There comes a time in our lives when we take that first step to becoming the people we were meant to be. In the literal sense, you can relate this to flying to another country without parents to hold your passport and your hand. We become more independent. In a more personal sense, we put ourselves out there to do something not within our comfort zones, and in the process, we learn a bit more about ourselves and the world around us. This trip to build a court for an orphanage in the Dominican Republic with the local community was definitely one of those times, and I think my fellow teammates would agree.
Thinking back to meeting at the airport, I always laugh. A weird reaction it may seem, but we were very different people before this trip. There wasn’t a single person in the group who knew everyone to start with, so this was the beginning of finding our group dynamic. The first two days, our travel days, it was evident who was friends with who and who didn’t know each other. But within days, all boundaries were broken and suddenly a group of 25 strangers became a tight knit family unit with bonds that are beautiful and unbreakable.
We worked from Thursday morning to Saturday afternoon. We began with the prep work- digging, leveling and shoveling. For some of us, it was the very first time engaging in manual labor, but you wouldn’t be able to tell! One thing I thought had a direct impact on our group dynamic was the way we were ready to take on any task with enthusiasm, and it was really cool to see that from each and every team member. Friday, we began mixing cement and starting on the court! The contractor presented us with a fun task: finish the court in one day!! We really didn’t know what the outcome of the day would be, but I’ve never seen any group of people work that hard. We were separated into work groups, and each group eventually found different strategies and systems that worked for them and in the end all of them helped us accomplish what we did in such a short amount of time. That day, we worked from 7:30 am, continued through lunch with a small break to eat and stopped working around 4pm. Although we didn’t finish it, we got ⅗ of the court done! There is a certain satisfaction that comes with being physically exhausted, which I definitely felt in myself and saw in those around me that day. You learn that you can do things you never knew you would on a trip like this, like being able to carry 95 pound bags of cement powder. Saturday we finished the last ⅖ of the court, cheering as the final load from the mixer was dumped onto our court. We did it! The bruises, soreness and cement burns were well worth it:)
We rang in the New Year with new people and new friendships in a new country! We started off by going to church Sunday morning, and from there we walked to a nearby restaurant for lunch (free hats?!?!). After we drove out to a famous monument in Santiago. The view was incredible!! It felt like we could see the entire city from where we were standing. We ended up getting dance lessons from our translators and peace corps volunteers on the top of the monument, and I’m pretty sure that was one moment we will never forget:)(go Spencer!) We ended 2017 with a fun game night, partnering with the church group also staying in our hostel to bring some exciting minute-to-win-it games for the kids. It was also very surreal watching cloth lanterns be lit and pushed to the sky towards a full moon wrapped in a ring of clouds, holding hands and hugging our newfound brothers and sisters. Wouldn’t have wanted to start 2018 any other way.
New Year’s Day was memorable as well. We took a small hike and walked across many (wobbly!) bridges to get to a beautiful waterfall. We also went on a trail through the trees that led us to a swimming hole! Because of the elevation of the river, the water was chilly, but much appreciated after the hot week of work we experienced:)
Back at Fundacion, we finally had our court inauguration. We gathered in a circle, all holding hands, representing one community. Micely and Itzel spoke of this incredible task we accomplished together, and there was hardly a translation needed to convey what we were all feeling: pride, love, and unity. We shared about what this court meant to us, what these new but deep bonds meant to us. One of the children asked, “When are you guys coming back?” His response came in the form of smiles and a few wistful tears, with the promise that we most definitely would come back. We celebrated with cake and field games until the sun went down, and said our goodbyes to the girls as we wouldn’t see them again before we left. Three girls that became my sisters hugged me for ten minutes straight while we tried not to cry. Moments like these will never be forgotten.
We were in for a surprise on our last day in the Dominican Republic: we went to the beach! Running into that warm turquoise water was such a rush. We had a great time looking for coral, finding incredibly random items in the ocean, sunbathing and perusing nearby shops.:)
Saying goodbye is hard. Again, it’s truly amazing how close people can get in such a short amount of time. Saying goodbye to the children, to Juan Carlos, Micely, Itzel, and our fantastic translators. It was saying goodbye to our family, the people we went to for anything throughout the week. We are lucky to have gotten to know such beautiful souls. As the plane lifted off the Santiago Airport and we caught one last glimpse of this beautiful country, I knew that this experience, this group of people, would be in our hearts forever.
But sometimes, things turn out like you never knew they would! Who would’ve expected that coming from 80 degree weather we would end up stranded in chilly 10 degree New Jersey? Not us!:) It was hard knowing that we couldn’t get home on time, but we were are grateful for the little extra time we got to spend together. Playing cards, signs, making bracelets, and just talking, we made the most of the end of our experience together. What we also didn’t expect was doing news interviews from our room!! We spent time putting together clips from our trip to send to the news stations and then they wanted to actually hear from us! It was pretty surreal. What was amazing was the support we got from local churches and back home. We were (and still are) so grateful for the kindness during our unexpected stay.
The next day, the one that turned out to be our last, was a humbling one. We had our final reflection of the trip, in the form of compliments towards each member in our group. I think we were all feeling pretty sentimental after that. We had meals graciously donated to us by the local churches. It was dizzying. One minute everyone was sitting in the room, enjoying each other’s company, and the next minute 6 out of 25 of us are told to run upstairs and pack our bags. Within twenty minutes, all except 4 had packed bags and were waiting for a shuttle. Emotionally, this part was really hard. All this time together, and suddenly we were being separated. With each shuttle that left a bittersweet feeling took its place, happy for those getting on a plane to go home but sad that the adventure ended in the odd way it did. We all boarded different shuttles, had different ways of getting to the terminal (half mile sprint in the snow with suitcases? I think yes), but somehow, all but four of us ended up checked in and on a single flight together. We said our goodbyes to New Jersey and the snow, took a quick stop in Washington D.C, and boarded our fifth and final flight of the trip, one that took us all the way home. Coming home to our families that night/morning was unreal. We wished Selene, Channing, Shasta and Belle could’ve made it home with us, but thankfully they were on the following flight and flew in the next morning.
On a trip like this, there are so many things that are memorable that you just can’t seem to mention it all. But then again, sometimes the best things are left unsaid. Out of all the things we learned on this trip, the most beautiful thing was…
We learned to live, laugh, and love:) Gracias a ustedes por la experiencia mejor de mi vida. Tienen mi corazon por siempre. – Jordan Griffin, Union High School Student
“I feel like this trip changed me by showing me everything that I couldn’t experience/learn where I live. The disasters, poverty, hunger and overall hardships of the world can be learned about and mourned from a safe space like home and school. Being able to go and experience it is an entirely different learning experience. What we have done here and what we have learned in this place and situation has taught me a lot about gratitude, appreciation, and people, and has opened my eyes to only a small, but very significant, amount of struggle in the DR. I am more thankful, more open, more knowledgeable and really appreciative to have the people, including new friends, that I do.” – Karen, Washougal High School Student
“The most substantial thing I learned has to be how utterly the same people are across the world. The culture and language are different and, yet, we all connect so easily. This is by far my favorite thing about being here: how simply and purely humans can bond when we give each other a chance.” – Cassidy, Henrietta Lacks High School Student
“This trip changed me in a couple ways. I saw the smallest of children who have emotional and physical scars that I can’t even fathom. Understanding that there are things about people that you can’t see that maybe makes them act a certain way, and instead of pushing them away for being different, if you open up to them and build a trust, that relationship can be stronger than anything.” – Reilly, College Student
“I learned that I can do way more than I thought I could. From carrying heavy buckets and catching buckets to communicating and building relationships with people who I don’t speak the same language as. I’ve always been a shy person, so I thought I would have a difficult time making friends with the people on the trip for Courts for Kids. I thought it would be even more difficult talking to and building relationships with the kids in the orphanage. I was able to overcome my shyness and make friends with a ton of people on this trip. I was also able to do the work on the court with much less difficulty than expected. This trip has truly shown me that I can do anything I put my mind to, which is something I didn’t previously believe.” – Hannah, Henrietta Lacks High School Student
“I feel like this trip has changed me in multiple ways. First, I am going to be more appreciative of the things I have and grateful for the people I always have around me. Second, I am going to be less disconnected and, although it will be hard, try to resist the urge to always grab for my phone. Especially when I’m bored, because there is a lot more productive and educational ways to spend my time.” – Brandon, Henrietta Lacks High School Student
“The community has taught me to make a lot of solid relationships in my life, because it is beneficial to have a lot of people who have your back. They also taught me that family doesn’t have to be who you’re related to, but family can be anyone who you trust and have a good relationship with, and that we should be open to building all those new relationships, because all these people help build us up.” – Hailey, Union High School Student
“I feel like this trip has truly changed me for the better. I feel challenged emotionally and physically going home. I gained new perspectives of the world and learned about a new culture, as well as my own. I’m going home with many new friends. And this trip exposed me to so much that has shifted my vision. The thing that I feel like will change the most going home is my work ethic towards school. A local girl was telling me she wanted to go to nursing school, but she would grow up and not be able to. That is the path I am on right now, and I feel privileged to have the money around me. I’m going to work very hard and remember how lucky I am to have that privilege, which is just one of many back at home.” – Lauryn, Union High School Student
“The most difficult part of going home is the fear that I will forget the struggles of the orphanage and the orphans – and fall back into my first-world life. I realize how wasteful I am, because I CAN be. Watching the excitement of the kids about getting apples and grapes! I want to minimize my consumption of … everything. Adopt a less-is-more lifestyle, so that I have more resources to help others.” – Connie, Teacher Chaperone
A video made by students on the trip: