Three and a half years ago, I graduated from college, packed my bags and hopped on a plane for the Dominican Republic en route to a home called Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos. I knew I wanted to do volunteer work, but I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had found the organization online about six months earlier and thought it sounded like a good fit. It met my three simple requirements for the service year I planned on doing: working with children in a Spanish-speaking country and a faith-filled environment.
Before long, I was hooked. I remember my very first day at the home and how one of the special needs girls ran up to me giggling away as she lovingly tackled me with a bear hug. Since I was walking into a life where not even one face was familiar to me, I vividly remember how welcoming that hug felt. I also recall my second day there, Three Kings Day, and how I was allowed to choose the house I would get to work with (although looking back, it was actually them who chose me). I ended up in Casa Santa Ana, a house of twenty rambunctious teenage girls all hitting the age of puberty. After about six months of my patience being constantly tested by these girls, they started to trust me and open up. I sat by these girls’ sides for hours as they talked about their boy crushes, their absent family members, their plans for the future and many other things; as they opened their hearts to me, I found myself doing the same with them. Before long, the thought of leaving after a year became unbearable, and I decided to extend my time there for another eight months.
As my second Three Kings Day with the girls came and went, I realized just how hooked I had become. What had felt foreign in every sense of the word just 365 days earlier, now felt familiar, comfortable and most importantly, right. I had twenty new hermanitas who meant the world to me. Months later, as my time abroad came to an end, I was forced to do the hardest thing I have done yet in life – say goodbye to these newfound family members. I am usually a person who keeps her emotions in check, but with this life event, I wasn’t able to. Even reflecting on those goodbyes a couple years later gets me choked up once again.
However, as many people told me, it wasn’t an adios (goodbye), but rather an hasta luego (see you later). And that was true. Since that difficult departure, I have been blessed to be able to go back and visit once or twice a year. I send letters to Casa Santa Ana every month, and I’m now sponsoring one of those twenty girls who hold such special spots in my heart. I’m also an active member on the NPH Upper Midwest Associate’s Board where I get to spend time with other young adults who possess the same strong connection I feel towards NPH. We host fundraising events and find every means possible to share this piece of our hearts with friends and family in Minnesota.
When I think of how important NPH is to me, a million different faces, moments, and memories come to mind. I remember things from my first day in the Dominican Republic three and a half years ago all the way to the conversation I had with my parents’ NPH godchild yesterday, on the day of his graduation from high school. In the end, I realize that NPH has not only changed me, it is me.