The Dominican Republic, known by most Americans for little more than its love of baseball, produces far more people living below the poverty line than it does people who make it to the Major Leagues. Through the Students International organization, my youth group was able to travel to the Dominican to aid the underprivileged in different occupational sites such as healthcare, education, dentistry, special education, and construction. I came to the country with wild fantasies about being the Super Christian Girl who singlehandedly transforms the lives of the “poor, hopeless natives” of the island. Little did I know that these “poor, hopeless natives” were living in an abundance that was rare in the States: an abundance of joy. My time on the education site, a preschool in Jarabacoa, taught me about the true meaning of joy.
We arrived at the site on Monday. The school was a blue, one room building with concrete floors and preschooler-sized tables and chairs. The yard contained a small swing set, a yellow slide covered in a thick layer of dirt and grime, and a concrete deck with a plain wooden roof. The small, fenced-in schoolyard had nothing extraordinary about it—what made it unique was its students, who ranged from ages three to eight. From practically the minute my teammates and I had arrived, the kids were hanging on us, playing with our hair, battering us with questions, chasing us around, begging us to push them on the swings, and jumping on our backs yelling “¡Caballito!” (“Little horse!”). The atmosphere was one not only of chaos and energy, but of immediate acceptance. Over the two weeks, after countless piggyback rides, games of tag, attempts at conversation (none of us were fluent in Spanish), and wrestling matches, I had developed a unique bond with these kids. One thing about them especially stuck out to me: all the pictures I had seen of children living in poverty were pictures of hopeless, desolation, sadness. These children, who were considered fortunate if they received one meal a day, possessed endless amounts of energy and joy.
The end of the two weeks saw the graduation of the six eldest students. I and my teammates spent hours decorating the chapel with banners, ribbons, and balloons for the graduation ceremony. We even sewed the caps and gowns! The white-washed walls of the small, one-room chapel were made festive with the blue and green decorations and the concrete floor was covered with white folding chairs. When the children and their parents arrived in their finest clothes, chattering and laughing excitedly, the room brightened even more. The parents beamed as their children went up, one by one, to receive their paper diploma. Even families whose children were not graduating came to support their friends. The environment of the room was one of love, joy, and celebration. No one looked bored and no one was wishing they were somewhere else.
After contemplating on my weeks in beautiful Jarabacoa, I realized why these impoverished Dominicans seemed so joyful. In America, we base our happiness on material goods and worldly success. The culture of the Dominican Republic, however, places great value on relationships. Dominicans find their joy in developing relationships with one another, as demonstrated by the children on the playground and the families at the graduation ceremony. Perhaps if we Americans make bonding with one another a priority, we will find true joy as well.
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