Making art out of trash in Guatemala? Building houses for the poor in the Dominican Republic? I don’t think I ever would have guessed my life would look like this a year ago. But here I am, arriving back in the States from my second adventure in 7 months; this one much shorter than the 6 months I spent in Guatemala-
6 days in the Dominican Republic. 1 day of traveling and organizing. 1.5 days of children. 2.5 days of building houses. And 1 day of fun! It’s amazing how quickly such a trip goes by, especially after spending such a long time in Guatemala (That went quick too!), but short time does not equal low impact.
This trip was an amazing experience. As usual, I only wished it could have lasted longer, but I was grateful for a little pick-up to get me out of the long-lasting, what-do-I-do-now post-Guatemala depression. This little trip gave me the encouragement that I can go back to Guatemala one day and it could be one day sooner than I thought! In fact, now I might have to go back to Guatemala AND the Dominican!
There’s just something about putting all your little worries aside and completely devoting all your time and energy to something BIGGER. My phone was left in my hotel safe for probably all of about 2 hours the whole trip (I checked things at breakfast every other day to make sure I didn’t come home to 900 emails and facebook notifications, but compared to checking every few hours or more often like I do in the States? I think that’s a big success). And no minute ever felt wasted.
We arrived at our hotel on Tuesday the 28th with enough time to organize all the bags and bags of donated toys, clothes, books, etc. that we lugged along as checked baggage. We separated donations for the Mendoza School, the family for whom we were building the house, and the Haitian refugee village that we would visit later that week.
That night, we had dinner on the YWAM (Youth with a Mission, the organization through which we worked with to do the home build) base and got to meet all of the other team members that would be helping our group throughout the week. We had fried plantains (done differently than Guatemala and I liked them way better!), some kind of pulled chicken with peppers, and potato salad for dinner and I rather felt that I would quickly come to like this food better than the often taste-less and carb-filled Guatemalan food (Sorry guys, I still love you, I swear!).
Dinner was followed by orientation where we were introduced to the head missionary of the YWAM base and got to learn more about the organization. This guy, Malcom, has given up his life to work with things like this and has not earned a salary in 22 years. He literally relies on donations and fundraising to provide for himself and his family, as they do all they can to give back and work with people who can’t pay them for their help. YWAM has a variety of different mission services, but Homes of Hope was the branch that we would be focused on.
David took the stage after Malcom and shared his past experiences in the DR and teared up telling us how excited he was to have all his friends down here with him. I kind of lived vicariously through him, watching him hug all his old friends on the mission base and encouraging myself that I would get to be this person reuniting with all my friends in Guatemala excited to see me one day.
After David, Malcom’s Dominican wife prayed for us in Spanish and I teared up because I understood everything she said and am still shocked to this day that I speak a second language. It puts so much more into the experience when you can speak the language and I definitely learned that this trip.
That night, we had bonding time in the hotel to get to know the rest of our group. I didn’t learn all the names right away, but I could quickly tell that we were going to have a fantastic team. David purposely assigned us to roommates that we didn’t already know so that we would have to make new friends. The hotel somehow got confused and I ended up with a roommate that was not supposed to be mine, but I was so glad that she was because she ended up being an awesome roommate! Half the time, we ended up not getting to bed early enough because we couldn’t stop talking to each other.
Tuesday at 10 am, it was off to the Mendoza school. If you are wondering who the Mendoza’s are, they are a family who was once in this same position and did not have a home. They had a shack of a school because it was important to them that the children of the community get educated. David’s first home build was to build them a home and it’s amazing to see how much the school has come along since 2012. If you want to read more about them, you can check out the foundation that David started at www.brianpinkfoundation.org and perhaps after this post, you’ll even want to get involved!
We made a pit stop at the grocery store where we split into teams to pick up some last minute donations that were easier to buy in the DR instead of drag on the airplane. I got to assist David in translating, although I quickly came to find that the DR accent was nothing like that of Guatemala. I actually almost felt like I had forgotten my Spanish, but I quickly assured myself that it was only because their accent is so different. Enough was understood to get things done and at least they could understand me well enough. Thankfully, we had Mitch who was our other main translator and has been working in Spanish-speaking countries for 8 years (for more info on how to support him and his family, contact email@example.com), including the DR for some of them. Despite my accent-interpreting inabilities, my translating duties were called upon many times throughout the trip. Proud moments for Lizzie.
Upon arrival to the school, David was warmly welcomed by all the children bringing him drawings they had done to surprise him. Precious moment #3? Oh, who’s counting. I’ll lose count by the end of the post anyways. The warm welcome was followed by snacks we brought for all the children and then it was play day! The rest of the day we spent playing with the kids. A mess of balls and frisbees flying everywhere intermingled with very happy faces.
This day was more of a relaxed day and we had some time to walk out to the beach before dinner on the base that night. Gorgeous, as always.
After dinner, we had music and sharing time again. Again, I was impressed with my Spanish, as I was one of the few that could understand the worship music (But music speaks all languages, so I don’t think that anyone felt left out here). Then David announced that some people would get to accompany Sandro, one of the mission base volunteers, to his urban project called Malecon. For some reason, I was not selected which bummed me out because I was very interested in going seeing as Asociasión Vida in Guatemala also has an urban program, but I was told that it was a really great experience and all the kids really respect Sandro and look up to him and listen to his instruction, which means he’s doing a good job over there. I have no doubts that this is true after meeting the guy.
Sandro is from the Dominican and has an interesting story. His parents were both alcoholics and he kind of grew up in the streets, but never got into things like drugs or alcohol like a lot of people (probably because of his parents). He said his grandmother always dragged him to church and he resented going and would sit with his arms crossed the entire service, until one day he felt the need to go up and dedicate his life to Christ. Funny thing is, he had this friend that helped encourage him in this direction and he was afraid to go up and do it without his friend, so his friend came up with him and ever since that day, he’s never seen the guy again. And no one had ever heard of or seen this “friend” that he had. Now, Sandro is the head of the evangelism sector of YWAM where he works with several local ministries that deal with street kids and the Haitian refugee community. If you want to learn more about Sandro or how to support him, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Day 2. Let the games begin. We had to be awake, carbed up, and ready to leave the hotel by 8:30 am. David had another of his motivational talks on the bus and handed out matching bandanas that we could use however we pleased, but made sure to remind us that these united us as a team and were to be used for all our blood, sweat, and tears so that we could take it home and have a keepsake of the experience and never forget what we did. I’m sure his inspirational speech sounded much better than my explanation of it.
We arrived on the build site around 9 am to a concrete slab and piles of lumber, paint, and power tools. After a quick prayer, the building began. We split into teams and I was left to be the first shift photographer. Kent and I switched out throughout the day taking pictures, as David wanted a camera going all day.
It was amazing to see how quickly things came together. There were people painting walls. There were people cutting lumber. There were people measuring, nailing, drilling. It was such a small area, but there was enough room somehow for 30 people to work. What was really nice about this experience was that they make the family get involved. So the family helps out in the building process and gets to watch as the concrete slab goes from nothing to a home in such a short amount of time. Even some of the neighbors came by to help. The community involvement there was endearing.
The first wall went up quicker than expected and that was the moment when it all hit us that this was really happening. Followed by a round of applause, the rest of the building process started going even faster.
If I was not on photography duty, I was usually on the painting team. I will learn about power tools one day, but it was not the time this trip.
All four walls were up before our well-deserved and needed lunch break. It was amazing. After lunch, we were informed that we were all going to write something on the walls of the house before the dry wall went up. I thought this was a beautiful idea, as we each got to leave a quote of inspiration, a bible verse, or a personal message to help surround the family and the home with blessings.
Once I finished taking photos of this, I had the pleasure of being taken around the community by the Mendoza’s (and Clara, the daughter of the family whose home was being built who loved to follow me around and use my camera) to see the living conditions and the beach. The conditions were not quite like what I saw in the outskirts of Dueñas in Guatemala. Yes, the houses were beat up and built out of scrap wood or tin, but everyone had a lot more property and it was definitely a lot less populated.
David sent us out together because he refused to let me go without a guy. The funny thing was that they called Roberto Mendoza to come back so I was left with his wife and Clara. David was not too happy when he saw Roberto return without us. Sorry for scaring you, David. Everything seemed pretty safe and peaceful to me. Mrs. Mendoza took me up to the ocean and we stood there for a while when a teenage boy approached us and from what I understood had seen some animals farther up.
So we followed him. But then he took us out to the road and away from the beach and I started getting confused. I thought perhaps it was a short cut to another beach. Then we turned a corner of a house to see a group of guys and motorcycles right where he was leading us. Mrs. Mendoza just looked at me and said “Lots of men…..” and I agreed. In trusting her though, I simply followed and she actually continued to follow the guy! I slipped my memory card into my pocket on the off chance someone decided that they wanted my camera, but he actually did end up leading us to animals.. Just not beach animals. He had some chickens and rabbits and little farm animals to which I looked at Mrs. Mendoza and said “David has these animals and I can see them any day, why are we here?” And she agreed and we quickly got out of there and walked back to the beach. I suppose no foreign trip is complete without one strange experience!
Inside walls were being put in upon arrival back at the build site. A second coat of paint on the exterior was happening and the beamers for the roof were being built. I got to join in on painting some of the exterior walls when another pivotal moment in the day happened- the obnoxiously beautiful sound of a tin roof being put over our heads. The day was complete when the roof was up.
5:00 pm and we nearly have a completed house.
David stayed behind after the build while we headed off to the YWAM base for dinner. He had some other business to attend to with some laywers and some landowners in order to get some more land bought for the Mendoza school. Oh yes, we did so much more than build a house this week.
After dinner we got back to the hotel and finally saw David again who decided to have a little pow-ow with us to see what we’d learned so far. We were already having teary-eyed speeches this early on in the trip! When we got to David’s turn, we were informed that they had successfully purchased the new piece of property for the Mendoza school so that they could get started on building their dream of having a playground for the kids. He also had a big speech about how entirely necessary it is to have a group of friends like this that is a support system that will be there to call you on your bullshit and hold you accountable for the things you do in life, someone with whom you can share your deepest woes with and that if he can be that for anyone in the group, he will be. How do I pick such good friends? Truly blessed here. He speaks the truth!
That night, I was going through the pictures on my camera, expecting to delete the ones that little Clara had took in her adventures with my camera. To my surprise, I came to find that this little 9 year old might actually have an eye for photography. I quickly approached David with my discovery and said it would be so great if we could get her a camera and it would only be like $10 a person. I was answered with a “We raised more than we expected so I think we have enough to cover that in our budget. Yeah. We can cover it.” Sweet.
The second day of building was much slower. We mostly just had to do trim, repaint, and add in a kitchen island. I was thankful because I did not feel very well-rested that day. I painted quite a bit in the morning, but I mostly just sat around or did photos the rest of the day until they needed me for something.
During lunch, Pedro (I think his name was) shared with us how doing this mission has changed his life. Pedro is one of the guys in charge of pouring the concrete to prepare the foundation for the house. I loved that this mission really involves locals and teaches them a skill instead of having all foreigners come in and do it for them and then leave them with nothing. It’s really nice to see all the community involvement.
I also got a chance to talk to Saul more that day. Saul was one of the YWAM volunteers who was probably in charge of most of what was going on on the build site. He is from Mexico and has also been doing this a while like Mitch, David’s friend. I got to practice some Spanish (and could understand him much easier than the Domincans) and get some more compliments on my Spanish. I don’t know why, but speaking Spanish could be one of my greatest accomplishments I think I’ve ever done and it feels so amazing to be called upon to translate or to be complimented on my speaking ability. Go do it!
We went out for ice cream that night. I wasn’t entirely impressed, but the presentation of putting it in the skin of whatever flavor it is was pretty awesome.
The last day of the home build was spent assembling furniture and shopping for groceries. I got to participate in the grocery shopping trip with the family and bond with them some more while watching the kids face light up at every single thing in the grocery store. Even corn flakes! They certainly helped us filling our carts to fill up the $300 budget. Then we had another $200 to be spent on clothes. Then we got to sneak off while Saul and the family checked out to buy the surprise toys and camera.
Arriving back at the project, the family was required to stay on the bus while we filled the house with the goodies and had one last meeting. David explained how the home dedication process works and proceeded to hand out a few items that would be presented to the family during the dedication. Teri was given the Bible, Katie got to hand them a frame photo of the build team, Kevin was given the honor of handing over the keys, and David asked me to present them with the camera! It was an honor to participate in being one of the people that handed them a final gift.
When the family was invited up, we stood in a circle and each gave a speech about our experience and how this has affected us. Many were unable to proceed without tears and it was great to see how many lives building a house could change, aside from just the family for whom it was built. I presented the camera, IN SPANISH, and as we got to the end, the family was given the keys and allowed to enter and have a few moments to themselves. Teri heard the little girl scream when she saw the Barbie she wanted laying on her bed.
Once we got to join them in the house, the mom was in tears which was the first time we’d really seen her express any emotion throughout the whole process. She then got her turn to talk and explained that this was a dream come true and she was so truly thankful for each and every one of us that she hoped we all came to visit in her new house again one day.
Clara turned back into her shy self that we met at the beginning of the trip and didn’t know what to say. She was so shy the day we met her and opened up so much running to give us all hugs and stealing the camera and posing for the camera and then went back into burying her face in her moms chest when it was her turn to speak to us. Hahaha.
We got to have some home-cooked Dominican food for lunch that day- rice, potato salad, chicken, and beef. Not bad!
The day was basically done by 1 pm and then we had the opportunity to go off to a Haitian refugee village and play with some needy children for a while. David told Sandro to take me around the village with my camera as well so I could have more photos of the living conditions. The trash there was just awful. The “soccer field” where the kids play was surrounded by mountains of it and I definitely saw a little section of it burning. But the kids were more than joyed to see us come out to play.
A lot of us quickly fell for this little girl that must have had some sort of problem. She seemed to copy us if she did anything at all and she never said a word, but definitely appeared old enough to talk. She couldn’t really catch any balls we threw her and didn’t even seem to understand that she was supposed to, but she was too precious to resist. At one point she caught a ball (from about 1 foot away) and her mouth just dropped as she stood there in shock. Too precious.
Back at the YWAM base, we had our closing meeting and some more worship music from Ricardo, followed by icecream and nachos to have a snack before heading out to dinner. During the meeting, David handed out some more money that was raised and more people ended in tears, including myself with the realization that I can actually make this happen for my life and that all of these people encouraged me that I have nothing to worry about and money should never be the issue.
We ended up building a house, donating over 6 suitcases stuffed full of toys, balls, books, clothes, shoes, etc., buying the family $300 worth of food, $200 worth of clothes, plus some toys and a new camera, donating $500 to support Mitch and his family at their YWAM base in Mexico, $800 to Sandro to send a couple of kids from his Malecon project to school for a year, a new piece of property for the Mendoza school and $400 to have it cleared and help them get started on building a playground, a fridge and blender for the Mendoza’s, $1000 in school supplies, and $50 a piece to support Saul, who is in charge of a lot of the construction for Homes of Hope, Ricardo, Sandro, Eduardo, and Juan (some other mission workers on the base) and paid for 4 of them to join us on the beach trip the following day to give them a break. Success?? I’d say so.
The next day was beach day which I won’t go into too much detail about because it’s not important. It is a blast going to the Caribbean and riding on a giant catamaran and sipping coconut juice in a hammock on the white sand teal waters. But everybody knows that. Oh, and I also got up and danced with some of the Dominicans.
To add to all the learning experiences on this trip and the pride building that came from being one of the few that spoke the language and being the youngest in the build group (Yep, I think minus one or 2, everyone was at least over 30!) I received a message today from a friend I met in Guatemala. One of the girls who had been my housemates for a few weeks let me know that I had inspired her with my travels and that she is now looking into taking a year off from school to go teach English and learn Spanish. Me! I inspired someone. Little me. If any of you knew me before I started making a difference in my life, you would never guess. Or I never would have anyways. If you told me any of this a few years ago, I’d laugh in your face. I am touched to have inspired someone, as this was my goal in starting this blog, and I am excited to see what changes it will make in my own life so that I can continue on inspiring others!
So in closing, I will leave you with the parable of the starfish, a story shared with us by one of our team members, Tara, to keep the positive energy flowing throughout the course of the trip.
One morning, an elderly man was walking on a nearly deserted beach. He came upon a boy surrounded by thousands and thousands of starfish. As eagerly as he could, the youngster was picking them up and throwing them back into the ocean. Puzzled, the older man looked at the young boy and asked, “Little boy, what are you doing?” The little boy responded without looking up, “I’m trying to save these starfish, sir.” The old man laughed and asked “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?” Holding a starfish in his hand, the boy turned to the man and, gently tossing the starfish back into the ocean, replied “Well, I just made a difference for that one!”
So get out there and make a difference. Because you can and because you will love it.
Until my next travels!