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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Hosted by The Community Foundation of Middlesex County. Presented by Harvest Development Group, LLC. Client Engagement Director, Jeanne Boyer Roy.
If you want to go fast – go alone! If you want to go far – go together!
Nonprofit organizations rely on volunteers – their passion, their commitment, and their time. Volunteers help nonprofit organizations meet their mission, and in doing so, they are key ambassadors in the community.
Harvest Development Group provides tools and strategies to craft a plan for managing volunteers that will ultimately lead to increased participation in fund development.
This workshop is free to nonprofit organizations – space is limited and pre-registration is requested.
Register by e-mailing Jamie or calling 860.347.0025.
14 Oct 2014
9:00 am – 10:30 am
Community Foundation of Middlesex County, 211 South Main Street, Middletown, Connecticut