A Trip to the Dominican Republic | Life Lessons
When I was about 11 years old, I saw one of those commercials about starving kids in Africa… you know, the ones with the dramatic music, showing images of bare footed children with distended bellies standing in what looks like abandoned alleyways. So at 11, I decided to sponsor one of those kids and sent money every month for a year (I started babysitting at 9 so I had the money to send). I would get letters (which I now believe were fabricated) from Manuel, my sponsored child, and I actually thought I was helping him. Then at some point, I learned (my parents broke the news) that hardly any, if any at all, of the money I was sending was actually going to this child. Apparently there was a news story on this organization and all the money went to their overhead versus their cause. Needless to say, my payments ceased and I began ignoring these sappy commercials feeling a bit foolish. Through the years, these types of commercials became white noise to me – just another advertisement that I learned to ignore.
I still had the desire to volunteer and help others so I became involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) in my early 20′s – something I could do and know 100% of my efforts were helping. Other than BBBS and donating a few times a year to the local food bank, that is where my philanthropy ended. Even in line at the grocery store, when they ask you “Would you like to donate a dollar to (insert charity here)?“, the answer would always be “No” because I still felt that sting of not knowing where the money was actually going. That suspicion was solidified a couple of years ago when our local United Way was exposed for paying their president hundreds of thousands of dollars a year – serious misappropriation of funds.
L I F E G O A L S
When my husband and I married, we talked about how we wanted our life to go. I had some rules: one major trip a year (I have a lot of places on my bucket list) but I also said that at some point I wanted to go on a humanitarian trip. I’ve always had the desire to see what my 11-year-old self saw in those sappy commercials – was it real? After having kids of my own, that desire began to fill my heart for two reasons…Kai and Ella. My love for them goes beyond comprehension. The thought of innocent children being left to fend for themselves is unimaginable to me. I’m sure most people with kids can relate to this feeling. For me this wasn’t some noble desire – if anything it was selfish curiosity but I honestly wanted to help.
So through a series of events with my work as the Marketing Director for the Retail Technology Industry Association (RSPA), I helped lead the effort to support an organization called Retail Orphans Initiative (ROI). 94% of their proceeds/donations go towards helping other, vetted* (this is important), organizations doing work for orphans around the world. In July 2011, I met with ROI President, Greg Buzek, and asked how we (RSPA) could step up our involvement. He informed me of a need for computer labs in 3 schools in the Dominican Republic:
- Sabana Perdida - Inner-city school surrounded by drugs, gangs and prostitution. There is very little food in this area for the children and ample parasites caused by polluted water.
- Ketty’s House – A home for orphaned girls who were being sold for sex in the streets of Santo Domingo or abused by their caretakers.
- The Deaf School – Started by missionaries that saw the awful abuse that deaf children were suffering in their community, this school is a place where deaf children can learn to communicate.
ROI was supporting an organization called VisionTrust for this specific project. Now RSPA was on board to make this happen so in February 2012, we (RSPA) sent down 3 “tech” guys from our organization to assess the best way to go about installing these computer labs. They reported back and we hit the ground running – asking and then begging for donations (equipment and financial) and volunteers to go on the installation trip. I acted as project manager trying to put the puzzle together. After searching for volunteers, eight people solidified their commitment including myself. It was hectic and frustrating…at the beginning so many people had said they would donate and help but only a few stepped up when it was time. Up until the very last second, it wasn’t clear if we would have everything needed or enough money to make this happen but in the end, it all came together. Because of taxes, shipping costs and a slew of other details, all supplies, laptops, cables, etc… were shipped to all of the trip participants to carry down in their luggage. Through all of this planning and frustration I learned a lot about the process and myself.
T H E A R R I V A L
So at the very last hour, we got just enough cash and the three computer labs were set pending everyone made it on time with all of their luggage and everything worked. I arrived in Santo Domingo on Wednesday, April 18th and was met by the VisionTrust team (Dan and Nelson) and soon after met the other 7 people I’d be working with (other volunteers whose email addresses I now knew by heart but had never met until now). On the way to our ‘mission house’, where we’d be sleeping and eating, the sights, sounds and smells were shocking. Extreme poverty, dirty, chaotic, no traffic lights, no rules, no direction. Arriving at our mission house was a welcomed relief from the 30 minute cab ride that made New York City traffic look like Disney World.
Towering wrought iron fences surrounded the house and once inside the steel gate, we had yet another gate with a lock that separated us from the outside world. The women (3 of us) shared a 10 x 10 room with four bunk beds and the men stayed downstairs in another room. We had running water – this was a luxury here. That night we had dinner at the main house – prepared by humanitarian workers that lived there. We discussed our plan for the next day, as we split into 3 teams for each location. Despite the travel exhaustion, I think it was very hard for all of us to fall asleep that first night as we weren’t exactly sure what to anticipate.
A P R I L 19
The team I was on arrived at Sabana Perdida to find conditions there better that what I’d envisioned. No running water, not necessarily super clean but kids in uniforms eager to learn. They were happy to see us and we were happy to see them. I was even happier to meet Adam – also with VisionTrust and assigned to show us around and most importantly, be our translator. I felt a bit lost without being able to communicate. More than one person said to us “We’ve been praying for this computer lab“.
As my “tech” teammates worked their magic, I headed over to The Deaf School not far away to see what was going on there. Part of my responsibility on this trip was to also document everything we were doing including interviews with each school to eventually create a video to show others (to hopefully encourage more volunteerism/donations in the future). For me The Deaf School was what I was most looking forward to seeing mainly because I had taken two years of sign language. I was hopeful to be able to communicate with the kids. Unfortunately the septic system there broke the day before our arrival and it was too dangerous for the kids to attend school that day so I never got the chance. The team at The Deaf School were rocking and rolling. By the time I got there, the whole lab was almost complete. That gave me time to sit with their principal (and Adam of course) to ask her a few questions on camera for my video. The stories I heard there will stick with me for a long time – they give me that lump in my throat that is hard to get rid of. I could write for days about the stories she told me but as to not make this a novel, I’ve bulleted some below.
- Deaf children (and those with other handicaps) are not accepted in their culture, they are not thought of as having a soul or being human. They are shunned and separated from their brothers and sisters within the family unit. So if someone were to ask a mother how many kids she had – she was say 3 (when she really has a 4th deaf child in another room).
- Once this school opened, from time to time parents would come by to pick up their children. They would say “I am here to pick up the deaf“. When asked, “which one, which child?“, many of these parents couldn’t remember their child’s name as they had referred to them as the deaf for so long, they forgot their own children’s name – THEY FORGOT THEIR OWN CHILD’s NAME?!?!
- Many of the kids that are lucky enough to go to this school, walk one to two hours twice a day by themselves to get here.
- These computers literally opened up a world for these kids, a new way to communicate they never would have had otherwise. They had prayed for this for years. They were thankful.
After an extremely eye-opening conversation, we wrapped up at The Deaf School and headed back to Sabana Perdida. By this time, my team had everything up and running and there were some eager kids standing in the doorway just waiting for an invitation. We plugged in the mice and asked for some volunteers to test our lab. The kids were so excited! I learned very quickly how to communicate with the two boys I was sitting with – they kept giving me a big thumbs up.
(Funny Moment: The first thing one little girl wanted to see was when she sat down at one of the laptops… Facebook:))
That night we headed to dinner at an open air restaurant – I will never forget the bathroom there (not in a good way). That night we came together as a group – organized all of the other donations we were able to shove in our suitcases (school supplies, underwear, clothes, toothpaste, etc…). So the next day we had a little goody bag for each school.
A P R I L 20
6am breakfast and hit the ground running again. As a group we hit up the Dominican version of Wal-Mart to buy some more supplies – shelving for the routers, mouse pads, ect.. Some of us purchased candy and other fun items for the girls we were going to see at Ketty’s house. Most of us headed to Ketty’s house as nearly everything was done at the other two locations. We were warned that the girls wouldn’t be there when we arrived as they were at school but when they entered the house, they would most likely be stand offish – especially around men considering their experiences (and in some cases, traumas). When we arrived, I honestly couldn’t believe this was the house. It looked abandoned – walking in, it looked dirty. This was the one time on the trip, I actually had to walk away for a moment and gain my composure. When the girls arrived, I understood what we’d been warned of – they rarely looked you in the eye and were very shy. They immediately went upstairs, changed and came back downstairs for lunch.
During lunch I was able to get some pictures but I did feel invasive because some of them were very shy. I turned the camera off many times and tried to gain the confidence to turn it back on to try to capture the conditions here (to show others who may be able to help in the future). There were farrell cats and flies everywhere. The girls sat down wherever they could to eat.
There were a few boys that lived here for various reasons – they seemed to stick together (they had a blast paying with the suitcases we left behind). The girls began doing chores and I ventured outside to catch some of the girls doing laundry – finally, I saw some smiles as some of them warmed up to us.
Before we left, I interviewed Maria – the house mother. She also said they’d been praying for this computer lab. Adam gave her the suitcase full of supplies we’d brought for them. (Rewind a week: Before I left the office for this trip I collected office supplies to take down with me. We were going to throw out all of these old staplers that were jammed – one of my coworkers got them working again – I took them with me to Ketty’s house). As we watched Maria rummage through all the items – she nearly jumped up when she saw the staplers - the same staplers we were going to toss out a week ago.
What I learned here was that Prostitution is legal in the Dominican. Typical situation – a mom leaves for “work” in the morning and will actually put her children on the front porch and lock the door..and she walks away. The kids will be locked out of the house all day while she works. I saw several kids by themselves as we drove the streets of the Dominican.
Regardless of the conditions here, the kids at Ketty’s house seemed happy and taken care of – they were ok.
That night we headed back to the house, had dinner and reflected on the past two days. The next morning, we were able to check out downtown Santo Domingo before heading to the airport and then it was back to our own realities. I won’t forget what I saw, I can’t go back to looking at my kids the way I did before I left – the stare is longer, the hug is tighter, and the kisses are excessive. However, I can say I am not depressed – I am hopeful, I am excited – excited to see what more can be done – excited to know that one person, literally ONE person can make a difference. If you’ve ever had a desire or have been moved to donate/volunteer/get involved in something like this – don’t delay. DO IT! You won’t regret it, I promise you.
This trip did WAY more for me than I did for these kids. I am now committed…committed to not taking my health or that of my children’s for granted, to not be wasteful, to helping my kids understand we are so very blessed…I want to make a difference in this world that I will eventually leave them and I definitely want to work on more projects like this.
Here are some more pictures from our trip:
Take a look at the video we put together from our trip: