarkable people.

Sanding cement blocks

Day Two. Or Day Ten

I recently had the honor of being part of a small group of people headed down to the Dominican Republic to work beside a team from the area expanding on a school, teaching children and caring for those in the village center. In the next few days, I’ll be posting a series of reflections on this trip from my daily journal.

One day feels like a week here. Was it just yesterday we landed? The school compound is so intimately familiar all at once – like a memory from long ago. The vibrant chatter of Spanish from the women in the kitchen wakes me this morning as it drifts up to the jalousied window with no glass that sits at the foot of my bunk bed. The sound is amplified by the clear sky.

We shuffle through the morning routine of seven women getting dressed and primped for the day. We remember the important things that require us to behave differently:
Don’t flush the paper down the toilet.
Don’t use the sink water to brush your teeth.
Tuck in your Mosquito Netting before you leave. This one for me is critical. Geckos and lizards, and tarantulas are not my friends.

The day is only at dawn and we can feel the heat. We assemble in the dining hall. Coffee greets us. Not just coffee. Dominican coffee. Cuba has nothing on the Dominicans when it comes to caffe! We savor the deep darkness of our first cups made lighter with powder creamer. And real sugar. From sugar cane. The kind of sugar that sparkles in the bowl like crystal sand.
We pray before breakfast that God will guide us in how to be a blessing and to do his will this week.

Breakfast this morning is a massive pancake and bananas.
And flies.
Everywhere flies. On the honey bottle. On the syrup bottle. In our cups. We have paper napkins over our food while we eat. We wave our hands and sit under the fans to help keep them at bay.

What strikes me here, is how aware I am of food waste. This pancake is massive. And dry. And not very good. Eating three meals a day in a village that clearly needs resources heightens one’s senses on responsible living. Being the granddaughter – and daughter- of immigrants, I was raised with an appreciation for frugality. My grandparents rarely ate meat and most of the meals were beans, greens, and a starch. My mother still saves everything. And yet even with that, this experience is different. More humbling. Almost spiritual.
I cannot finish my massive pancake. I’m sure the flies would love it, but it all seems wasteful. I ask timidly if anyone in our group would like to have the remainder of my breakfast. I would never offer this with strangers back in the states. But here it seems almost ritual. One of my teammates takes it and I am relieved. I’m dreading lunch and dinner because of the leftovers. The food here is heavy and the sizes they serve are massive. Even by American standards.
I bring the remainder of my plate, cup, and utensils to the dish bins. I swallow a fly as I head there. It goes right down. I am barely fazed.

As we linger after breakfast in the dining hall, word comes back from the dorm that there’s a huge spider in the shower. Pumpa, the young school nurse who stays in the dorm with us, grabs it with her hand and tosses it out the window, claiming it was already dead. I’m not convinced. And later today, when I find a dead tarantula at the bottom of our staircase I am CERTAIN that was lurking in the damp depths of our shower. I may never sleep again this week!

We move from breakfast to the tin barn church across the street for Sunday worship service. The worship team is spirited and on the overhead screen projects lyrics to the worship songs, in Spanish. I sing along, not knowing the words but truly feeling the meaning. If that makes sense. The church fills with many families, many more than last night. Church clothes are in order and beautiful. Families come in lined up. Old men shake hands along the pews. Women of my age gather together in the pew in front of me, hugging and chatting brightly. Everyone seems so connected but more connected than an American suburb connection. This village is a family, a community that raises each other. One people. An eco habitat complete in itself.

Argenis Taveras, the principal of the school, is preaching this morning. His wife Rosmery is translating. She is beautiful. Not just physically but you can see the beauty of her soul as she gazes at him, awaiting the words she will repeat in English for our benefit. I am humbled by this – this school and church have made special accommodations to be certain we can be part of God’s gathering here.
Not expected, but deeply grace-filled.

We muster after church and head out on a tour of the school and extended campus. I need to remind you that the term school in America means a building. We have a very clear image of what that would look like, the school building, sleek and efficient, brick or wood, windows, recreation equipment, desks, and lockers……. This is not that.

The alcove outdoor classroom

The low slung buildings at Fountain of Life School, with rusted tins roofs and cement slab pillars, have jalousie shutters for windows. No Glass. Most have four walls and a door that closes. One classroom is simply an alcove along the building perimeter with a roof. An outdoor classroom. Of course, the weather here suits that, always warm, sultry mostly, and a bit of a breeze at all times. I’m thinking parents in California would pay thousands to send their children to an outside school. Here it is a necessity.

The compound of the school is walled off and gated with barbed wire over the top. We all try to avoid thinking about the grounds for the barbed wire. I’ll soon come to learn that the little village of Juan Tomas loves barbed wire. \Small dogs roam inside the compound as they do along the road. Children of Richard and Argenis, who live in two school housing units across from the compound, play in the cement and dirt courtyard that doubles as a gathering place for school assemblies, a basketball court and a volleyball court, Other children from down the road in the village center jin them daily.

Fountain of Life School is a Private Christian school in the district of Santo Domingo Norte. The small village in which it exists, along with its church Iglesia Biblico de Jesus, is called Juan Tomas and it has no street names. That small.
This school teaches 439 students from the surrounding area in grades Pre-k thru 12. Just three years ago the registration of students was hanging at 240. But God.
The school was formed, by chance, 30 yrs ago as part of a mission effort of the Bible Institute. The founders Paul and Linda still live nearby tending their goats on a fairly large farm. As missionaries, Linda was homeschooling her three young girls and found village children coming by more and more, to sit and participate in the lessons.

Argenis Taveras, Principal
Fountain of Life School

Argenis is leading our tour this morning, his duties as pastor for Sunday service now over. He walks us to a brightly colored play area with picnic tables and benches to talk about the school. The message he delivers is simple. They teach to save God’s children here on the island. They aspire to teach more of them. The work of our mission group this week and others like us- dozens over the year- make it possible to use all the funds raised by their fiduciary parent nonprofit on study materials. equipment, and on teachers- who make $350. A month.
My mind stops on that fact. How is this possible. It’s like a treadmill backward in time. When was $350 a month a basic salary in America? 1960? 1950? 1910??

Argenis leads us out of the compound and across the way to the tin church where we are told about the American donor who gave four “new classrooms” built next to the church building. And then four more. These classrooms are used for teaching but also serve as offices and a space for the school counselor.

The new Vocational School

We walk single file in the narrow alleyway that serves as the walkway along with the eight classrooms from the American donor. At the end of the walkway, we step down newly poured cement stairs that are set in a small rubble strewn hill and navigate across a gap of mud. We turn and see a very large cement cinder block structure- the bottom level painted bright blue and pale butter yellow, the top-level looking like a building leveled in WWII.

This, Argenis tells us, is the new vocational high school. We climb up onto the first floor wide front porch that acts as the outside hallway to all the classrooms. The flooring is polished tile. The doors to the classrooms are locked but the jalousie louvers in the windows are open. We peer into a beautiful classroom, a perfect size for 24 students. Our guide tells us the plan is to finish this first floor for use. Then to continue to build the second floor as money becomes available.

The whole story of how they even acquired this property is faith-building. Originally, with an eye on another piece of land owned by a Dominican family who was asking $500k for it, the school leaders felt that they could not make that happen. That amount, that dream, was much, much too big.
And so when another parcel came up for sale for $30k, this parcel on which the vocational school is being built they made a promise to buy it.
As Argenis tells the story- they had no money. But when God gives a direction you don’t ask how.
Soon after purchasing this parcel, another parcel came for sale for $60k and they bought that too with God’s help. This land is special to Argenis and Richard, the school administrator, who has now joined our tour with his toddler son Emanuel.

They take us across a field from the school being built and stand us in front of a parcel of land that is just pure brush. Here, Argenis states, we will build a baseball field. To save the children.

In the DR God is king, but baseball is God. As most often happen with a market that lights up, such as baseball has done for Dominican players in the US, the athlete (or actor or musician, whatever the market may be) are taken advantage of by predatory characters. Young boys that show a little promise, are removed from school as young as 12 to train and practice full time with the promise (hope) of making it in baseball. At 18 they are shopped around to minor and major league teams. And after a few years, if they are not picked up, they are sent back to Santo Domingo where they are now young men with no education, no valuable skills. Argenis tells us many young men you see in the streets in the city are such tragedies.

But Argenis’ dream for this parcel of land in front of which we now stand is vivid. To build this baseball field. To have a major sponsor support the young men of this school to gain BOTH an education and a baseball career. To ensure that these children are not throwaways if their talent does not emerge. It is a good dream and one that solves a real problem. I want to help. We promise to talk more during the week.

Argenis also shares that the other part of this parcel of land will be developed into a futbol field – soccer. The young people of the village do not play futbol. These poor boys only play baseball, all gambling on the big break. But the wealthy men in gated communities of Santo Domingo play soccer. And so Argenis plans to build this soccer field to rent to them, generating more earned revenue for the school and bringing wealthy prospective donors to see the school regularly. This schools leadership team has excellent business sense.

Our tour has ended. We spend a moment in prayer as a group with Argenis and Richard. We pray for dreams to be revealed and fulfilled. We pray for Gods will. We pray for encouragement in this leadership every day. We pray for hope and we thank God for what he is already doing.

When we get back lunch is ready- rice, beans, strips of beef, and a coleslaw. This meal could easily last me until tomorrow. We rest a bit after lunch and then are led in a walking tour into the village. Johan guides us and Pumpa joins too.

No vacation in the world can compare to this experience of touring the village of Juan Tomas. I try desperately to place myself in the shoes of these villagers. Living their whole lives in scrabbled together tin, wood, and cement homes, 400 sq ft at most, along a hard caked rock-strewn red dirt road, watching our crew meander by on this hot Sunday afternoon.

The Goat Farm

We leave the confines of the school and head east past the goat farm of Linda and Paul and the tin church. We pass a fenced compound with statues in the courtyard, clothes hanging from wires strung between trees. Here is a beauty salon with no front wall, women in two chairs getting braids and being washed. Next is a manicurist with two customers in various stages of toe beautification. The new highway we heard about yesterday comes into sight and we cross a bridge over it. Not yet open, the Dominicans are undeterred and here come two cars, both driving north on either side of the two-lane divided highway. Father down a man sits aside on the center dividing rail. In the other direction, a horse and rider step down off the highways knoll and onto the tarmac, turn and head north.
This will take some time for the local people to understand, once the highway does officially open if there are to be limited deaths on this freeway!

Over the highway bridge, music is banging from an open-walled bar, pristine compared to the buildings surrounding it. All along the road we tread are groups of villagers in various tableau’s of life: laundry, sweeping, sewing, playing cards, gathering families on a Sunday afternoon. They all stop and watch our growing crew of Americans and Juan Tomas villagers We are the parade. We realize this. Our Spanish speaking colleague calls out greetings as we proceed, that get a range of responses from timid to bewildered to friendly. The public school is pointed out on our tour. at the end of what must me Main St (no street signs), we arrive at a baseball field – not the kind your children play on but a Dominican semblance of that – and Johan proudly points out that here is where he played is league winning games. Baseball is God.

Hot and dusty, we purchase a dozen sodas from a local stand and distribute them to our group, to Johan and Pumpa and the growing number of young people they have picked up along the way. This walking tour is more like a crusade it seems. By the end, we may have a whole small city joining in our stroll. Including goats and dogs.

We pass the eleventh lottery hut along the side of the road and remark how extraordinary to have so many in such a small rural place. In such a poor place.

We head down a side lane where Johan points out the local witch doctor’s place- straight out of a Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp. He shares some terrific stories of headless chickens and dead cows, rumors of what goes on. Then we turn left past the public school and are back on our way home.

Witch Doctor

It’s now late afternoon. We are all dog tired, sunburnt, sweaty with literally the dirt of the village on our feet. A quick shower, an early dinner of a ham and cheese sandwich and back to the church where our leader gives a terrific Sunday evening sermon in English, translated in Spanish to the two dozen families there with gaggles of kids, all come to receive our colleagues generous gifts of toys for them from America.

It’s 8pm. But we are not done yet. A planning meeting in the dining area – what to do for 45 minutes the next morning as an outdoor activity with 70 children ages 4-6? And then another 45 minutes with them for bible study. We toss one idea after another. Honestly, I think we are fried! We land on three solid games for this age group and a very simple study. We discuss the construction teams for the next afternoon. And then we break.

I am done. But some of the team keeps on, setting up to play cards in the hall. I walk back with a teammate and ready for bed. This day is complete.

1600 miles around the corner

I recently had the honor of being part of a small group of people headed down to the Dominican Republic to work beside a team from the area expanding on a school, teaching children and caring for those in the village center. The next few days, I’ll be posting a series of reflections on this trip from my daily journal.

Fountain of Life School Juan Tomas, Santo Domingo Nort, Dominican Republic

Dia Uno

First of all the Dominican Republic- away from the resorts- is another world. I can’t quite describe the smell- earth, and animal, and plants. Musky, jungle smell, deep and resonant. The ground is hard and absent much vegetation. The buildings are cement and in disrepair. The people are vibrant and alive.

The usual chaos at JFK as we arrive at 5am and prepare to depart the US – TSA two miles long, extra care given with bomb and drug sniffing dogs. We stand in a line of no less than two hundred watching the agents periodically play ball with the beautiful chocolate brown pup in front of us. We try to guess its breed- Weimereiner? Coonhound? Lab mix? We decide it would be fun to watch the dog catch a bomb. Or at least some drugs. We’re disappointed that it doesn’t happen during our watch and we make plans to come back someday just to watch again.

We have arrived plenty early and have two hours before our 8:15am flight. We settle in at our gate until we are called.

The flight to Santo Domingo is unremarkable. Easy take off and landing. We fly a very large 737 which takes forever to load and unload. About 45 minutes before we land, the stewards come through with two forms, one slightly larger blue form and one small blue form. They ask if we are born in America and if we say yes, they hand these two forms to us. My seat mates set about filling them out. Squinting at the tiny print, smaller than 6 font at least, I barely make out the indicators under each line: name, birthday, country of origin, residency. Address of where we are staying stumps me. All we have is The Fountain of Life School, Juan Tomas, Santo Domingo Nort. So I enter that and place both papers into my passport as I see others doing. I gather I will need them later.

The humidity and heat hit us on the gangway disembarking in Santo Domingo. This airport means business. All very stark as we enter the country- no shops or food booths when you get off the plane. Just directions to customs. I need a restroom but none is to be found, yet.

When we round the last corner to customs, the mass of humanity spread out before us is unsettling. Here there is no efficiency. There is no order or rules either it seems. Just a swarm of travelers with backpacks and bags and passports and papers. I follow our volunteer leaders into what passes as a semblance of a line. A cluster more like it.

And here we wait.

And wait

And wait.

Three hours later, I step over the red line at the front of this swarm and walk up to the immigration booth. I face a young women who points to my passport. I give her the booklet and all the papers in it as well. I pray silently that she doesn’t seek an address for the school. She hands the papers back to me without even looking at them. She looks at me. Looks at my passport. Then points to an electronic box with a screen and symbols of hands in three different positions. As a green light ignites atop each symbol, I place the corresponding hand in the corresponding position. It scans and the light blinks off.

She smiles at me and nods as she hands me my passport. I am through.

One of our colleagues is not so lucky. Facing a different agent she is being grilled on the address of where we were staying. That dreaded question on the form. Her agent calls someone else over. Our colleague being retained speaks fluent Spanish. She has citizenship in both El Salvador and the US. I can hear and see the voices and actions rising. Her agent suddenly waves a hand at her as if to shoo her away. Our colleague approaches our group and states that she has to get the address of the school, and go back to him with it, or she can’t go through. Our volunteer leader quickly places calls to our contacts. No, no address. Just the schools name, and the village of Juan Tomas. Our colleague returns to the agent who impatiently shoos her away once more. We all start Googling but find nothing to help. Suddenly, the agent who passed me through leaves her booth at the far end of the row of sequential booths each filled with an agent or two. She strides confidently over to the obstinate agent and in a firm voice says something in Spanish that changes the whole dynamic. Suddenly our colleagues passport is stamped and she is through.

We emerge from customs, to locate our bags. Retrieved, we approach another check point. I hand my passport and the papers, which are again immediately returned to me without review. I’m feeling a little offended now- my efforts to write in less than 6 point font was an arduous task that I would like someone to appreciate!Plus I don’t know the address. Doesn’t that matter? We run through two more check points with passport reviews and this time a paper is snatched up at each one. I am satisfied. One final check of our bags tags and then we are in!

We enter the commercial part of the airport where bar kiosks and fruit stands and fast food places surround us. Our Spanish speaking colleague and I go to purchase 12 waters for us all. Seeing no price board, my colleague asks “Que Cuesta?“. The attendant counts up the bottles and replies “Ochocientos Cincuenta y uno”. 851 dollars!? “No, no” my colleague quickly responds “En dolares Americanos” “Ah, dieciseis dolares” Sixteen dollars. We peel off the bills and hand them over. As we were turning to leave, a Dominican woman approaches the same kiosk and also orders a bottle of water. My Spanish speaking colleague hears the attendant say “eso será cincuenta centavos”. That will be fifty cents.

Our first lesson in being foreigners.

David and his wife Stephanie met us outside the doors of the airport arrivals gate. He is with Converge church and they just moved their family- the two of them and their three teenage children- to the Dominican Republic in June for his work. They’ll live thee for the next five years. He serves the Latin American region supporting pastors.

We greet hello and introductions all around, then David guides us to a large white van with a trailer attached. It’s enclosed and locked. We load into the van. Two young Dominican boys help to haul the luggage into the trailer and lock it. The van seats 12 but we squeeze in 16, with David, the two young boys, and their father Richard.

What happens over the next 45 minutes is beyond description. I will not do it justice but I will try.

Let me start by saying, driving in this country is an art. Or a challenge. There are no lanes. I’m not exaggerating – no painted lanes and none of the drivers create lanes. Also there are no streets signs. At all. No wonder we couldn’t fill out our forms- the customs agent was just playing with us because not a Street has a Sign.

Speaking of signs there are no stop signs. Or very few. And the ones that are there are merely suggestions. Not only does no one stop for the few stop signs that do exist, but they don’t stop for each other not stopping for the stop signs either.

And the people. And the mini bikes. They are everywhere and they are fearless. Maybe they don’t know the cars don’t stop for the stop signs and that they don’t stop for other cars either, because if the pedestrians knew this they certainly would realize that they aren’t going to stop for them as well! But apparently they haven’t noticed. A colleague remarks how much better the traffic would be if people walked on the sidewalks. Indeed. Better traffic perhaps, but not as interesting and heart raising as this real life game of Frogger we are participating in!

We narrowly miss no less than a dozen people and mini bikes as we navigate through Santo Domingo. I believe our driver Javier is a God. His van glides through without so much as a scratch. That’s more than I can say for the other cars on the road, most of which look like competitors in a demolition derby. Cross streets are clogged with vehicles as we weave and nudge our way through. Despite the traffic nightmare, there is no road rage. None at all. Instead drivers wave and signal thumbs up. It’s surreal.

The streets of this city of Santo Domingo are a visual mirage of color, sound, and smells. Open air markets burning meats, scrap built stands selling bananas and mangos. Trucks heralding from 1978, with beds filled with yams and yucca and taro. Hawkers ignoring traffic and knocking on your window to sell wipers, and feather dusters, and steering wheel covers. Yes, I thought it an odd combo too. People shouting and crossing and sitting and waving.

At one intersection, we pass no less than 100 people all dressed in purple, white, and green, waving flags marked PLD. The Dominican Liberation Party. This is the current governing political party in the Dominican Republic. They are a Social democracy platform founded in 1973 by former president Juan Bosch, and have pretty much dominated politics in the country since the establishment of democracy.

Election season is upon the island. There are no less than 62 different parties running this year. The PLD people are all wearing beautiful clothes rich in color and brand new. They are a clean and healthy looking group. Quite jarring against the squalor and unavoidable poverty we have driven through. In Spanish, Javier tells us that they are given clothes and food to stand out here. Our colleague interprets.

Snippets of music from open air cars pass public buses with their fancy curtained windows – rides 25 cents one way. And then rising above a crest on the main Road- Gondolas.

Yes. I have video here to prove it. Gondolas strung over the road and into the palm trees and brush. Javier tells us it’s local transportation and it goes from East to West on the island.

I want gondolas in my state. They would resolve a lot about I95.

Our overloaded van takes a sharp turn and suddenly the pavement is gone and there are wire fences. And goats. And chickens. And dogs. Lots and lots of dogs. The busy city streets have given way to countryside, with shacks tucked into the hills. We turn again and the road narrows. A group of women move aside to let us pass. The van dips and shakes. I fear we may not make it up the next knoll but we do and there in the country is a long low blue wall topped with hurricane fencing and barbed wire. The Fountain of Life School.

An older gentleman waves us over along the wall where a solid metal door stands ajar and the van lurches to a halt. We are no sooner out than a swarm of young men descend on the trailer and move our luggage quickly into the compound. We follow. The metal door closes behind us.

The yard inside is filled with young people playing volleyball and children tottering over the cement, stone, red dirt, and rubble. A toddler in heavy shoes waddles by carrying a plastic bowl with what appear to be latex gloves in it. She stops and crouches down to add some stones from the dirt into the bowl and gloves.

Two girls no older than 5 and 7 stride by on a small bicycle. The younger, in a brilliant purple sleeveless dress festooned with yellow flowers, peddles as the older girl pushes her along. They smile widely and wave as they pass. “Hola!”

David and Stephanie introduce us to the staff on site. Richard the administrator and his wife Yajaira, their children Jariel, Neomi, and baby Emanuel. Argenis the school principal, his wife Rosmery. A half dozen other teachers and aides and facility crew. Many live right nearby. I look beyond the cement slab that currently serves as the volleyball court to a far wall of one of the many buildings inside this compound. A group of young people hang out at this wall, lounging on old desks and plastic picnic chairs, watching the volleyball players, teasing each other. Comfortable in their togetherness.

After introductions, we are guided to our dorm by Stephanie. She also teaches at the school. English. Our dorm is above the small kitchen and dining hall, up a set of crumbling cement stairs. I note no windows, just jalousie louvres. The door to the dorm has a lock on the outside. Two kittens sit on the tin corrugated roof of the dining hall that abuts the small cement balcony outside our door, their stature unmoving, their faces curious.

Although private, this school is not Hogwarts. It’s barely even identifiable as a school. And yet it teaches and educates exceptionally well, graduating dozens of students each year who go into college and masters programs, underscoring the fact that learning is not about a building.

Our dorm is cluttered with bunkbeds, each equipped with mosquito netting. Stephanie has given us a welcome basket of prepackaged cookies, granola bars and some personal products. It sits next to the single sink with the dangling water spigot.

Do not drink the water she reminds us again. In the dining hall below is a water cooler with fresh purified water, which the school produces.

The toilets are behind a half door. Do not put the toilet paper in the toilet after use. Place it in the waste bin next to you.

The showers have a single pipe coming out of the wall and one temperature. Cool. Not warm. Not cold. Just cool.

We set up our beds quickly, positioning the netting so bugs won’t get in, and head back down to the volleyball game. We sit and observe and attempt to chat with the older kids. I sense a wariness. Of course. I would too if a bunch of white Americans traipsed into my school all cheery faced and dew-eyed. I remind myself to listen to God, seek counsel, open up and encourage the Holy Spirit.

Stephanie and I chat for a while about their life back in Ohio and the transition of her kids to this new life. We realize she and her husband stayed at our house through Air BnB last summer while we were gone, as they visited our church. God is funny like this.

We’re called into dinner where we pray and then receive a plate of mangu, iceberg lettuce and tomato salad, and what looks like fried chunks of salami. Which they turn out to be. They are fried and then sautéed in a red pepper sauce. The mangu is a mash of plantains and other goodness. And the salad is just a salad. It is filling. It is now 6:45 and we still have a youth service to attend. David collects our passports and wallets to place in the safe. He warns us to hold onto our phone at all time.

Dinner finished, we head down the road outside the compound to a small tin barn like building. The church. Inside we hear singing. Loud vibrant singing from young voices. The pews are filled with the volleyball kids, now singing from their hearts. Soon the pastor steps up. Another young man proudly goes up and stands next to him. He will use his English lessons from the school to translate for us. He beams as he does this. He is proud. A young girl gazing and giggling at him in the front row is proud. We are proud.

During this service, the electricity goes off no less than a dozen times. Each time, we see a young man spring to the back and hear the whine of a generator. And yet through it all, the service and the singing continues, not missing a note, praising Jesus.

I have so much to learn.

After the service, on the wall behind the pastor, an LCD projection of a baseball game in progress suddenly appears. The girls go wild and the boys cheer. It’s clearly a Latin team they favor. As their team makes a play, the ancient Dell computer freezes in a buffer. The group erupts in noise and action. Boys run out and sprint down the road to pastors house to try to catch the game there.

We walk down the road behind this whooping and running group of kids and we re-enter the compound. Although only 8pm it feels like midnight. A quick cool shower and we crawl into our netted beds. Sleep.

#santodomingo #dominicanrepublic #Missiontrip #FountainofLifeSchool

Don’t shy away from difficult people

“Well, I must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.” – The Little Prince.

Many people believe the late Stephen Covey made famous the phrase “iron sharpens iron”. However like many of his other leadership catch phrases, this was lifted directly from Gods word in the Bible through King Solomon.

King Solomon was given the gift of Wisdom from God and he nurtured wisdom in his people. His wisdom is captured in the Book of Proverbs. A great read if you haven’t picked up a bible yet or in a while.

Proverbs 27:17 (27 is the chapter in the book, and 17 represents the verse line. Don’t worry, you won’t have to count sentences- they’re numbered 😁) says – “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens another”. This isn’t the first time the Bible, or a business leadership guru quoting the Bible, has revealed wisdom in working together. More are to be found as instructional material on how to relate in Luke 6:38; in Hebrews 10:25; and in Matthew 5:23-24. (I’m going to leave you to look them up. A free bible app can be found in the Apple store 😉).

In our work within the nonprofit sector, we interrelate with many people. People of all backgrounds and beliefs and upbringings. Of all temperaments and inclinations. Many ‘fit’ with us- that natural smooth easy connection, building naturally to a comfortable and stable balance of friendship. And many do not. They rasp at our good nature, they have sharp edges which make it difficult to stand near them. They repel instead of invite. And they make us uncomfortable, mostly uncomfortable with- ourselves. It is these very people we benefit from most greatly. We should be leaning into their sphere, not shying away.

In looking back over the almost thirty years I have been leading nonprofits I can clearly see from where my greatest growth came. It wasn’t from my work companions, the ones I looked forward to seeing, who shared my gossip and validated my bitterness and distress. It was from those very people who caused it.

One of my first positions was with the National March of Dimes. I was hired to work out of an office in Connecticut. I had no justification for having received this position, which had me leading three counties in raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. But they gave me a binder of ‘things’ and a desk and a file box of index cards scribbled with donor details and said “Go”.

The office was large and employed about a dozen people. Two of those dozen people terrified me at first. They were oppressive, demanding, and brutally frank, one might say. I cowered from their attention, frozen silently like a rabbit behind my desk whenever I heard them walk by, for fear they would turn their gaze – and their performance attentions on me. I was fearful mostly of being found out that I didn’t measure up.

Overtime my terror turned to agitation and then to rebellion. How dare they. They’re no better than anyone else here. They are bullies. This was my 30 yr old voice speaking to my heart. But I was wrong.

The more I tried to repel these two, the more they zeroed in on me and my work. It was enough to make me quit! And I did, but not before securing another job. And this new job? It was a higher position with almost twice the paycheck.

Now at that time, at the age of 30, my hubris and youthful ignorance prevented me from seeing the truth of this new situation. The honor bestowed upon me by their attentions was precisely what caused me to be promoted into a new more profitable role. Without their demands on perfection and their laser gaze on meeting performance standards I would be just another employed commodity of no interest or benefit to any other organization. But the accomplishments achieved in this first position, under the pressure of these two sharp edged individuals, set in motion a trajectory that has led me to where I am today.

They were not alone. In each progressively more important role I was challenged and pressed against iron to hone my skill and value. Even up to my last corporate position as Vice President of a multi hospital network. The sharpening became more intense and painful as the jobs grew, but the sharpening never let up.

Who are you being sharpened by? If you can’t think of anyone right now, then you need to stop shying away from those challenging people in your life. Because without them, your refinement will not happen. Reject your status quo. Go find that one person you avoid and press into a relationship with them that causes their iron to yield your greatness.

Camp CEO

Sondra Lintelmann-Dellaripa, President of Harvest Development Group, was honored to take part in Camp CEO hosted by the Girl Scouts of Connecticut on June 28-30, 2018.

The camp included 17 girls aged 7-14 as well as 12 successful businesswomen. Over the span of three days, the members of Camp CEO participated in activities where they learned about social enterprises from ReSET, and then created their own social enterprise to pitch to a panel of “Sharks”.  In addition to the social enterprise project, campers and CEO’s enjoyed the full camping experience by participating in horseback riding at Trails End, swimming, boating, archery, and a Young Professional Career Jam.

For their social enterprise project, the camp split into groups where they created their own ideas to present. The team known as the GEMS (Grace, Emily, Margaret, and Sarah) and mentored by Harvest Development Group President, Sondra Lintelmann-Dellaripa, created the “Wrap Pack”, modeled after the women in Sub-Saharan Africa who carry their children in wraps.

The “Wrap Pack”, modeled after a traditional backpack, has a wrap feature to it so one can wear it however they want, unlike a traditional backpack which is only able to be carried on your back. After extensive research, The GEMS’s concept is a new backpack made of waterproof fabric, that would appeal to all ages and genders.  The social enterprise concept is one where Wrap Packs would be made by the women in Africa who would be hired and receive a fair wage for their hard work. All profits would then go to teachers and translators who would educate women and children in Africa. The team went one step further and strategized an advertising campaign through a viral Instagram movement, which would create   paid ads and a campaign where people post pictures of themselves with the “Wrap Pack” using the hashtag #howwillyouwrap, encouraging other others to buy the product. The work done by the GEMS to create the idea was very inspiring and after pitching it to the Sharks, the team won the Innovation Award!

“One of the most interesting part of Camp CEO was the nurturing, safe environment that allowed the girls to express themselves and interact in a way that had no enforcement of sociological expectations” said Sondra Lintelmann-Dellaripa. She shared, “The atmosphere of the camp was very genuine and open where the girls didn’t feel like they were being supervised but that they were partners with the CEOs who they could have honest conversations. Camp CEO was a great opportunity for girls through Girl Scouts to be exposed to the powerful way their ideas can manifest into real opportunity!  I was honored to participate!”

To read more about the Girl Scouts of Connecticut and Camp CEO, click here: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/316075

Compete for your impact not for your event.

For those nonprofits which rely heavily on event revenue to make their bottom line, the news out of the nonprofit ecosystem regarding the plateau, stagnation, and downturn of revenue derived from walks, runs, rides, and other type events, is startling and of great concern. In an article this week from Denver, (https://businessden.com/2018/07/02/funds-on-the-run-nonprofits-struggle-with-declining-charity-run-ride-revenue/) evidence shows that run/ride style events are no longer the juggernaut of fundraising they once were. If you depend on them for more than 30% of your annual nut, that’s a serious problem which cannot be ignored.

Sadly, the reaction of many nonprofits to this concerning turn of events is to double down on their run and make it more outrageous or unique, competing for the event and not for their impact. What gets lost in the message?

The value of an investment into your organization and the return your participants bring as lifetime loyalists to your cause.

Yes, having thousands onsite for your event gives a great opportunity to blow up your optics and share your mission- all eyes on you. But the reality is the runners, walkers, and riders, will most likely forget your cause by the next week.

Unless you have a Long Tail plan.

For decades nonprofits have seen these events as a means to an end- raise funds by having fun. Period. Oh, and tell the participants about your cause.

Once a year they assemble the masses, speak the mission statement, pop the starter pistol, cheer on the runners. Then they post a few pictures, get a mention in the local paper and move on to the next big thing.

In the meantime, the runners participating are getting cultivated by other organization that they find valuable and worthy who have forgone the heavy costs of an event and have instead investment in personal engagement and speaking to impact. They are being solicited by mail, invited to lunches, meeting staff and clients, mingling with board members. All without you in the room. They are being courted, 365 days a year, by other organizations not investing all their time and resources into a once a year event.

It’s not as dire as it sounds though, IF you have a plan of action in which you invest resources into cultivating all your attendees AFTER the event and leading up to the next year’s engagement.

Begin your plan before the event even reaches the starting gate. Identify those who are registered through wealth screenings. Note the high net worth individuals. Create relationship trees in your database to see who is connected and nurture those connected to your organization currently.  Make plans to introduce those who are not.

Define which participants you need to meet, which need to meet the board, which need a place of honor. Which ones can get you to the next big donor? Who is of notoriety? Who represents a company you need to connect with? Who represents a group valuable to your mission? Data knowledge pre-event is gold.

Then be prepared with a plan of action beginning the day after the event is completed. Outreach by email, mail, phone calls, notecards, group invites to all participants in some level, in some way. No one is left untouched until the next year. You’ve spent, sometimes, hundreds of thousands of dollars to get them to you, now keep them and nurture them the remaining 364 days of the year with very specific tasks and actions to engage each one.

 

Your investment will return:

Greater event participant loyalty

Increased participation in your event through donor networks

Increase in low to mid-level donations outside of event revenue

Increase in major donor prospects

Increase in major donor gifts and the quality of major donor gifts

Greater brand awareness

Greater recall and loyalty to your mission and impact

Greater advocacy for your cause

Increase in your pool f prospective volunteers

Increase in prospect pool for committees and boards

 

Isn’t it worth the increased investment in resources toward nurturing the attendees toward a lifetime of giving rather than creating a bigger and crazier event?