If you were to ask me to create a list of words of what I thought my experience in the Dominican Republic would be like prior to going, it might have been something like this: adventure, culture shock, poverty, fulfilling, service, and barriers with the community among other things. While we tried hard to learn as much as we could about what we were getting ready to do and how we were going to do it, it only slightly prepared me for what my experience on the Cats Across Continents Trip was going to mean to me overall and how it was going to change my perspective, not only about those in Matayaya, but also with the other student-athletes and staff on the trip.
When we first arrived in the Dominican, I still fully had my stereotypes and preconceptions about the trip in tow with me; none of which I would consider to be bad, but more so, about how I expected the community to look and act, as well as the other student athletes on the trip. After we got to Matayaya and settled in to where we would be staying, we walked down the street to the school. Never in my life have I seen kids so excited to meet strangers, and without any hesitation, they began dancing with us, braiding our hair, and inviting us to play a game of soccer (which was what I believed to be one of the best moments on the trip). Some of the athletes on the trip (including the soccer girls) played some high school boys in soccer. Very quickly, the boys were surprised at how good our girls were and became frustrated at the fact that they were losing to them. This, in a way, set a tone for breaking down gender roles within the community, because it allowed them to see that if our mostly female group could participate in sports and keep up with the guys, then their girls could, too.
I remember when they told us that we would be finishing the entire court in three days. I couldn’t believe it, because we just had a group of 20 and had only completed two slabs of concrete on the first day. The next day, they brought in a second mixer and things changed. All of Matayaya came out in full force, kids and adults alike of all different ages. We all worked so well together, communicating and understanding each other in ways other than language, and were able to finish four slabs of concrete that day. The most amazing part about building the court was seeing the community taking ownership of the project. Kids were pushing wheel barrows and scooping rocks and dirt, some of the adults were smoothing concrete and even providing snacks for the day. Everyone, male and female, was involved, and I learned to trust the kids that were helping me cut concrete bags and also show the men that women can do heavy lifting, too. Although we didn’t finish in three days (it took four, because we were waiting on supplies), the court was completed almost without any problems, and we were able to spend more time with the community doing things like dancing at night, playing baseball, and sharing meals at their homes.
One night, some of the group members had decided to attend a church service. Even though I knew I would not understand one bit of what was being said, I decided to go as well. With an army of local kids leading the way, we made our way into the small building and very easily more than tripled the amount of people currently there. As the service proceeded and multiple songs and praises were sung in Spanish, I was amazed that within all the cultural differences, there lay universal similarities that transcended both language and location. Through their singing, you could feel their love radiating and, in that way, it allowed me to understand exactly what they were saying.
The lesson that I’m most grateful for learning in the Dominican is that anyone can surprise you with their actions. It’s easy to judge a book by its cover, and although I’ve always tried my best not to do that, it’s hard to get the notions you might have about other sports teams out of your head, whether they be about football, volleyball, soccer, or even the ones I feel like lay within my own team (rowing). But if you begin to focus not on what they do, but rather how they do it, you allow yourself to see that a person’s identity is rooted in what’s in their heart, and you get to experience and witness the wonderful things each individual brings to the table. The remarkable thing about the trip was that in just over a week’s time, I was able to break down all stereotypes I had about what people could be and was able to discover who they were.
If you were to ask me to create a list now that I have returned, you would find some of the things to be the same: it was a huge adventure and fulfilling in ways I can’t even put into words, but you would also see that my stereotypes and preconceptions were shattered in surprising, unexpected, and eye-opening ways. It’s impossible for me to put everything I experienced throughout my time in the Dominican Republic onto a single page. They showed me how to laugh and love, and that I could always have that no matter how much or little I had. Their happiness was infectious and is something I still think about today. Both the community and the CAC Crew have changed the way I see life for the better and I couldn’t be more grateful. – Written by Mickaela
“The community taught me, or rather reminded me, of something that I already know, yet often forget, which is what little is required for happiness to exist. I think that a large quantity of happiness can be obtained through simply being surrounded by people who know and care about you, and I felt this was apparent in the community.” – Krista
“I feel the trip has changed me by making me appreciate the little things. A smile, a handshake, and a hug can really go a long way. This trip has shown me that there are beautiful spirits all over the world, and living conditions or wages can’t stop you from being happy.” – Will
“From the community, I learned just to enjoy life and have a positive attitude, no matter what the circumstances. The community of Matayaya is filled with life and joy. People in America can be filled with bitterness and anger, even when they are so blessed with money, beds, electricity, etc. If the people of the Dominican were given what the people in America have, they would be ecstatic! All of us in America should learn to count our blessing and be thankful to be in America.” – Tyler
“I feel like this trip changed me by showing me that you don’t need superficial things to be happy. Deep down I knew that, but it truly did change my perspective. This experience was amazing. It was life changing.” – Becca
“On this trip, I feel like I learned so much about differences, but also an immense amount about similarities. Although language was a barrier and kept conversations verbally to a minimum, we were able to find common ground in other ways. A couple great examples of this was seen through sport, dance, religion, and work. By partaking in these different activities, I was able to form bonds with community members and feel very connected and involved. Through these actions is where I found similarities that I imagine transcend the world.” – Mickaela
“This trip has shown me the power of opening up to others and letting people help you.” – Madison
“My favorite memories were getting to play sports with kids of the community. It was rewarding to know that we contributed a small part to providing a place where present and future kids can go to have fun and compete with one another. I feel like this trip changed me in many ways. I was able to gain perspective on my own life through seeing how the individuals of Matayaya live. I’m much more appreciative and grateful of the opportunities I have been given in the past and opportunities that I will be given in the future.” – Sarah