Ten empanadas. Ten empanadas in thirty minutes. That was the record set by two Shoreline students one night, sitting under the leaky tarp set up in front of the elementary school during yet another rain storm. What started out as enjoyment of another delicious dinner of local cuisine after a long day’s work, quickly turned into the ‘empanada challenge’ – who could eat the most delicious fried dough filled with ham and cheese, chicken, or egg. As I was beginning to learn, self-created competitions between high school athletes were about as common as the rain here during hurricane season. “How many hours did it take your last group to move a pile of sand this big? We will do it in half the time.” “How many pounds of rice did the last group eat? We can eat more.” “Dance battle against a local on top of the sand pile? Done.”
It was evident from the beginning that this group was here to experience everything the trip had to offer. The students and adults were able to enjoy many aspects of Dominican culture and the famous hospitality of the people. They learned to bachata and merengue, taught the local kids Kan Jam and played it for hours on end, tasted several traditional dishes, explored local waterfalls, attended a church service, visited a neighboring batey, played basketball against a nearby community, bathed in the river, and improved their Spanish. They dove right into the cultural immersion with enthusiasm and openness.
But this cultural immersion wasn’t all waterfalls and empanadas. To truly know the reality of daily life for the people of Cruce de Mela is to experience hours on end without electricity or water, to have original and rescheduled plans cancelled multiple times due to rain, to have limited access to resources and materials that are so dependable back home.
All court projects present challenges. It is impossible to collaborate with an organization that takes a group of American students to an underdeveloped community in a foreign country without expecting to encounter (sometimes major) roadblocks or obstacles. In training, the students and adults are prepared for it, before the trip they are reminded of it, but after three days of moving dirt piles around in the hot Caribbean sun because (from our perspective) no one can agree upon what line we should level the land to, or can confirm the arrival time of the landfill trucks we desperately need, it’s hard to be understanding and chalk it up to cultural differences. It’s even harder when that brings you to the realization that we won’t be able to start, let alone finish the cement pouring of the court.
Between the constant rain, waiting on promised donations from local politicians, logistical and transportation difficulties, and surprise sink holes springing up within the court (did I mention that it rained a lot?), we were faced with the decision of pouring the court on top of the water-saturated dirt – allowing the students to be a part of and see the finished product, but dramatically risking the quality of the court – or waiting for the court to dry on its own, which would require three days of no rain, something we knew wouldn’t happen during our stay.
Although the decision to pick a quality court wasn’t difficult, it was by no means easy to come to terms with what that meant. We were not going to see a finished court. The students and adults of Shoreline showed incredible integrity throughout the trip and were committed to building quality relationships with the people as well as a quality court, but accepting this reality… let’s just say, it sucked. Here is one account, told by Amber, an adult chaperone on the trip (to read her full, day-by-day blog, click here – hoopsinthedominican.wordpress.com).
“Now we were faced with a decision. We could try to mend the spots with water seepage and try to begin to pour a court that would not hold up for very long or we could help the community divert the water away from the court and give it time to dry. The community would be left to finish the court when the ground was dry and truly ready for concrete.
After breakfast, we held a team meeting to discuss the news and our feelings about what was going on. Although it was heartbreaking to give up on the idea that we would get to see the court completed and play on it with the kids, we all knew that we also wanted to give them a good court, one that would serve them for a long time. We wanted to give them the best court that we could and unfortunately, that meant we needed to allow time for the ground to dry and to leave it to the community to finish, a task which we believe that they will be ready to complete.
You can never really know what it will be like on a Courts for Kids trip. When you travel to 3rd world communities the unexpected is the only thing that you can truly count on. Poverty, corruption, environment, mishaps, and accidents all make their play and by enlarge the communities are merely victims of circumstance. They do not have the power or privilege that we might have to turn the table and stay on a schedule or complete a project according to plan. We now have a clearer understanding as to why Dominicans work on a different time schedule and take things as they come. The evidence is all around. There are half finished projects everywhere, including an abandoned three-story school building in a nearby community that was never completed because the contractor ran away with all the money. It appears that our takeaway from the trip will not be sharing the joy of a new court with the community, but feeling the pain of disappointment and frustration with a community that has felt a lot of pain and disappointment.
We weren’t exactly ready to go down without swinging however. If we were going to leave the court to the community, we were going to complete as much as we could before we left. Therefore, we spent the morning digging a canal in the side of the hill above the court in order to divert rainwater away and direct it toward the adjacent field. We also used our shovels to disperse and level one more truckload of fill dirt on the south side of the court.”
Decisions like this raise a lot of questions and produce a lot of feelings. What is the real goal or purpose of the trip? How do we explain this to parents and friends back home? How do we come to terms with this ourselves? What do we value more, personal connections and growth or results and the final product? How do we overcome or better address the issues surrounding poverty and development work?
On the last day of the trip, one of the local community leaders came up to me and said, “Natalie, if they came to understand and learn about life here, tell them this is it. This is real life here. You wonder why our streets aren’t paved and there aren’t more community spaces? You wonder why our school systems are failing and our infrastructure is falling apart? This is the fight we have to fight every day for progress to happen. Explain to them that we have a lot of circumstances against us, but are extremely grateful for their help. And tell them they will always have a home here.”
She was right. Development work, especially at a grassroots level, is complicated and challenging and requires a lot of persistency and resiliency. But she was also right that the group left with a second home, full of new friends and family – relationships that transcended culture, age, and language barriers – that would be waiting for them with open arms if they ever decided to return. And despite the disappointment, somehow that felt like enough. We may not have gotten the happy ending we wanted, but we realized that sometimes happy endings are hard to come by in real life and they rarely happen on our preferred time frame.
And the court? Finished. The challenges and rain continued after the group left, but through a lot of dedication and hard work by several community leaders, youth, and the Peace Corps volunteer, the cement floor was poured just over a month later. The first court of Cruce de Mela, made with the sweat, tears, and love of everyone involved. – Natalie Roling, Dominican Republic In-Country Director, Courts for Kids
“I feel blessed to have gotten to experience the value of being with close friends and family and being creative in how you play, hang out, and just live life in general in order to be happy.” – Hannah
“The most difficult part of going home is being aware right now about how lucky I am but not knowing if I will stay aware once I am back home. This is because I might fall back into the simplicity of my home life. I really want to keep my privilege in mind so I can live as much of a selfless life as I can.” – Jake
“My favorite part from the trip was bonding with my teammates. When you are thrown into a culture that is so much based on community and human bonds you become closer to the ones you spend time with.” – Malcolm
“The thing that I think struck me the most and changed my understanding of the world is how similar the people are here compared to home.” – Micah
“My favorite memories from the trip are the times when jokes transcended language and cultural barriers. Whether it was slap stick humor like someone slipping in the mud, inventing silly nicknames for each other, or a simple fart during a quiet moment, the connection was felt instantly and the ease that comes with friendship would cut the awkwardness of the unknown.” – Lindsey