Jesuit Portland Students’ Adventure in La Meceta, Dominican Republic

As with all great adventures, the beginning and end of this trip were the memorable bookends for a story worth telling.  As Paul Simon sings in “Still Crazy After All These Years”, our trip began and ended when it was “Four in the morning” and we were “crapped out, yawning”.  Our nine days of service, learning, travel, self-exploration, and group bonding are most certainly a story worth telling, so here it goes!

On June 9, 2018, Jesuit High School’s 22 students and two chaperones boarded a plane destined for Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.  After a day’s worth of travel, we touched down and hunkered down in Santo Domingo where we got just enough rest to prepare for the next day’s lengthy bus ride to what would become our home for the next week, a small barrio named La Meceta nestled in the slightly larger community of El Guayabo.

As we rolled into town, we were greeted by waves from friendly faces and waves of heat from dusty roads.  We unpacked at our new home, the school, ate lunch, and began a walking tour of the community, which felt a lot like a living SWOT analysis.  “Over here you’ll see a thriving church, over there, a cock-fighting ring, over here a profitable corner store, over there, a paved curb abutted to a fissured, rocky road.”  This tour served to set our expectations for the week: we were to serve and learn in a beautiful community for whom the Courts for Kids (CFK) project was a substantial rung in the ladder of community development.

One of the cornerstones of any legitimate development work, which is what CFK is about, is having locally invested leaders and support to facilitate, not only the court project, but also the collaboration between residents and the visiting group of volunteers.  We had three such people on this trip, each of whom made a significant contribution to making the project a reality.  Joselo is a local pastor, contractor, and go-to man for nearly anything.  Carly is the local Peace Corps volunteer who helped initiate the project, and on who’s shoulders and good name we strolled into town as accepted volunteers from out of town.  Micely is CFK’s Dominican Republic Director, and her penchant for careful, diligent planning helped the project go off without a hitch.

Of course, the project would never have been what it was without the 22 high school volunteers, who, for myriad reasons, took the singular leap of faith to take part in this trip.  Their collective spirit of volunteerism, humor, comradery, and, at times, grit saw them through what is most certainly a maker event, or rite of passage, which is one of the core aims of the trip.  The students took a Pedialyte every morning, alongside a hearty breakfast, to prepare for the roughly eight hours of work they had coming their way under the Caribbean Sun.  Everyone now LOVES Pedialyte; just ask them!  In all seriousness, though, the group worked exceptionally hard, from shoveling to hoisting buckets and carrying cement, and their consistent, buoyant attitudes saw them through the inevitable highs and lows of the week.

While it wasn’t work, per se, the students also fully engaged in what was both an exhilarating and exhausting experience of playing with the dozens of kids who were equal parts enamored with and mystified by the first group of foreign volunteers to arrive in their town in a decade.  On the job site, the students collaborated hand in hand with the local children, and around town and at “home” (read: school), the students played soccer, braided hair, had their hair braided, and generally endured a cacophony of Spanish that, luckily, became slightly more comprehensible as the days went by.  To say that the students developed friendships with the local children would be a bit too simplistic a description.  More accurately, they communed in the priceless childhood experiences of smiles, walks hand-in-hand, and the unbridled joy of play for its own sake.

Interspersed with work and play, the students enjoyed a day taking a dip in the Artibonite River (much larger and faster flowing than the creek where we bathed at times during the trip), which forms the natural border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, in addition to both enduring and enjoying a hike in El Guayabo that was challenging in its ascent and breathtaking in its descent.  When it was all said and done, the students had learned how to work and play in the local style.

The week concluded with an opening ceremony on the court, where we all joined hand-in-hand in a circle where we were lead in prayer by Joselo.  Community members expressed their joy and senses of accomplishment and satisfaction at completing the project, and a few of our students shared their sense of gratitude for the communal work we’d all accomplished during the week.  What next?  Cake (miraculously acquired by Micely), soda, and a dance party!  As we were all lead through a swift tutorial of the basic, side-to-side, hip shaking 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4 of dancing the bachata, a beautiful sunset fell over the Haitian hills while a purple-clouded, towering thunderstorm rolled in from the east.  Where to hide?  The local police station, of course!  After an interlude of 30 minutes, crammed into the jail like the willing “prisoners” that we were, we were lead to dinner, hosted by a friendly, gracious local family (this was our dinner routine throughout the week).  After finishing dinner, we headed home for one more evening of journaling, to wrap up packing, and to rest beneath our enmeshed array of mosquito nets, one more time.

Before beginning our long journey home, we enjoyed an amazingly refreshing day on the beach of Juan Dolio in Santo Domingo, where we relaxed and played in the surf, and perused and purchased keepsakes from local beach vendors.  “¿Una pulsera para la muchacaha?”… “¿Una tortuga tallada para el muchacho?”… “A bracelet for the girl?”… “A carved turtle for the boy?”  After returning to our hostel where we journaled and shared for the last time in the Domincan Republic, we went to bed, only to wake again at 4 AM. – Written by Dan Keller

“Something I learned from the community is the importance of getting to know people. I think from the mainstream media and living simply this week has helped me connect with people and made me happier in turn.” – Hannah Cooney

“There were many high points for me during this trip, but I loved playing with all the kids. Although I wasn’t really able to fully communicate with the children, we still figured out ways to play games together. Another high point was to hike. It felt a lot more like rock climbing, but in a really fun way. A lot of the kids from the community were there and making sure that we didn’t fall on our way up and down. The view at the top of the hill was absolutely breathtaking. I have never seen so many colors and every step I took there was a new tree, banana, mango…” – Paige Poteet

“This trip has taught me so, so much about the community. The community here works together to accomplish their goals. The community tries to be helpful in any way they can. On the court, the community showed how this court was both theirs and ours. They spent so much time out of their own day to come and help carry and lift things on the court and fill our waters when we needed it. I learned that the community is not happy or joyful due to simplicity, they are happy because they have each oher to rely on. The community is generous, welcoming, bonded, filled with the gifts of the holy spirit, the community is now a source I can look back on as an example.” – Natalie Bartels

“What I learned from the community is to focus more on the people in my lives instead of the materials in our lives. I saw how connected people were, not through social media or technology, but through contact and interaction. I have learned that happiness comes from loving people for who they are, not for what they have.” – Jaiden McClellan

“After this experience, I learned many things from this community. This includes their ability to find the time in their lives to help build much of the court. Farmers, shop owners, and fathers supporting their family all came out to help build the court which was a huge sacrifice. Additionally, I learned how to enjoy the little things in life. The community showed joy and a welcoming spirit simply upon our arrival.” – Gavin Meader

“The most difficult part of going home is leaving these beautiful community members behind who brought me one of the best weeks of my life. The knowledge and kindness they shared will never be forgotten in my heart. It will also be hard for me to go home and see all the luxuries we have. These people I met deserve more than luxury, they deserve the world.” – Mia Gish

“Some of my favorite memories from the trip were experiencing a new culture, bonding with people from home and the community, and playing on the court at the ceremony. Leaning about their culture was eye opening to me. Spending time with new and old friends was great, and so was the joy that encompassed everyone while playing on the court. I think I learned a lot about myself and my capabilities. This trio taught me that I can do much more than expected. As well as this, I believe the trip changed me in many ways. I realize how much I take for granted daily in my life. This trip provided me with a newfound confidence and a sense of longing for a simpler lifestyle.” – Virginia Larner