Have you ever read the book Scaredy Squirrel? I’m a smidge like him. I like schedules. I’m afraid to ride a rollercoaster. I’m terrified to zip-line. I rarely go over the speed limit and when I’m in the back seat of a car I always go for the middle (because it’s safest in case of a side-impact collision). I’m not much of a risk taker …I guess I could say that I like “both feet on the ground.” Yet, I find myself many miles away from home with a group of 9 other awesome women participating in a LiveDifferent trip to Dominican Republic. I’m riding to work each day in the back of a truck…..yes, that means no seat belt. I guess you could say that I’m totally out of my element.
So, why am I here? I’m here for 12 year old Maria who I met yesterday. This girl spends her days rummaging through a garbage dump to find recyclables, water, food and anything that helps her family survive. When she pointed to my hand I had assumed that she was asking for my watch, but she had no interest in that; she wanted my gloves so that her job of searching through bags of garbage would be easier. Maria, who ran to a garbage truck with excitement the way my children run toward the Christmas tree surrounded with gifts. Maria who lit up when I gave her my rubber boots and begged me to get her another bag of food. Maria who will never leave my mind and the mention of her name brings tears to my eyes.
I am here for Suly. Who has fire inside her. She bites her siblings when they take something from her. She refuses to be out of a game even though she is clearly out. She won’t get in a “fila” (a line), even though I use my firm teacher voice. Suly, who pushes her way to the front of a crowd to get the biggest balloon. Yet, she climbs on my back when I’m least expecting it (and I secretly love it!). She smiles from ear to ear and shows off that her two bottom teeth are missing. Suly, who could take on the world…if only she had a chance.
I am here for Wendy (Suly’s best friend/enemy). She has attitude of a teenager, but I think she is 5 years old. She pushes Suly back when necessary and is ready for a fight at the drop of a hat. This girl can carry a bucket of mortar that I can barely lift. She thinks it’s funny that I can’t skip as well as her. She has trouble pronouncing my name…and the way she says it is the best, so I hope that she doesn’t get it right.
I am here because I believe that every child has a right to opportunities in life. Maria, Suly and Wendy will forever remind me to keep trying to impact children.
Oh! And guess what I’m doing on Friday….ZIP-LINING!
We are very near the border with Haiti, and many impoverished Haitians have made their way across the border to live as illegal immigrants in Dominican Republic. Several hundred of them found their way to an area on the outskirts of La Union Dump where they moved into abandoned shacks that once housed workers of factories that have long since closed. Here they have formed a community and try their best to look out for one another. However, because they are unable to compete with the locals for the scarce jobs that are available to the uneducated and unskilled, these people face an incredible challenge just to survive and they are considered the poorest of the poor in Dominican Republic.
Today, instead of going to our construction site, we donned our rubber boots and gloves, and headed to the dump to work alongside these Haitians who survive by sifting daily through the mounds of trash for anything that can be eaten, worn, or turned into cash.
I didn’t sleep last night thinking about what I might be subjected to in the morning, and I had known in in my heart before coming on this mission that this would be the most difficult experience of the whole trip. It turned out to be the most difficult day of my life! Indeed, it was life-changing!
As we approached the entrance to the dump in our open air bus on this swelteringly hot morning, the stench of rotten garbage and the swarms of flies were overpowering. But that did not hit me nearly as hard as the sight of the human beings, dozens of them, from toddlers to the very elderly, spread throughout the dump, bent down and rooting through piles of rubbage.
As our bus came to a stop and we got out, many of them stopped their work to come and greet us. I was immediately surrounded by a group of little children, smiling brightly and reaching out to hug me – right there in the middle of that most unimaginable place! I squeezed them and gave warm smiles back although inside I was in total turmoil. Nothing about this seemed real. Then, one little boy tugged my arm and pointed to a section of the dump, indicating I should go there with him. And then he did the one thing that always warms me like no other feeling when it comes to a child. He slipped his little hand in mine. In an instant, I was flashing to the familiar feel of my grandchildren’s hands in mine, and to us walking in a much different place – a trail in the woods behind my house, an aisle in the toy store, a street in the Magic Kingdom. Yet, here I was holding the hand of this beautiful little boy with the big brown eyes, gorgeous curly hair, and broken flip-flops in the middle of a place to which there is no comparison.
I tried to behave normally and not appear as though I was freaking out at the incomprehensibility of this scene. So, we chatted as we walked. He told me his name was Adolpho, and I pointed to myself and said “Barb”. In French, I asked his age, and when he said he was nine years old, the tears that I had been fighting burst forth, and I began to sob, This could be my precious Ethan! Ethan and I could be spending this day, and every day, digging through garbage to help make it through to the next day. I could not imagine such a fate for my grandson. How could I, how could we, be allowing it for this darling little boy? Yet, it was his reality! And so, I knew I had to compose myself and help him fill his bag with plastic bottles that could earn his family 15 pesos – the equivalent of about 40 cents. On the outside, I shared in his pride as he or I found and salvaged bottle after bottle. On the inside, I raged with anger at the unfairness of it all. And when our bag was full, we shared a high five and took our finds to the family pile. I then led him to our bus where a meal was waiting for anyone with whom we had worked today.
With a warm hug and a big smile, he was on his way, and I turned my attention to helping an elderly lady who at that moment was sifting through a garbage bag filled with used needles, syringes, and medical waste in her bare hands????
We started out the day with sore muscles but with the same unflagging enthusiasm as the previous day, to get the job done. Yesterday was a huge learning curve, as many of us were learning to do things we had never done before. Today, however, we felt like professionals. While some in the group mixed cement, the rest began the task of sifting the sand in preparation for the smooth coat which will be applied Wednesday. What particularly amazed us today was the energy and agility of 60 year old Martin, a respected local building contractor, who nimbly scaled the 10 ft. heights of the upper levels of the structure and provided directions for our team. Martin was one of the many locals from this community who we immediately connected with.
Today we had an opportunity to hang out with some of the local children. Kelly, our LiveDifferent Team Leader, had brought along some skipping ropes, a basketball, and badminton rackets and encouraged us to take some time to get to know and interact with the kids. The children are very affectionate and welcomed the attention, especially the younger ones. In addition to hanging out with the younger kids: Jacinta, Amy, Debbie and Lisa tore up the court with some of the older local boys in a game of basketball. Little did they know that they had met their match. It was a lot of fun and it is easy to become very attached to these beautiful people.
One of the most inspiring young people we have met so far would have to be Junior ( Castel Dakid ). Junior is working with LiveDifferent for the summer as a translator for their projects during the day. In the afternoon, when we are calling it a day, Junior continues his studies in the Industrial Engineering Program from 4 o’clock until 10 pm. If that isn’t challenging enough, originally from Haiti, he is pursuing this in a new language here in the Dominican Republic. But wait for this, Junior speaks four languages all of which he has learned on his own! With a leader such as this, we are inspired to do more than we ever thought possible.
Viola and Michelle – Raising The Roof Volunteers – 2013
We started the day with excitement and enthusiasm. We came here with a mission and finally we began the project. Upon arrival at the work site, we had to be taught different aspects of how to build this house. For us this meant we were learning jobs from mixing the motar and cement to brick laying and tying the rebar. We were eager learners and tried our hands at every task. The team that Jacinta put together is amazing. We enjoyed working together as a team and we became more empowered as the day went on.
Paulina watched from the side as we built her house and I can only imagine the thoughts running through her head. The children were running around us as we worked and several community members dropped by to give a helping hand. Despite our language barriers we learned how to work side by side. The translators were a great help when it came to certain details and were always eager to chat. Paulina loves to talk and when we engaged in a conversation with her our translators made it possible for us to really connect with her.
To realize that we are bringing so much hope to those in poverty is empowering. Not only are we changing the lives of those in poverty, but we are changing our own lives. How can we return home and say that we have not been changed? This trip will change our outlook on so many aspects of our lives. The people here have taught us how to look after each other, to appreciate what you have and above all to be happy.
It’s late March, I’m supposed to be at a high school gymnasium to coach a basketball game in ten minutes and instead I’m consulting with a graphic designer to ensure our official team t-shirts for our LiveDifferent Hero Holiday project are exactly what we had ordered. ‘Raising the Roof from the Rock to the Republic’ – yes, that would be us. Short sleeve, white lettering, black, cotton tees. And so begins the story of the sisterhood of the traveling t-shirts.
There are events in everyone’s lives at one point or another where you know your life has taken a turn and probably will never be the quite the same again. One of those moments for me was back in 2011 when I signed up for my first LiveDifferent Hero Holiday. It is safe to say the experience certainly lives up to its name – ‘LiveDifferent’, as your life will most likely never be the same again after you have experienced the joy of building a house for a family and a community in need. The only thing that I can think of that would be better than this would be to share in that joy with nine of your closest friends – so here we are, all the way from the Rock to the Republic.
June 23 2013 – Day 1. Today was absolutely amazing. We started up the morning with a visit to Pastor Garcia to see first hand how one person can have such a lasting impact on the lives of others. The Pastor has reformed this tiny rural village into a sanctuary of hope – provided a place of worship, a place to learn and most of all place to move forward into a future with hope.
The afternoon carried us into the renamed town of Neuvo Renacer where we met the beautiful Ms. Sandra. Together with LiveDifferent, Sandra has helped flip this impoverished town into a place of new birth – a place where 48 new houses now stand where dilapidated shacks once stood. Our team had the opportunity to tour the town, see some of the work that has been done to date and meet Paulina, the lady who we will be building for. What a beautiful spirit. Our team was so impressed with the genuine feeling of love and joy that seemed to envelope the town despite the deplorable conditions they were faced with each day.
As I sit and reflect on day one, I feel it is ironic that we will begin work tomorrow in a town that has been renamed the English equivalent of ‘New Birth’. Perhaps that new existence will be instilled in each of us as we look at our lives throughout this project. The sisterhood of the traveling t-shirts signed on to give to a people who have so little, and to create change in the lives of others. I have a funny feeling that we will leave this trip with much more than we came here with and the greatest change we see will be rooted deep within our own souls from this day forward.
Toothbrushes for village kids– check. Box of handmade dresses from the Holyrood Women’s Institute – check. Towels and bed sheets for host family – check. When one leaves home on a humanitarian venture blissful thoughts run through our heads on the joy we will bring with all the goods we bring from home to share with our less fortunate sisters.