11 Apr Connecting in Dominican Republic
At 36, I was feeling disconnected and lonely. Working alone in my home office didn’t help so to feel like part of a community, I decided to volunteer at a women’s shelter once a week. On one particular winter afternoon, I arrive to find only one woman waiting for me.
As a writer, I try to help women dealing with homelessness or abuse to write about their life experiences, whether it’s a poem or a story. Today, Jany had written a poem. I read it over and make some spelling corrections on the side of the paper. She doesn’t want me to correct it. I tried to explain that readers won’t understand the words if they’re misspelled. I was losing my patience. She takes back her work.
I left feeling sour– I volunteered hoping to make a difference with a woman’s life and to feel connected. I wanted just one woman to tell me I had helped change her life-perhaps to validate myself. But nothing was clicking the way I wanted. On the drive home I felt lonelier than ever, and now, I could add cold-hearted to the list because I didn’t want to return.
In November 2008, knee deep in marking papers-I teach writing at the University of Western Ontario–I got an email from the Alternative Student Break program that sends students and faculty on volunteer trips: did I want to chaperone students for a week? My wanderlust was immediately piqued-I love to travel–but my second instinct was to wonder how this responsibility might restrict my routine: could I go for my morning run? I stopped myself. I was already putting limits on how much I was going to give and I hadn’t even left Canada. I was so used to living only for myself, I think I forgot how to give without conditions.
I signed up, immediately. I was hoping a change of scenery could help me step outside of myself.
I would be leading a group of UWO students participating in Alternative Student Break, a program offered at Canadian colleges and universities. Students volunteer in needy countries during the week of their spring break. They might build houses in Louisiana with Habitat for Humanity, or offer medical services in Peru. I was chosen to teach English to abandoned children in the Dominican Republic. With 80 per cent of children dropping out of school by grade five, these kids can only look forward to a succession of low-paying odd jobs. But those who learn English could earn more working at resorts or work for tourist companies. My partner joked: “don’t come home with a kid.” This made me wonder: what if I became too attached to a child? I wasn’t prepared to have my guts ripped out, emotionally.
At midnight on a crisp February night, lugging two backpacks-one full of donations full of crayons, toothbrushes and towels–I and 26 others left Canada excited and full of hope. Twelve hours, two buses and two planes later, we arrived in Monte Cristi, a dusty little town near the Haitian border, far from the all-inclusive resorts.
As we drove through the walled and guarded orphanage, protected from vandals and thieves looking for food and supplies — the kids lived well by comparison to many locals. Inside, beside a building still under construction, children played in a bleak looking basketball court-a concrete slab near a muddy field.
We were exhausted, but we gravitated to the kids. Most could only speak Spanish. I watched as UWO student Alex Forsyth, 20, from Western locked eyes with a little girl. The girl chased the ball from Alex. They were instant friends. I stood on the edge of the court, watching, feeling self-conscious about approaching the kids. I turned to get ready for bed. I was disappointed with myself for giving up so early, but I rationalized: there’s always tomorrow.
As I made my way to the washrooms, I noticed a little girl playing hairdresser with a bunch of our students’ hair –she moved from head to head making lopsided ponytails. I pulled out some Canadian stickers. Two-year-old Ashley pointed to the stickers, then her belly. I placed one over her belly button and she smiled. When someone grabbed a camera, Ashley gives a thumbs- up. I made an instant connection with this little person and all it took was some stickers. I went to sleep in my bunk bed, under my mosquito netting, feeling light hearted.
Ashley was abandoned so her history, even birthday, are a mystery. Of the 42 children at the orphanage, some arrive from abusive homes, but the majority arrives because parents can’t afford to raise them. The children have better lives than most kids outside the orphanage gates: the non-orphans get the standard few hours schooling in the morning, but the orphanage continues school in the afternoon.
We fall into a routine pretty quickly: we walk to Regina TK in the morning and teach the teenagers for an hour, and in the afternoon, we teach the younger ones at Bella Vista. The rest of the day is spent preparing and getting ready for the next day’s lesson.
The Orphanage Outreach program, our hosts, is the Dominican students’ only exposure to consistent English classes and most of the country’s regular teachers only speak Spanish. When we leave, another Outreach group of volunteers will come in and pick up where we left off.
Our group of 27 is broken into smaller groups of five or six UWO students; there’s no one leader. We’re all responsible for jumping in and teaching during the hour. We tried delegating who teaches what — but as we soon realized, that plan went out the window, the first day.
After our breakfast of fried plantains, a Dominican specialty, we walked to the school careful not to step in the vile lime-green sludge that runs over the ruts in the dirt roads. It appears to be algae that has morphed into radioactive material because of the garbage. In the yards tattered plastic bags and dented plastic water bottles litre the muddy lawns–its more mud than grass. Despite this decay all around them, day-after-day, the locals are always smiling. I could hear women singing.
“Hola” we yelled to women sitting outside one-room shacks; locals hang out on their porches until an odd job comes around. Two-year-old Danny ran out of his house. Naked from the waist down, he was standing behind barbed wire fencing. Photo? He asked. We learned that his father was murdered; he smiled so innocently and we melted. Next, we came across a group of girls dressed in their blue school shirts. Photo? With hands on hips, they posed and then ask to see the picture. Without access to digital cameras, they’re enthralled to view themselves right after taking a picture.
The school doesn’t look any better than the streets: the paint on the concrete walls is chipping and the razor wire bordering the walls looks ominous. Walking into the grade eight class, 40 teenagers watched us intently; they’re used to foreigners coming in almost every week.
My heart was pounding. Our group of five UWO students prepared our lesson the night before, but as the teacher left, chaos took over. Teenage boys whistled and asked for kisses. Wiktoria Kagen, 20, a Western student who speaks Spanish, took charge. “Open your books,” she yelled and demonstrated. I mimicked what she was doing and walked around the classroom, opening notebooks.
We motioned for the kids to copy the names of fruit from the board. As I was walking around, I noticed a wanna-be gangster sporting a gold cross hiding his book-he’d drawn a penis. Minutes later, the kids packed up and walk out before the class is over. I felt deflated. I felt like writing them off; did I come this far to get this reaction? The teenagers reminded me of the women back at the shelter-when it became challenging, when Jany didn’t want help, I gave up too early.But, I was determined to get through to these kids, and make them respect me.
We were told this region has the worst school system in the western hemisphere, outstripping even Haiti’s, where resources are even scarcer. There’s no organized curriculum in the schools and when the children leave school, they might end up working odd jobs for their parents. On the second day I saw a kid from my class shining shoes on the street. I wanted to scoop him up and take him home.
It doesn’t help that teachers are not respected, well-paid, or sometimes, the best role models. When a little boy pulled one of our student’s hair, the Dominican teacher dismissed it: “He’s Haitian. That’s to be expected because they’re darker.” I was shocked at the overt racism.
At night, our entire group reflected on the first day. Part of the ASB program, and my job as a leader, involved team builders, exercises meant to get to know one another, and games to discuss our personal challenges and thoughts. I didn’t want to admit openly that I didn’t want to see the teenagers again.
But, something happened. Others revealed their frustration: Why won’t they listen? The UWO students wondered. Passing the flashlight, each person said one word that summed up how we were feeling: impatient, overwhelmed, contemplative, amazed, emotional, motivated, relieved. I said ‘connected.’ I realized that even though the class was unruly and the racism and poverty shocking, I could relate to the students’ urge to make a difference and it felt good being around such optimism. I hadn’t felt this content in a long time. Our reflections became my favourite part of the day because they exposed these raw truths that I hadn’t admitted back home.
By day three, when the noise started to escalate in our teen class, I tossed the lesson plan (the days of the week) and winged it. I was ready to do what it takes to make them listen. “Monday, Monday, mmmm Mon-day!” The guys at the back repeated my rookie rap. Bingo. I got em. I was seeing progress and it would only get better on our final days left in their country.
On the final day we gave the teens a word search puzzle. To our surprise, they were transfixed, silent. I sat beside a boy and we started to look for words. As I found one, I circled it and showed him. He copied. Then he showed me the ones he found. I surrendered the notion that I was going to change their lives in a week or even make them remember my name, but I still hoped that maybe they could get excited about learning. Progress. Poco a poco-little-by-little.
On our final night, I gravitated towards the concrete basketball court. I didn’t hesitate to start a game of skipping. After a few rounds, one of the girls from the orphanage, about eight years old, hopped up on me, and wrapped her legs around my waist. She rested her head on my shoulder as I walked around. I began to sing and sway her back and forth, as the light faded and the moon became brighter. A warm breeze blew over us. I felt her body go limp-she was asleep. I hadn’t taught her a word of English, but it hardly mattered. We managed to make each other feel loved and needed.
It was hard coming home-I knew this feeling would fade as our group dispersed back to our busy lives.
But, the difference now, after only one week, was my attitude. Not long after the trip, I returned to volunteering. No one was there, so I sat down next to large woman with no hair. I turned to her, ‘I’m Melanie with the writers’ group, want to write something?’ I held out a pencil and a pad of paper. “I’ll write a sentence and you can write the rest of the story,” I suggested. She tucked her head down and wrote furiously; she then read her story to me, stumbling over a few misspelled words. We would probably not become best friends, and I won’t likely change her life, but she came back the next week. Poco-a-poco.
I realized what was blocking me from connecting with these women the ability to truly be flexible and give them what they needed. It reminded me of watching the kids on the playground the first night–I had to put myself out there. And in the end because I took the leap of faith, I learned that showing up every week didn’t mean I deserved anything; you have to earn those kinds of connections.
Orphanage Outreach (www.orphanage-outreach.org)
As a non-profit organization, groups or individuals can apply to spend a week or more in the Dominican; the fee goes towards the running of the English programs and the upkeep of the orphanage.
Alternative Student Break
During Spring Break every year, thousands of students volunteer their time and money to engage in a hands-on service learning experience meant to increase a students’ understanding and involvement in civic responsibilities.