On one of our last nights in Don Juan, as we sat quietly listening to the chirping cicadas, the squealing of dogs, and the revving of motorcycles, our leader, Sara, asked for us to take a minute in quiet and think of one word to describe how we were feeling. As we went around the circle, “fulfilled,” “happy,” “proud,” “grateful,” and “joyful” consistently repeated themselves. Throughout our time as a group and in Don Juan, the feelings of pride, happiness and enthusiasm were ebullient. Even though our time was rife with setbacks, laughter, enthusiasm, and optimism shared by the students made the trip enjoyable, transformative, and fulfilling.
Scheduled to leave on the 17th of July, the group was excited to depart. Due to airline issues, however, our flight was cancelled. Courts for Kids diligently sought out alternative ways for us to get to the Dominican Republic, so in the end, we were all able to arrive there but in two groups. The first group arrived on the 19th to the house in Don Juan. When we pulled up to the house, sweaty and tired, we were greeted by prominent members of the community, who shook everyone’s hand eagerly. In the Dominican Republic, you said “saludos” when you meet someone who deserves your respect, so we embraced our hosts with this greeting.
That night, under the glow of our flashlights, groups of Dominicans taught us their favorite pastime: dominoes. Dominican Republic top 100 hits serenading us in the background, we were introduced to many more Dominicans, many who would be aiding in court construction in the coming days. Confidently, the Dominicans would slap the ivory tiles down, yet they were excited when their thorough teaching was successful and the Americans began to win. We were frightened when the police showed up, but they quickly explained that they were not at the house because we were playing music too loud, but to protect us and play dominos, too.
The next morning, the group of early arrival 12 students rested while we waited for the other 10 students to join us. We bonded as a group through the experience of being in a circle, talking, and making friendship bracelets. We were able to teach two teenage girls from the community how to make bracelets. Even though there was a language barrier between the girls and us, we were able to communicate through laughing at our mistakes and smiling in encouragement.
In the afternoon, after a long journey plagued with delays, our entire group was reinstalled in Don Juan. Shortly after the later group’s arrival, we ventured into the community for the first time. On one side of the road, men gathered around a small table throwing down dominoes, a truck that sold mangos barreled down the street, and a young woman and her two sons rummaged through a decrepit building in search of food. Small shops blasted music; two teenage boys revved their motorcycles as they raced down the street; men yelled “americanos.”
We were first introduced to the Dominican hospitality and generosity as the first raindrop that fell in the daily thunder and rain storm. A mother called out to us from her porch, offering her porch as shelter from the rain. We crammed 25 people on the small stoop, and we were delighted to meet her 2 year-old daughter who entertained us through the duration of the storm. She offered the group water; we declined, but we were struck by her offer. Even though she may not have enough water for her own family, she offered it to 25 strangers. In English class at Jesuit, when we read The Odyssey, we learned about the theme of Xenia. Xenia is a duty to the stranger, and it means putting a stranger’s comfort above your own. This gracious woman, in her generosity towards us, embodied Xenia.
After the rain stopped, our group finished the voyage to the court site. Located at the end of the Las Casitas neighborhood, the court was positioned with easy access to many in the community. It looked over a vast expanse of trees and forest that surrounded it on three sides. At the court, with the humidity from the rain soaking us, we learned more about its history and eventual partnership with Courts for Kids. Construction on the court had commenced over years ago, but the project had been abandoned. A Dominican woman, Yofreisis, who is the sister of the mayor at the time, was determined to bring this court to fruition. A year and a half ago, she collaborated with Christine, a woman from Portland who was a Peace Corps volunteer years ago in Don Juan, and discovered Courts for Kids. Throughout the trip, Yofreisis looked after our group, and she repeatedly spoke to us about her passion for helping in her community and her family. Compassion and enthusiasm radiated from her, and after finishing the court, she made sure to hug everyone involved in the project.
We began our labor on Sunday. To get to the court, Cooney, whose house was located right next to the court site, drove us in the back of his pickup truck. His family demonstrated great sacrifices for the court, and Juana, his wife, helped cook lunch. They let us sit on their porch when we were on our break, and they opened up their home to us to use as a restroom. On Sunday, court construction was slow as we did laborious tasks to prepare the court for cement. We had to shovel soil to level out the court in the morning. After lunch, we then started mixing concrete for the court. We were only able to complete less than a fourth of the court because of an afternoon rain storm that stalled progress. After dinner and reflection that night, we celebrated our friend Anh-Thi’s 16th birthday with a traditional Dominican cake.
We started work early the next day, with a clear goal of completing half of the court. Although court progress was important, continuing the relationships we had formed the first day of work was at the forefront of our minds. Split into 3 groups, we rotated between break, sand, and gravel. During break, we would entertain the kids with friendship bracelet making and playing tag and hand games. By the end of the day, their arms were filled with homemade bracelets, and four little girls gathered our family photos we brought from Portland to examine. That night, we were overcome by how even though our early circumstances are different, the joy and enthusiasm shared by small children is universal. They wanted to meet us, ask us questions, play in the sand or with a doll, but they also hit each other when they squabbled and were intrigued by and needed to show new things like Gatorade powder to their friends. At the end of the day, we were happy to have nearly reached our goal of completing half of the court. We finished the day by jumping in the pool and having an outdoor picnic cooked by Yofreisis.
On our third day of work, we were given challenges to better understand the culture and people of Don Juan. While some of us were challenged to learn about favorite pastimes of the people (dominos, ride motorcycles, swim, be with family) or learn what it takes to start a business in Don Juan (get papers and a plot of land), we gained a greater appreciation for the place we had lived in for 4 days. Throughout the day, we had slow progress because of a broken cement mixer. It was inspiring to watch Micely, the Courts for Kids Dominican Republic Director, boss around all the men, but she kept us on track. We worked until 5 in the afternoon, and then we went into the town to buy snacks. There was an ice cream parlor near our house, so many in our group stopped there. Some of the boys in our group went to one of the small convenience store, “comados,” three times to completely buy out its chip selection to the delight of its owners. The Dominicans were glad to see us purchasing so much from their store, and they had been so generous by donating rice and food to us, that we were so happy to support them (and to try Dominican chips!)
We finished the court on the fourth day of work. It was bittersweet knowing that it was the last day with our groups and one of the last times playing with the kids we had befriended. Construction lasted until after lunch. As the last load of cement was mixed, everyone held their breathes in anticipation. When it was poured, cheering erupted, and all who worked on the court gathered to take a group photo. To celebrate the completion of the court, we went to the nearby river and jumped in. That night, we reflected on all the people who generously shared their talents and skills with the group and made the court possible—Yofreisis, Martineau, Dominga, Santiago, Juana, Cooney, and many others. Many of us stayed up late into the night talking and musing on the impact the trip had made on our own lives.
With the court finished, the next morning we went to a local pineapple farm. We learned about the growing process for pineapple and tasted the juiciest and freshest pineapple in the world. In the afternoon, we went to the Opening Ceremony for the Court. Everyone who was involved attended, and the local priest blessed the court. Many of the members of the community discussed the impact of the court and how happy they were to have a place for their children to play. We inaugurated the court with 3-on-3 basketball games, volleyball sets, and local Dominican songs and hand games. At the end of the day, we had to say goodbye to all the little girls and boys, men and women who we had met in the community. Some of the little girls began to cry as we hugged them, and we rode in the back of Cooney’s truck one last time.
We left early the next morning to go to Santo Domingo so we would be close to the airport for the following morning. We had lunch near the beach, and then spent the afternoon sunbathing and swimming in the ocean. We were flocked by hagglers trying to sell us goods, and many of us purchased sunglasses, beaded bracelets, and got our hair braided. We finished the day with a final reflection, and we took the time to show appreciation for everyone in our group. Seeing the respect everyone had for one another was touching, as we spent a minute complimenting each person in the group.
Ironically, the trip finished the way it started—with flights delays and a long layover in the Newark airport. It was melancholy and somber to part from the group in the Portland airport; after spending so much time together for the past 9 days, we knew that our experience would unite us, but it would never be the same. Even though many of us did not know one another before the trip, our group bonded together with the shared goal of completing the court. At Jesuit, we are taught the importance of being men and women for and with others. This trip illustrated how working together is more gratifying than working alone. When you establish relationships with the people you are working alongside, you have more fun and get more done. All of the Jesuit students were touched by the generosity and enthusiasm shown by those we worked with, and we were grateful for the experience to be immersed in another culture and form new relationships.- Abigail, student
“My favorite memories are: meeting all the kids, playing with the little kids, piggy back rides, river, getting closer to everyone in the group, practicing my Spanish, playing game and listening to music, pool, going to the beach, and so much more. I learned to be generous, have solid relationships ad real ones, work hard, and respect everyone, also simply living and live in the moment.” – Quinn
“My favorite memories from the trip are memories I will never forget. The memory that comes to mind first is when we got to play with the kids during our work breaks. I loved giving piggy back rides, singing,
and playing “Mickey Mouse”. I also loved the free time we had after reflection. I had such good conversations with my classmates and I got to see my peers in a completely new way.” – Paige
“What I understand more clearly now I’ve never been so completely submersed in a community like this before, and I’ve learned so much. Before, I never connected so much with people in the community. I
saw firsthand their intense love and trust for each other. They are not happy in spite of lack of materials, they are regardless of it. Without physical posessions these people rely on each other and use their
energy as posessions. These people rely on each other and use their energy to build relationships with each other and use their energy processions, these people rely on each other and use their energy to
build relationships with each other and working together.” – Rosa
“Before going to this trip I would not call myself very “daring” or “outdoorsy”, but that has changed after this trip. I did the jobs that only men did, and I showed that girls are as strong as guys.”- Abigail
“My favorite memories from the trip were working alongside the kids to build the court as well as playing with them and getting to know the people in the community. I also liked the inauguration because I loked seeing how appreciative the community was and how all our hard work paid off.”- Elise