A week. That’s all I had: a week to experience a new culture, a new world, a new perspective. I assumed that the geography, culture, and people of other countries would be wildly different. What else was I to think? My perspective of life was confined to the boundaries of my red, white, and blue nation. The rest of the world was a mystery to me. It wasn’t until I landed in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic for a service trip that my perception changed.
As soon as I stepped foot onto the elementary school grounds, Escuela Boca de Jamao, a plethora of children crowded around the front gate. My heart raced with excitement as I thought about our purpose: to empower children of the Dominican Republic. As day one concluded, our group returned to the Blue Moon Retreat to reflect on our experiences and observations about this country. Elated to explain what I observed, I waited patiently for my turn. The first person spoke about how tin houses covered this poverty-stricken community. I hadn’t noticed that. The next person explained that the country had heaping amounts of trash piled in the streets. I hadn’t observed that either. As we continued around the circle, my confidence in what I perceived chipped away piece by piece.
I did not speak that night. I did not realize how blind I was to my surroundings. Too embarrassed to explain what I saw that day, I fell asleep with tears streaming down my face.
As the sun rose the next day, I was determined to view this country through my peers’ eyes, but I couldn’t. Although trash and tin houses were visible from every street corner, the poverty was only a tiny aspect hidden in the bigger picture. Instead, I decided to help them see this country through my eyes. During our break, I did something odd yet normal for a quirky person like myself: I danced the chicken dance. These children had never learned it. They smiled and laughed as I jumped around and flapped my wings as my peers watched from afar. Eventually, all the children dispersed except one. In his hand, he held a paper airplane, carefully crafted minutes earlier. At that moment, the child did something that I will never forget. He threw it at me. Not as an accident. He threw it at me. Before I knew it, the kids were laughing and throwing airplanes at me, and that was the beginning of the paper airplane wars. I fell to the ground, screaming and laughing as the chaos ensued. I noticed my peers laughing and starting to rise, allowing themselves to be drawn into the game. The light I had seen the day before was shining, and looking into my peers’ eyes, I knew that they were finally seeing it too.
I am aware that most people think of poverty when they hear the Dominican Republic; however, when I visited, I saw something completely different. Every day that we walked to the school, the children waited for us with eyes filled with joy. They were simply…happy. They did not care that they lived with less than what we had in America. They did not need wealth and material items to be happy. They were happy. That week, I realized that countries are unique in their own ways, that each culture is different; yet, even with these differences, the people are all the same. They are happy, passionate, and proud of the life they live.
A week. That’s all I had: a week, but I only needed a day.
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