Bellarmine Prep HS students and Fe y Alegria students connect in the Dominican Republic

On July 26th, 2022, 17 students and two teacher chaperones from Bellarmine Preparatory high school in Tacoma, Washington met at the Seattle airport to depart on our way to the Dominican Republic. While at first many of us did not know each other’s names, this soon changed as we all became a family by the end of the trip. 

After changing planes in Miami, we arrived in Santo Domingo in the early afternoon of July 27th. We passed through immigration quickly, and then met our Courts for Kids leader, Marlennis, and our Peace Corps volunteer, Noah. Then after a two-hour bus ride to El Seibo, we arrived at the school we stayed at Fe y Alegria Santa Cruz del Seibo. We were greeted warmly by Sister Ana, who is the principal of the school. Many locals were gathered and handed us paper Dominican Republic flags and danced and sang to welcome us. While many of us do not speak Spanish fluently and many locals do not speak English, this was one of the ways we quickly found to communicate with one another. After being served our first traditional dinner, setting up our mosquito net beds, and playing a quick game of hide and seek tag, our first day in the DR was already finished. 

On Day 2, we got to work building the court. After getting suited up in work gear like gloves, sunglasses, and sunscreen, we met the local construction crew and learned our tasks. Most of these consisted of shoveling sand and gravel into buckets for the concrete mixer, and then pushing wheelbarrows full of concrete into strips on the site. Locals our age came to help too, and on this day, we met a local named Haciel. He speaks English very well and was able to translate for those of us who couldn’t with one another for our whole trip. While on this first day we got to a slow start, the next few days we became more and more efficient with building the court. 

During our lunch breaks, we were served traditional meals each day. These consisted of rice, meat, and vegetables. The first workday, our meal was called La Bandera. During these lunch breaks and during our work breaks, many of us bonded with the locals. Whether this was with young kids or adults, these connections made the trip all the more remarkable. Many of them joined us on all the workdays, so we got to know them well whether we could communicate with or without a translator. Even the simplest games such as rock paper scissors fostered our connections with them. They taught us words in Spanish and we did so similarly with English. By the end of the trip, our Spanish language knowledge had broadened for sure!

Volleyball is one of the most common sports in the Dominican Republic. In our group, Ramsey and Ava took the lead in splitting up teams and getting the locals to join in. Basketball is popular as well, but there was only a hoop on a tree, for them to play on before the court was built. Quick games after lunch or on breaks made the work go much faster. At night, games such as dominoes, cards, and the most popular in the group being mafia. After fake dying in one of our mafia games, we named the court in memorial for Mr. Miller. This started our joke of calling the court Joe Court, which became popular among the group. 

On Day five we finished building the court! This was the biggest court that the Courts for Kids organization had built all year in the DR, which we took great pride in! While everyone worked hard on their respective tasks, we all give a special shoutout to the wheelbarrow guys, Griffin and Alex. Additionally, the local contractor and construction workers in charge of all the tasks worked tirelessly morning through night. The labor was difficult in the sun but being equipped with Pedialyte and sun hats kept us all healthy. On this last day, we brought a speaker and played some of our music as well as suggestions by the locals. Katy Perry encouraged us on our last few hours of work. We all went in on a bet for what time the last wheelbarrow would be emptied. Jonah, from our group, won all the money we put in! However, he kindly decided to give all the money back to the community.

Another fun part of the workdays was our challenges. Each morning, everyone was given a slip of paper by Marlennis with a challenge for the day. Whether this was to learn something specific about the Dominican culture or challenge a local to a race, we had a lot of fun competing them and then sharing at the end of the day. If you didn’t complete your challenge, punishments such as dancing on the worksite pushed us out of our comfort zones in funny ways. 

On day six, Haciel led us on a bus tour of the city, El Seibo. Seeing monuments commemorating the battle of Dominican Republic independence, trying local cuisines such as dulce de leche and Mabi Seibano Champagne, and seeing the brightly colored architecture was incredible. We even went to the Iglesia de la Santisima Cruz de El Seibo, which was a church that had a relic of the actual cross that Jesus died on. There are only three of those relics in the world!

Later that day, we went on a special excursion to the river! The group had been looking forward to this since the first day we arrived. While the water was much warmer than the rivers we are used to in Washington, it was still refreshing. Passing around the volleyball in the water or just floating was a lot of fun. 

The next day, a group of locals that included Maxwell and Javier led us through some challenges. Whether they were drawing, playing sports, or musical chairs, this helped bond the group even more on our last full day at the school. Some of them also walked to the store across the street from the school with us. Here, we used our Dominican pesos to buy local snacks such as Chokis, Hay Hays, or Kola Real. Additionally, at each meal there was fresh fruit juice offered to the group. It was the best juice many of us had ever tasted! Similarly, the mangos, bananas, and pineapple given to us were delicious. A new fruit, called limoncillos, was a fan favorite. 

On the evening of day seven, we had the inauguration ceremony of the finished court. Many locals gathered near the court, where Sister Ana, the mayor, and the senator spoke. From our group, Alex also gave a speech. Through prayer and thanks, we celebrated everyone who made this court a reality. This school had been waiting for this court since before the COVID pandemic, so having it finally done was so special for them all. Even if we couldn’t understand their speech before it was translated, everyone was spilling with emotion and gratitude. After this ceremony, the first games of volleyball, basketball, and soccer were played! Many locals gathered to play or watch with us, and we all had a great time. 

The next morning, we said our goodbyes to our local friends. This was the hardest part, because of the close connections we made with them. We all swapped phone numbers and social medias, and it is a sure bet that we will be staying in contact! Many of them inspired us because of their kindness, hardworking attitudes, and their singing and dancing abilities. While only Josh from our group could dance nearly as well as them, we learned multiple different styles of dance and many songs. Karaoke night was a blast! The Dominican GoGo dance song was a popular favorite, and so was Baby by Justin Bieber performed by our group. We started calling Haciel the Dominican Ed Sheeran because of his pitch perfect rendition of Ed Sheerans song, called Perfect. 

In Santo Domingo, we stayed for one night in vibrantly colored hotel rooms. That day, we also headed to the beach, which was beautiful! Colin said it felt like we were in the Bahamas. Swimming in the incredibly clear and turquoise water was an experience many of us will never forget. Additionally, we purchased items like bracelets and sand paintings from local vendors who were eager to sell them to us. They were even selling the famous larimar stone, which is found only in the Dominican Republic. After this great day, we all sat around in a circle for our final reflection. We went around and each talked about how this trip has changed us, our favorite memories, and more. A common sentiment was how difficult it was to leave the friends we made, as well as our favorite excursions, and pride in finishing the court. We also gave compliments to each person in the group. While many of us had never talked before this trip, we made close friendships that we want to continue back at Bellarmine!

Overall, our Dominican Republic trip was an unforgettable experience! ~Roma Sharkey

For me, the presence of the Courts for Kids in my school was great. In the first place, sharing the goods of each, encouraged us to carry out a project that we dreamed of for a very long time. Seeing it come true joining forces makes me happy and invites me to be grateful. The presence of young people was impressive for me, the strength, if we organize ourselves we can do all we want. I was taught me to keep fighting until God gives me strength and life is worth it. For the staff and students it was a lesson and we learned it for life. Thanks. God bless and multiply all the good you do! ~Sister Ana

Quotes from Bellarmine HS participants:

The world is bigger than I thought, I hope when I am an adult I am able to travel the world a lot. ~Sidney

I feel like a have a much better understanding on how to communicate and build friendships without speaking the same language or sharing the same culture. ~Maya

This trip taught me a lot about my self. Specially that I can be taken out of my comfort zone. This is definitely the most out of my comfort zone and I am grateful to have had this opportunity. ~Ramsey S.

I understand more clear now why these trips are done. It helps not only the locals in the community, but it also helps creating meaningful long lasting relationships with everyone involved. Along this relationships, it also helps you grow! ~Colin W

This trip made me feel more grateful for the things I have. Beating able to have things as simple as a flushable toilet is not something I would be grateful for before this trip. This trip also made want to spend less time on my phone. I felt relaxed without having to be constantly on my phone. ~Josie

I learned from this trip that the world needs more singing and dancing. We were greeted by song then dance and it lasted throughout the week. ~Mary Rink