It’s hard to believe we’ve been home from the Dominican Republic for over a month now. As we continue with our summer activities, thoughts of our trip continue to pop into our minds. Often one of my kids will burst into laughter, recalling a funny story. A few times someone has made an astute observation or comparison, sparking a sometimes difficult, but always worthwhile conversation. And regularly, one of us will mention a child from the orphanage - somehow affirming our connectedness to him or her. These connections are now deep within our hearts. The friendships we made with these children are what will keep our experiences alive.
So many of our friends and family have asked us ‘how was the trip?’ It is just so hard for me to put it all into words, because there were so many experiences all rolled into that one week. But for me, the word that I go back to is “grateful”. I am first and foremost grateful that I had the opportunity to experience this as a family. Grateful that NPH exists – we were so impressed with this organization and the care they give to each and every one of their “pequeños”. Grateful that we were welcomed with wide-open arms, allowing us to become part of their family with such ease, if even for a short time. Grateful for the warm and exuberant Dominican culture and people. Grateful for the kind, optimistic and fun group of teens and adults we traveled, worked and played with – we now have an entirely new group of friends. And as a mother, I am grateful for my children’s curiosity and willingness. They were open to every experience put in front of them without hesitation (and for the most part without complaints!). They were all in. Jude, Anna and Violet each loved this trip for their own reasons … and are all asking when we can go back.
Much to our surprise, by the time we arrived in June the pequeños were already on summer break and we happened upon their graduation week. Therefor our chores were more sporadic than expected, so we could participate in the end-of-the-year festivities. I came to see this as a gift. Not because we’d forgo some of our very hot, outdoor chores, but because we really got to be a part of the family. Celebrating with them, allowed us to get to know the children better. We celebrated their achievements and milestones, the way we would at home with our own children. The older children (some of them young women and men now) informally mentor the younger ones in their casas and school – the NPH program is designed this way to build responsibility and unity. And this came alive during the graduation activities, where all ages were celebrated, teaching, building trust, and outlining the expectations and goals for achievement. The baccalaureate mass brought me to tears, as I was so touched by the depth of their relationships. It was easy to witness the love between the priest, teachers, sponsors, “aunties” (the women who live in the casas with the kids), and each of the children. Although a good majority of these children are growing from trauma-ridden pasts and are without families in the traditional sense, they are now fully embraced in a loving, encouraging and safe environment. It didn’t take long for Jude to comment that “these kids were the lucky ones, to be living at NPH.” They had what they needed and were well cared for. Each child had tasty, nutritious food, his or her own bed, clean clothing, means to solid healthcare and education. But just as important, each child now has a strong family, filled with love and security, predictable schedules, expected chores and behaviors … exactly the way Jim and I have tried to cultivate our own little unit here.
Now I’d be lying if I said it was all a breeze. The tarantulas and bugs definitely pushed us out of our comfort zone. The nights of unforgiving heat were like nothing we had ever experienced. But through it all, we were always able to find gratefulness; like how my and Jim’s bunk bed didn’t collapse, even though it was held together by a coat hanger. Recently while making a tomato salad, I thought about how in the garden for hours I peeled and prepped onions to be sold at the next market, and how my fingers smelled ripe for what seemed like days. I smile thinking of how a few bright-eyed boys showed Anna and Violet how to climb so far up, to score the cherries that were too high for anyone else to reach. And how Jim and Jude got the toughest job of moving rocks around the papaya and mango tree trunks for improved irrigation. None of these baby trees were tall enough to provide even an inch of shade and as a result, I have never seen a crew so sweaty! Every evening I went to bed content with a sense of amazement as I replayed the day’s activities in my head – in awe of our little group’s ability to blend so effortlessly with the Casa Santa Ana family. This was God’s hand at work. Exactly how our blended world should be. I loved how all the children, ours and theirs, connected over old-fashioned hand games. Some enjoyed soccer and sports to pass the steamy afternoons, while singing and drawing suited others. There was a lot of hair braiding and some card playing, lots of jokes and even some pranks. Nobody was ever bored. And it was this familiar play that broke down any language hiccups and cultural differences. Our play time spent with the children allowed the very busy “aunties” time to tend to the endless to-do list of any busy home - clean the casas, wash and hang clothes, tend to scraped knees and sibling squabbles. And the pequeños relished the attention. It was all beautifully genuine. We were one, there together, with the gift of time. Our shared joy came from simply spending time together. It reminded me of how simple life can be and my summers as a child spent in Italy. My heart will always swell with the images of Anna and Violet in the midst of post-lunch girl dance parties, Jude being followed by his two little buddies in hopes of a pick-up game of whatever their found ball-type would offer, and Jim’s shared drum session at the graduation dance. There are just too many great memories of the pequeños to list, all leaving imprints on my heart. I promise to always lift these kids up in prayer, as I do my own, and now including all the orphaned, abandoned and disadvantaged children both near and far.
I can’t end this without stating the obvious; I am feeling grateful too that I happened to be born on this little patch of earth and all the opportunities that come with it. I am grateful for the blessings I’ve had all my life, and for the opportunities I have to try to give back, even though my efforts are a mere drop in the sea of need. But it is experiences like this, that change our lives, open our minds and hopefully our attitudes as we go through our daily routines. In reality, the cost of our trip helped advance NPH’s efforts with the children’s homes, hospitals and programs. But now I see that a large part of their effort is bringing people and cultures together, making the world just a wee-bit smaller, shifting our lens from tolerating differences to experiencing our sameness – creating connectedness. To use the words my friend Mara offered me when I returned home, this trip “opened our hearts in a whole new way”. And for that, I am most grateful.