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.
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.
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.
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.