Dozens of Dominicans filed onto the old bus, sobbing and holding on to our hands for as long as was physically possible. Tears filled my eyes. I had no idea that by joining VISIONS, a teen service organization, on a trip to the Dominican Republic, I would be led to some of the best friends I have encountered in my life. I had no idea that three weeks of helping people in a foreign country would allow me to get to know them better than normal and share not just a piece of their daily lives, but a piece of their hearts as well.
I lived in an apartment an hour from Santo Domingo with twenty-one other people, eighteen of them being teenagers ages 14-17. I became close with not only them, but with the people in Elio Franco, our neighborhood. Children with home-made kites in hand, adults walking down to the nearest colmado(corner store), and animals scavenging for food roamed the streets, waving as they walked passed. We were accompanied by friendliness everywhere we went, but nothing compared to the batey in San Luis, where we worked every day. Running a kids camp where we taught subjects such as English, Art, Sports, and Games, gave me a whole new perspective on children around the world and how, despite different clothes or languages, they are ultimately the same- they all just want love and friendship. These kids and the teen ayudantes (helpers) became my best friends. Our skin color or our clothes or our inability to speak their language properly didn’t change the fact that they wanted to be our friends. They would accompany us down to the worksite less than a mile away to help build a community center for their batey.
Splitting up and going to the ayudantes’ houses to experience a couple of hours in the life of a poor Dominican was probably one of the best things I have ever. I walked down the muddy streets while Yenifer and Carolina, two of the happiest, most bubbly girls I had ever met became shy and told me that their house was “ugly” and “small”. When we arrived I saw what they meant. Their house was no more than 20 feet by 20 feet, held together by old pieces of wood nailed to rusting squares of tin. Packed dirt served as their floor and there was no room to walk when you were inside. When we arrived, however, I also saw that all of that didn’t matter to me at all. Their monetary value did not change anything in my eyes, except to maybe make me respect them even more. When I told Yenifer this, she hugged me tightly and said “Eres una buena amiga,” or in English, “You are a good friend.”
Those words and that embrace warmed my heart like no words or embrace ever had before. In that instant I realized that doing tasking physical labor and working with dozens of kids who acted like little energizer bunnies every day was completely worth it. The buckets of sweat, the difficulty of being immersed in a completely different culture and of speaking a second language constantly, and the hours of work it took beforehand to raise money for the trip were all infinitesimal trials in comparison to the mountain of friends I made, the knowledge I accumulated, and the feeling of accomplishment I gained. No obstacle of money or a language barrier will ever keep me from doing something because I have realized that in the end, the payoff is so worth it.
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