Two weeks ago, I traveled with a group of 16 Bucknell students and faculty to the Dominican Republic with a student-led group called ACES for a service-learning trip. I had heard only positive things about alternative spring break trips- these trips change your life- and as a graduating senior, I felt it was my last opportunity to apply for the chance to make a difference and find a new appreciation for everything I take for granted. Extremely unsure of what to expect, I packed up my carry-on and prepared for an adventure.
The Dominican Republic is a small island with rolling hills, tall palm trees and tropical flowers in pinks and reds. The sun seems to shine everyday and the water is the brightest, most vibrant wash of turquoise blues. Goats are tied together in small herds along the streets, nuzzling at the neighboring fruit stands full of bananas and mangos for sale. The radio plays Spanish music that reflects the language and the culture-fast, passionate and full of life. Children play in large groups from even larger families and every household is familiar with a plate of beans and rice. I felt the sincerity and compassion of the people like the sun overhead, a soft warmth that spread across my skin and into my heart. The people I met, the smiles I remember, and the stories I heard were full of suffering, compassion and unbridled hope.
I will break up my experience into a series of small vignettes, mental pictures that lay partially developed in the dark room of my mind. I hope to share them so the pictures, in all their beauty, will materialize for you as they did for me.
Vignette 1: Food Drive
We are standing in a single file line, leading from the back of the house up to the high metal gate. The straps of the bag-heavy with beans, rice, pasta, and cooking oil-dig into the skin on my hands. I can feel my palms tense and beads of sweat begin to form under the shadow of my sunglasses. The sun beats down on the faces of the women, children, and young men who wait on the opposite side of the fence. They stare at us with large brown eyes and I look down at my feet, wondering why I am here and they are there.
Last night, the ACES group had made almost 200 food packages with measured Ziplock bags of rice and sugar, giggling and jamming to music into the night. The seriousness of our mission was realized as we counted bags and prepared for the morning activities. Some families will not get a bag, one of the group leaders tell us. We don’t have enough to go around.
The food drive coordinator calls out names to come and receive their bag. One by one, the empty hands and hungry mouths appear before me. These are the neediest people in the community. Everyone will not get a bag. I feel ashamed.
Children are everywhere. They play and joke but it is mid-morning, the time most children should be in school. Here in the Dominican Republic, school is not an entitled right but a treasured privilege. I am reminded of my own academic trajectory, the assumption that I would always go to a premiere American university. The distance between my dusty flip-flops and the small pink sandals of the girl standing behind the fence seem miles apart. She reaches her fingers through the holes in the fence and scuffs her feet. We are worlds away and close enough to touch.
After the drive, we take some time to walk through the community. The stream bed next to the houses is dry and caked in discarded food wrappers and plastic bottles. People are friendly and I speak to some children using my limited Spanish phrases. The girls give shy smiles and tell me their names. Before we get back on the bus, a couple of girls sneak up next to me and request a photo. I ask Phil to take some pictures of us and he obliges. They giggle and laugh at one another. I feel both warmed by their joy and angry at my helplessness.
As the bus rumbles away, I want to yell, “Stop, we have more to do! We have more people to help!” But I sit in silence as the houses disappear beyond my sight. I am reminded that there are always people who need our help, who deserve to know they are worthy and deserving of a life free from suffering. It is our job to never give up the belief that our small acts of kindness make a difference. Like water droplets, our seemingly invisible actions, when combined, make up an ocean of possibility.
Photos by Phil Kim ’12.