Dancing and Building: Jesuit New Orleans in Copey, Dominican Republic

During the summer going into my senior year at Jesuit, I went on the Courts for Kids trip to Copey, Dominican Republic to help build a volleyball court for the girls’ volleyball team.  Copey is an Afro-Caribbean village with roughly one thousand people and is about twenty minutes away from the border to Haiti. The Courts for Kids Dominican Republic representative, Natalie Roling, who is one of the greatest people I have ever met, explained to us that in Copey, the boys of the village are generally prioritized when it comes to sports, so the girls did not have anywhere to play. So, they unanimously requested assistance from Courts for Kids to build a court for their team. As we drove to Copey, I looked out the window to see bogs and swamps just covered with litter and the theme music from Schindler’s List began to play in my head. However, the period between our arrival to and departure from Copey was the happiest I had felt in years.

For a week, we resided in a house owned by a family who moved to the U.S. We slept on cots on the ground and draped mosquito nets over us by nailing them into the wall with a rock. The mosquito nets were crucial to prevent not only mosquitoes but also tarantulas and even rats. The Dominican government runs an unpredictable schedule of electricity, so we were quite dependent on our flashlights. About twenty minutes after arrival, a group of guys started playing baseball with some kids in the middle of the dirt road. At first, I would only watch and occasionally retrieve the ball, but at one point, an eight-year-old, Joséniba, dragged me over to his house and gave me a bunch of mangos as a welcome gift. After having a mini-conversation with him, he assumed that I was fluent in Spanish and brought me over to talk to his friends. We talked about our interests and I told them that I could sing and dance, so they asked me to perform a little for them. They enjoyed my eccentric dancing, but they were hysterical when I sang the only Spanish song I knew word for word: “¿Maestro Puedo ir al Baño, Por Favor?” (Teacher, may I please use the bathroom?). Then, every day, they asked me to sing for them, as well as to imitate different kinds of animals.

We began working the day after we arrived. It was some of the hardest, most physically demanding work I ever had to do. Pushing rickety wheel barrows filled to the brim with cement, constantly shoveling rocks, and painting the walls of the court under the hot Dominican sun can take its toll on a man. But eventually, I grew to love it. I loved the self-satisfying feeling of not spilling cement. I loved working with the young men and watching them complete acts of strength that would seem unfathomable to most Americans. I especially loved interacting with both the girls on the volleyball team and the workers during resting periods. I was one of the more adept Spanish speakers in the group, which allowed me to have more conversations with them, as well as help other Jesuit guys with translating when they practiced conversing. We raced, we arm-wrestled, and, my favorite, we danced. I learned a little bit of merengue from the villagers and from Natalie, which led to my proudest moment: when the male villagers gave me my name. In Dominican Republic, they do not always address a person by their first name, but rather by their body shape or their ethnicity. Some of the Blue Jays were called “gringo” (white boy), some were called “alto” (tall), but I was called “bailarín” (dancer).

During my time in Dominican Republic, I learned what it felt like to be a foreigner, to see a part of the world hidden from most people, and to step out of my comfort zone whenever possible. Although my Spanish accent is relatively precise and I had less problems conversing with the people than some of my other classmates, I would still have trouble finding the correct word or sentence structure, as well as not remembering or recognizing a word. I observed how this tested some peoples’ patience, especially children, so I sympathize even more with native Spanish speakers in the U.S. attempting to learn and converse with Americans in English.

To clarify on “seeing a hidden part of the world,” the Dominican Republic’s number one source of income is from tourism. Therefore, most Americans associate Dominican Republic, as well as other Caribbean islands like the Bahamas and Jamaica, with zip lining, coconut cocktails, and honeymoons as opposed to government corruption, illiteracy, and motorcycle accidents (number one cause of death in Dominican Republic). On the other hand, the people of Copey have a sense of enlightenment that most Americans only find in a rip-off yoga class. It is custom in Copey to smile and greet an individual, regardless if you even know that person. They have a saying, “Si Díos lo quiere,” translating to, “If God wills it.” Most of the time in the village, this is just a dictum to help a person deal with the lack of effectiveness from their government or the slow pace it generally takes for something to get done. But when Courts for Kids arrived with money, supplies, and free labor for the court and completed the it in a span of three days, a lot of people saw this phrase fulfilled, including myself. During times when the electricity was out or the cement machine was stalling, our patience and hope was jostled. But we learned from the locals that sometimes you cannot always change or manipulate the circumstances to your advantage. Sometimes you just have to have faith that, if God wills it, it will be done.

Each night after dinner, Natalie would give us a piece of paper with a challenge written on it that we would then fulfill the next day. The goal of this challenge was to have us do something that put us out of our comfort zones. Ultimately, I still completed the challenges, but I also went out of my comfort zone independently. I learned how to play dominoes and dance merengue. I tried cow intestines, plantains, yucca, sancocho, coconut milk, and hot chocolate mixed with oatmeal. I even got lines shaved in the sides of my hair and had my mini-beard shaved with a straight razor. I did not want to have any regrets of not doing anything before I left, and I am proud to say that I don’t think I have any.

Overall, I think this trip has made me a more loving person. I learned that a true home is not the place you live in but the people you live with. And for ten days, my classmates, my teachers, Natalie and Denise of Courts for Kids, and the village of Copey let me have a home. I think about Copey every day. My friends and family are impressed when I tell them how we would have to stop working to let a procession of cows cross or that I sang “America the Beautiful.” But they will never fully understand. They will never understand how the mosquitoes swarmed at night and yet we would have conversations outside on the porch for two hours before we went to bed. They will never understand how hot and dirty it was while it could also feel like the purest place on the planet because of how hospitable everyone was. They will never understand the thousands of inside jokes we made or how disgusting the bathroom got or all of the blood, sweat, and tears we put into building the court with the villagers. Few of those countless moments were photographed because very few of us had phones. They are simply memories that I hold dearly in my heart. Someday, when I have made a name for myself as a successful actor, I hope to thank Courts for Kids by donating a large portion of my fortunes to the organization. I hope to return to Copey and see Ramón, José, Joséniba, Marcos, Julio, Nicoli, Anny, Juan, and everyone I ever met there. I hope to be involved in raising awareness and collecting of funds to help every person in Hispaniola live up to their fullest potential. I hope t o never forget this trip, the people I went with, and the people I met. And, if God wills it, I hope to make a difference in the world in some way by opening up someone’s heart the same way Copey opened mine.

 – Will, Student Volunteer

“This trip has truly changed me for the good. Coming into this trip I didn’t know what to expect and wasn’t really that excited. When we first arrived, and saw the community I was shocked by the situation and it made me realize how lucky I was. Once we started working on the court I started to realize how happy the people in the community were despite their conditions.” – Henry, Student Volunteer

“Another idea of American culture that I question is the idea of privacy to the point where you don’t even know your neighbor; in the DR, many of the locals were very friendly and generous to the new Americans, being near us almost every single moment of the day.” – Spencer, Student Volunteer

“Finally, the most difficult part of going home will be the loss of connections and friendships I have made with not only the locals, but also my classmates. I hope these friendships I have made will last. This has been an eye-opening experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.” – Albert, Student Volunteer

“My favorite memories from the trip began on the first day arriving to Copey. My friend and I decided to go out in the street and throw the baseball. To our surprise, we had a crowd of kids of all ages watching us. A few seconds later, someone brought a bat and soon we were playing a makeshift game of baseball in the middle of a dirt street with random kids from the community who didn’t even speak our language. This was the most moving part of the trip for me and truly showed the culture and interests that we shared.” – Brenner, Student Volunteer

“I am more grateful for my dad, who provides for my family, because I witnessed how difficult it is to make it in the world.” – Andrew, Student Volunteer

“While working under the blazing sun for multiple days, I felt a spark of curiosity turn into a flame of change, compassion, and understanding. I immediately caught on to the change in open-mindedness and acceptance of a different way of life. Going into the volunteer work at the DR, I believed the American way was the only way – efficiency, schedules, and the sole purpose of getting the job done. Now I have begun to recognize that we should look at life as an opportunity to have fun and make memories rather than a race to success.” – Eric, Student Volunteer