We left for the Dominican Republic on March 10th --our 9th mission trip in 3 1/2 years. There was something incredibly special about this trip as it marked the second time Jay and I were traveling with a team from the USC Caruso Catholic Center (CC) and this time, Fr. Richard Sunwoo, the Center's pastor, was joining us. The DR was one of several locations the students could choose from in the CC's Alternative Spring Break program where students opt for a service trip over a typical spring break vacation.
Two years ago Jay and I weren't sure if there would be a DR spring trip as the team we first came to the DR with had decided to serve in other countries in the spring which meant they would only be able to travel to the DR in November. Without a team, it's very hard to get projects done or make an impact, so when we were first approached by the CC to have students join us in the spring, we felt the stirrings of a miracle. Now that we've completed an incredibly productive and spiritually fulfilling second trip, we feel so blessed. The trip has had a life-changing effect on the students as well as on so many vulnerable children in the DR with whom we can share God's love and roll up our sleeves to to make improvements that have a significant impact their health, recreation, and education.
Here's the day by day breakdown and a few observations:
Saturday, March 10: We flew from LAX to Miami which pretty much takes all day with the time change. Our group had different LAX departures but we all were on the same flight to Santo Domingo and were met at the airport by our welcoming VisionTrust (VT) Dominica team who would be with us the rest of the week as translators, organizers and our highly-skilled bus driver, Yency, who artfully weaves his way through sometimes gasp-worthy DR traffic . By the time we all cleared customs and finally got on the VT bus it was about 11:00 pm DR time. After a full day of air travel, once we arrived at the Mission House in Santo Domingo (about 30 minutes from the airport) and had some snacks, we were ready to claim our bunk beds and call it a night.
Sunday, March 11: Isabel and Mecho had a big Dominican breakfast ready for us by 8:00 a.m. We needed to leave by 9:30 to get to Tia Tatiana school to attend the Sunday worship service that takes place in the open-air meeting room on the top floor of the school. The music from the band and the energetic voices of the women singing on the stage stir your soul (and they do a good job waking up the entire community of Herrera as the speakers are turned up for all to hear). Families start streaming in around 10:00 a.m. and by 11:00 a.m. the plastic chairs around the room are almost all occupied. There's a beautiful spirit of community, joy, and praise in the room. From the surroundings in Herrera, you know life isn't easy. Everyone is so welcoming and I love the part when we all walk around the room hugging and saying to each other "Dios te bendiga" (God bless you). The service is part Spanish rock worship, part preaching, part just appreciating the gentle breeze as it wafts through the room and nudges away the humidity. Another noteworthy element is the realization that we've come from the other side of a continent to be present to complete strangers who so openly welcome us into their community. Following the service after the community left, we pulled our chairs into a circle to have lunch and then spent time going around the circle introducing ourselves and getting to know each other better...both those in the CC group as well as our VisionTrust leaders including Renee and Abigail who were joining us from VisionTrust's Colorado HQ office. We then took a tour of Tia Tatiana school so everyone could see where we'd be spending time with the students the next day. That evening back at the Mission House was one of the particularly significant moments of our trip...and somewhat of a culmination of all the trips we've taken so far. Having Fr. Richard with us, we were able to end the day before dinner by participating in Mass at the Mission House. Several of the VisionTrust team members joined us which made it all the more special. So often we are sensitive to the differences between Catholic traditions and those of non-denominational Christians rather than our commonalities--namely our belief in Jesus Christ as the way, the truth and the life. To me, this day showed how beautifully the two can appreciate what each has to offer and what draws each of us to our faith. Each day with Fr. Richard included Mass which, along with the beautiful faith shown by all of VisionTrust's staff, allowed for the increased spiritual enrichment of the trip.
Monday, March 12: This was our day to spend with the students of Tia Tatiana school and to take some time to get to know the community in Herrera. As you can read in other posts, Herrera is one of the most underserved and impoverished areas of Santo Domingo and Tia Tatiana school is a beacon of hope to families in this area. We walked with Oswaldo, the community youth pastor, and visited some local families in their homes--most of which were no bigger than two rooms. In the home our group visited, we met a woman and her husband. The woman had broken her leg and couldn't leave the house. She was so grateful for our visit and asked if someone would read from her Bible the first chapter of Genesis. Elizabeth, who is fluent in Spanish, gladly obliged. When we left, the woman told us in Spanish that she wished this kind of visit could happen to her every day. Back at Tia Tatiana School, Jay was in the kitchen, that we had refurbished on our last CC trip. He was joined by some of our CC team members along with two of the women who cook at the school. The menu, back by popular demand from our last two trips, was Almuerzo Favorito de Nick (Nick's Favorite Lunch: chicken and broccoli pasta) for the 6th-12th graders. Those of us not in the kitchen did art projects with the kids in the younger grades and had discussions with the high school students about perseverance and what it takes to accomplish your goals.
Tuesday, March 13: First there was the obligatory stop at Jumbo to buy the paint, brushes, gloves, masks and anything else that might be needed for today's mural painting and repairs that we were tackling at the school the children from the Remar Orphanage attend. In addition to educating the kids at the orphanage, there's a preschool on the ground floor of the school that serves the local community... located just off the side of the highway and across from the rocky shore of the ocean. Our best guess is that this "school" was once a 2-story motel. The CC team split into 2 groups--one working on the murals and the other on the construction project to tear down the moldy curtains and update the community area with new siding, walls, and to repair the wood floor on the stage. The work was hot, sweaty, and exciting to see the transformation we were making for the children, teachers, and VT staff. Tonight's reward for our hard work was dinner at a NEW Provocon restaurant...a DR must on every trip! No longer were we all sitting eye level with the upper deck of the highway to eat our favorite Dominican chicken. This new Provocon location was very upscale and equally delicious AND much closer to the mission house. We still can't figure out what makes that wasacaca (yep...that's what it's called) sauce so good when its poured over the yucca!
Wednesday, March 14: Our last day with Fr. Richard and the day we had to finish all the work at the Remar school. It was so fun to be working while the kids were around us at the school--although they kept the preschoolers home since we still had paint cans everywhere. The murals were coming along beautifully and, with the help of some of the older boys from the orphanage, the renovations to the community area were nothing short of transformational. Just as we were seeing the effects of our labor we were realizing the transformational effect it was having on all of us. Being surrounded by children and dedicated teachers and staff who live so simply-- and feeling their love, joy, and appreciation was all the encouragement we needed to tough out the heat and stick with our tasks. We were also able to celebrate our gratitude --as well as pray for the new niece of our team member, Melissa, who came into the world today-- at a Mass we shared at the end of the day in the almost-finished community area. There was some concern on VT's part that if any of the locals were to see the celebration of a Catholic Mass, they could be confused as to the affiliation of VisionTrust. Those concerns fortunately seemed to dissipate and we were cognizant of waiting until the children and teachers had all left for the day. It was joyful to have some of the VT staff who had worked with us throughout the day join us in the service. It was truly a meaningful culmination of having the honor of Fr. Richard with us as he was leaving the next day. That evening we had a big pizza party with the children at the orphanage. It was also Josue's and Bianca's birthdays which made it an even bigger celebration. Pizza is such a big deal for the kids at the orphanage as dinner is typically rice and beans. When you add cake to the celebration...this was a rare treat and, for us, another special moment of community. Although I haven't mentioned it, you might be wondering...everyday we also paused for lunch lovingly packed for us in a big cooler by the mission house staff. And every morning we started the day with a hearty Dominican breakfast at the mission house. And water!!!! Lots of it!!! ALWAYS PURIFIED and transported to wherever we were in a big orange water cooler filled with purified-water ice.
Thursday, March 15: This was our day to be tourists. We went to the Colonial Zone established by the brother of Christopher Columbus upon Christopher's discovery of the "New World." This is the spot where he first came ashore. We toured the oldest cathedral in the New World (which you can read about in other entries) and, after saying good bye to Fr. Richard who headed to the airport, we headed to the beach. It was the perfect way to wrap up our last full day of the trip with a relaxing afternoon floating in the clear turquoise Caribbean water with a light breeze in the air and a shady canopy under which to take a well-deserved nap, if one so chose. On the way home it was dinner at Salt and Pepper, another DR regular spot, where they barbecue amazing hamburgers in an open air restaurant. Back at the mission house that evening we all walked to Bravo...the mega-supermarket nearby... and bought bags of coffee to bring home and treats to enjoy over our final group session of sharing the impact the trip had on each of us.
Friday, March 16: After spending time with our videographer and everyone having a chance to share their reflections on the week (see video below), we loaded onto the bus with our suitcases full of clothes longing for the washer and our hearts full of love longing for another day to be with the kids. On the way to the airport we stopped just outside the Colonial Zone for a 1-hour shopping excursion at the mercado where every type of Dominican-made item can be found among a maze of stalls. It seemed too soon to be leaving, and in our hearts we carry the hope that we'll be back... maybe even some of these incredible young people will be with us as well...we had 2 returnees...Elizabeth and Josue...on this trip! Who's in for next March?
Before boarding the bus...one last videographer session to share parting thoughts on our life-changing experiences.