St. Mary Catholic Secondary School in Hamilton, Ontario is proud of the tradition that has been established of building homes and making a difference for poor families in the mountainous Ocoa Region of the Dominican Republic. This tradition is known as the St. Mary’s D.R.E.A.M.S. (Dominican Republic Education and Medical Support) Program. I had the privilege of accompanying fifteen Grade 12 students as a teacher chaperone during the 2010 March Break. The March Break D.R.E.A.M.S. trip was a truly life-changing experience. Despite our travel woes, to and from Santo Domingo, the students experienced the best that the Dominican Republic had to offer. The community of Los Tramojos accepted us the moment we arrived. The students truly made a difference to the local community not just from the work they did on the house, but from the bonds built between us and the children and families in the community. Seeing the happiness and unconditional love shown from the local people to our entire group made the trip a huge success. Making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate and experiencing their way of life opened our eyes to what is really going on in other parts of the world. To be able to help the people of Los Tramojos was a very rewarding experience for us all.
Our Principal, Emidio Piccioni, also traveled on the March Break D.R.E.A.M.S. trip as a supervisor with our students. He says, “Our students often state that they received far more than they could ever give to the Dominican people. For this gift of generosity, of spirit, and pure love received from the Dominican people by the D.R.E.A.M.S. participants we are forever thankful.”
The stories that follow are some personal reflections of the trip from the experiences of our St. Mary’s students.
D.R.E.A.M.S. Reflection by Shauna Jayaseelan
“Soniaaa, mi amigaaaaa” (“Shauna, my friend,” for those who struggle with Spanish as much as I do) is a phrase that still rings in my ears. I do not think it is even possible to confine the D.R.E.A.M.S. experience to a paragraph, or anything on paper for that matter, but I will try my very best to portray some highlights of the trip.
The picture of waking up to a vast mountainous landscape is an image that will remain ingrained in my memory forever. If you cannot picture it, think Avatar only ten times more vivid. Imagine the sound of booming Spanish beats, of the children’s laughter, of bicycles roaming, or of many synchronized roosters carrying out a not so soothing morning wake up call. The image of babies running after a bubble floating by, of locals serenading the D.R.E.A.M.S. crew with song, or of random goats lying in the most inconvenient of places—these were all typical encounters within the quaint village of Los Tramojos.
Surpassing anything our senses could have detected, was the amount of love and gratitude that was poured out from the moment the people of Los Tramojos laid eyes on us. The community atmosphere was like no other. To build a house, people from far and wide (half of them being strangers) would stop whatever they were doing just to lend a helping hand. Yet I, being brought up in such a blessed country as Canada, so often forget to hold the door open for those behind me. It brought tears to my eyes to see these small children walking around on the rough ground, with cuts, bruises and dirt coating their feet. With the little they had, whether it was a flower or a candy, they gave it joyfully. It was as if saying thank you was never enough to express their gratitude. Little did they know the life lessons they taught us were in need of a far greater thank you that neither words nor actions could offer. The strenuous work required to build a home was nothing in light of the goal we aimed to reach. We silently admired while the villagers placed the rooftop over our 7-day masterpiece.
Of these beautiful people, our cook Santa touched me deeply. From the break of dawn, she would prepare the most scrumptious meals I have ever eaten, dare I say even better than any Big Mac I have tasted. After our “missing luggage for 3-days” incident, another amazing woman Jackie, offered to wash and dry all of our clothes so that we could be fresh for the next morning. Lastly, who could forget “mi el hermano” (my brother) Ricardo, without whom this trip would have lacked sporadic dance lessons and hilarious Spanish slang. I felt each person embrace me as if I was part of their family. What a phenomenal family to be a part of: a faith-oriented, selfless, fun-loving, gentle, hard-working, and compassionate one, who exemplified the life of a Christian, and what it truly means to live out “faith expressing itself in love.” The beauty of D.R.E.A.M.S. is that we can go in with a desire to bring about change, and that is a given, but at the end of the day it is we who undergo the most change.
D.R.E.A.M.S. Reflection by Scott Mallon
Words cannot begin to describe the incredible adventure called D.R.E.A.M.S. It was an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. Before we left I tried to predict what our time in the Dominican would be like. I could never have imagined the generosity and love shown to me from the people of the Dominican. From the moment we stepped off the bus at the convent, I felt like we were a part of their community. They immediately wanted us to be their friends. The first game was baseball. Using a bat and a broken tennis ball, they transformed their recess into the World Series. It was nothing like I had ever seen before.
This is what was so amazing about these people. They have a passion for life that you will struggle to find anywhere in North America. They had so little but yet they were enjoying themselves more than any Canadian ever could. Every day they wake up in their tiny shacks and eat whatever food they can find, yet they are the happiest people in the world. Their generosity is also overwhelming. These people who own so little will give you any of their few possessions to try and make your day better. While working one day, one of the mothers came and gave each of us a candy that she had bought. This was when I realized just how wonderful the Dominicans are.
Not only did I become close with the Dominicans, but I also made friendships with the people on my trip that I will have for the rest of our lives. We shared with each other things that no other people will ever know or be able to relate to. We experienced this amazing trip together and it brought us all closer together.
When we arrived back in Canada I hoped that the Dominican life would continue, but when that did not happen, I was not troubled. I knew that I could bring the spirit of the Dominicans into my life and into the life of others. By doing so, I could have the same impact on my friends and family as the people of the Dominican Republic had on me. The ability to put other people before myself, to share what I own with the people in my life, and to live my life to the fullest every day are all things that I could continue to do. The Dominicans left an imprint in my life that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. They welcomed us as a part of their community and we left as a part of their family.
D.R.E.A.M.S. Reflection by Sarah Swiderski
Spending a day with the people of the Dominican Republic is enough to make anyone come to realize what really matters in life. It is not anything material. It is not any of the things that we spend most of our time worrying about in Canada. What matters most is love, community and compassion.
When greeted by smiling faces and warm embraces in every direction, by people I had only just met, I learned what a true welcome is. The people of the small town of Los Tramojos loved us before they met us. I came to learn that it was not so much what we could do to help with building a house (because they were quite capable of doing that themselves) as much as it was our presence that made a difference. Simply being with them and showing them that we cared for them was what mattered most to our new Dominican family.
Of all of the things I learned and experienced during our D.R.E.A.M.S. trip, the children were the ones to affect me the most. I do not think that I have ever met such generous children before. They would wait for us in the mornings at the worksite with flowers and tried to give us whatever little gifts they could find or make for us, even though they have so little. Holding my hand, they pulled me forward when I was ready to give up as we all climbed a mountain. They were always eager to jump in and help with the work on the house as well and work side by side with us. Though we knew very few of the words to communicate what we had to say, we understood that we were friends, that we cared for each other and that we would miss each other very much when the time came to leave.
The Dominican people showed us happiness, open-heartedness, how to appreciate, how to hope, and so many things that cannot even be put into words. My experience in Los Tramojos has changed how I see the world. It is no longer a place with problems that I can only hear about from the comfort of my sturdy house or school. There are people everywhere—some who have more and some who have less. Even though it is easy to forget about those other places where life is not as easy, the reality is that we all share one world. We can impact change on problems like poverty, which may seem too big at times for us to take on, even if we help just a few people. Those are a few less people who have gone with their troubles uncared for.
Though we only spent a short while in the Dominican Republic, I left the island a different person than when I arrived, changed for the better. If everyone could live life a little more like the people of Los Tramojos their lives would be enriched in every way. I will never forget the week we spent in the Dominican Republic and what the people there taught me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR & EDITOR
Chiara Salvatore, Author
Chiara Salvatore is a teacher at St. Mary C.S.S. in Hamilton, ON.
Kristin Stawiarski, Editor
Kristin Stawiarski is a DREAMS participant.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s September 2010 issue.