On May 28th, we finally arrived in the Dominican Republic. Our group was from Jesuit—New Orleans, and included 20 junior boys, along with “Profe” Nilda and Mr. Julio Minsal, our two chaperones. In the airport we also met Anibal, who was joining our adventure from Panama, and Peter, the Peace Corps volunteer whose site, Batey Santa Maria, we’d be building the court in.
After feasting on some delicious pizza in the airport, we boarded our bus and traveled the four and half hours down to Santa Maria. We marveled at the beautiful blue color of the ocean, at the
motorcycles loaded down with five and six people, and generally at the landscape as we went further and further into the desert that is the south of the country. Most of us had never been outside of the US, and all we knew about the developing world was what we had seen on TV. Although we weren’t sure of what we’d find when we got there, we were anxious and excited to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones, to help Santa Maria build a court, and develop lasting friendships.
As soon as we arrived in Santa Maria, we were welcomed as family. The wonderful Chicas Brillantes had everything set up for us in the school, where we stayed in two rooms. We quickly became good friends with Norberto, who watched over the school, as well as the assortment of muchachos and muchachas who always wanted to play. Sarita and her family helped make us feel at home with their incredible hospitality and food, and Rafa and his dad, Apollonio, tested their English on us and kept us entertained with their hearty laughs.
Over the next four days we worked side by side with the community members to build the court.
Between mixing cement by hand, leveling the court, installing the goal system, and the heat, the work was tough, but we still made good progress every day. Some of our favorite jobs were riding in the truck with countless muchachos to the river to fill up the water tanks, and shoveling the cement into the wheelbarrows. We all celebrated together when we finally poured the last bit of cement to finish the court.
We also got to know the kids of the community. We played soccer and baseball with them after
work. They took us on hour-long walks to pick mangoes. They taught us how to play dominoes and how to dance bachata. The kids were always around, and their sheer happiness of kids like Franqui touched us to a degree that we will never forget. The community was very happy to open their homes to us as well, especially while completing our cultural challenges like helping Sarita and her family cook lunch, or help a random Dona clean her dishes.
We battled through the heat, fatigue, and sickness, but finally we were able to inaugurate the court on Wednesday. It felt like everyone in the community came out to help celebrate. After some speeches and hardy applause, we ate delicious cake, and then had a few epic games of basketball against the local squad. It was an amazing day, and later on we would reflect on what
a positive impact that having a safe space for the youth of the community to congregate would have on the town.
On Thursday we loaded back up on the bus to head closer to the airport. It was really tough to say goodbye to all of the friends we had made. We had our expectations and assumptions challenged, and our perspectives changed for good. We hope one day to return to Santa Maria to play with the kids again on the court we built together. But until then, we’ll take with us what Rafa said on our last night in Santa Maria: “I’ll carry you in my heart.”
The people taught me that wealth and possession do not determine a person’s happiness, but instead a person’s happiness is rooted in his community.
My favorite experiences during the trip came from speaking with members of the local community. First, during a run to retrieve more water to continue mixing cement for the court, I learned an unexpected lesson from a child, who came along to help refill the containers. We formed an “assembly line” in which my task was to pour the full buckets into the water containers and then pass the buckets back to another child in the river to be refilled. As I timidly poured the water into the container trying my hardest to avoid spilling a single drop, the child standing next to me noticed my hesitation, grabbed my arms, and said, “Hazlo sin miedo” (“Do it without fear”). By telling me that, he taught me an unintentional yet invaluable lesson that I want to carry with me into other parts of my life.
Also, when talking to Apolonio, a local store owner, his enthusiasm and seemingly insatiable desire to learn as much English as possible resonated with me. I wanted to help him learn as many words and phrases as I could. From these experiences I learned to live my life without fear, particularly in striving for more knowledge. It is also clear to me now that incredible lessons of advice can come from anyone at any time, even from a child while filling a buck of water or from a store owner on a trip to purchase a bag of Buenachos and a bottle of Kola Real.
On the trip I realized that there is a uniformity to the human condition, unaffected by cultural differences and the processions of time. We all as humans search for happiness and find it in different but nevertheless similar ways. My friends and I may like music and food different from the residents of the Batey, but we could still relate and accept each other. We could come together and recognize our common humanity, especially when the time came to work and eventually play on the court we built together.
After the trip I understand more clearly the power of teamwork. When we first began work on
the court, the project seemed long and difficult, especially considering the tools we were using. However, all working together (our group and the people of the Batey), we completed the court in just four days. Alone, a person can only do a small thing. Together with many people, many small things can become one great thing.
I more fully appreciate the importance of community. Everybody in this community is bound together by their relationships with each other. They do not rely solely on themselves as individuals but on each other. We usually misinterpret reliance as a weakness and make our goal independence when this reliance in one’s community is the strongest bond and goal one can hope for.
I learned that I can actually make a difference in this world. Whether it was talking to the kids, asking them about their day, or just playing with them, it made them happy. I never really thought I could do something that would make another person’s life better. I’m really glad I decided to come on this trip and make a difference in this community.
The time spent in Santa Maria reminded me that really the world changes when good people raise their children right, with a clear sense of what is social justice, and that it’s on all of us to unite and serve.
More than building a basketball court, the trip was an opportunity to build human relationships with others, and by the means of building a court, make a small impact in the world, reminding the Batey that they are worthy of their basic rights as human beings, but also that I am responsible for doing my part to make this contribution of act of charity come to life. And when we give to others in this way, we become more fully human ourselves by living and working together with the people we serve.