Last week was one of the most difficult, yet rewarding work weeks I have ever experienced. Last week, my community and I had volunteer visitors from St John’s Jesuit and Jesuit New Orleans through Courts for Kids.
My name is Sarah, and I am a Peace Corps Volunteer working in the Dominican Republic. I am a Youth, Family, and Community Development volunteer, and have been living in a small community on the border of Haiti since October 2014. For the past year or so, I have been working with the country director of Courts for Kids, local community members, the Ministry of Education, and construction professionals planning the reconstruction of a basketball/volleyball court in my community, Hato Viejo. Hato Viejo is a rural village of 54 houses, that has benefited from very few development projects over the last 25 years, so we were extremely luckily to be able to work with Courts for Kids.
On Saturday, June 4th, Stacey Cooper, the country director of Courts for Kids, and I patiently waited at the international airport with a sign in hand for the two groups of volunteers coming down from the states. Upon arrival, we had dinner, and then continued our evening with a tour of the historical Colonial Zone in downtown Santo Domingo.
The following day, we headed to my community. During this time, I couldn’t help but wonder how the community members of Hato Viejo were going to react upon seeing a group of 14 American teenage boys and their teachers. Were they going to be excited? Are the boys going to be overwhelmed with the amount of hugs and kisses they will definitely be receiving? During that 6 hours bus ride to the Haitian border, all I could do was listen to my favorite Bachata songs, and cross my fingers for a successful week. When we arrived in the community, we taught each volunteer how to string up their mosquito nets, and the importance of always saying yes to the tiny cup of coffee that your host family offers you. But after a rainy and slightly stressful move in, I realized that this week was going to involve a lot more than just a court.
On Monday morning, the last 100 bags of cement arrived along with the cement mixer and we began the construction! Then, less than 5 minutes later, the mixer which we had rented for the week, stopped working. There was about 10 minutes of panic and discussion, partially because the Caribbean can be excruciatingly hot and building a court without a mixer seemed nearly impossible, plus our court is abnormally large. Terrifyingly, our contractor made the executive decision to start building the court, while mixing all of the cement by hand. So we began.
Each day, we constructed a little more. The boys created a cleverly named rotating system of teams that that they timed down to the second in order to ensure that they had their full break time. They shoveled sand, mixed cement, and pushed heavy wheelbarrows nonstop alongside with local Dominican and Haitian workers. Some community members were so impressed by their hard work, that they began asking me if some of the volunteers could stay behind in the community to help with manual labor in town!
On top of working excruciatingly hard on the construction of this enormous court, each volunteer put in 110% effort to get to know people in the community. And even though I knew that the boys were exhausted from hand mixing cement in 95 degree heat all day, they still managed to gather with kids and teenagers from the community each day to engage in a fun activity. They danced merengue and bachata, chatted (to the best of their abilities) with people of all ages, and had arm-wrestling competitions. They played street baseball (which has its own local rules and equipment), capture the flag, basketball, and volleyball. We swam at the river, peeled pigeon peas, and even killed a chicken and a goat for our food! On top of all of that, all of the 14 teenage volunteers participated in a local baptism for two small children in Hato Viejo, which ended in all of them becoming the Godfathers. Even though language abilities were low, communication between the Americans and Dominicans could not have been clearer and more positive.
After hours of hard manual labor and many trips to the scary bathroom in the community center, we were able to finish our basketball court! The boys mounted the backboards, hung up the hoops, and shot their first baskets. We ate cake, played volleyball, and even witnessed some interesting dancing from our belly-shirted contractor. As our bus pulled away on Saturday morning, all I could see from the community members and the American volunteers, were smiles.
Last week was not easy for anyone. It involved a lot of people stepping out of their comfort zones and quite a bit of physical labor. But now that the court is built, I see that Courts for Kids is much more than the construction of a basketball court. Last week, I saw excitement and care from children in the community that I have never witnessed before. The volunteers became incredible role models for some of the children in town, and even though they couldn’t necessarily speak to each other, some kids definitely witnessed the importance of listening and helping others. Many Courts for Kids volunteers will remember this week long trip as a fun and memorable experience, but what many do not realize is that the community of Hato Viejo will remember the interesting and generous Courts for Kids volunteers forever.
– Sarah Bonner, Peace Corps Volunteer in Hato Viejo, Dominican Republic
“What I learned about myself is that I need to be more grateful for what I have. I never realized how blessed I was just to be born in America. Now having seen the struggle that some people go through, I realize that I need to be more grateful for all that I have.” – Jeremy Hamilton
“From the community, Hato Viejo, I learned how to enjoy the simplicities of life and forming relationships. Having really nothing and being happy, the Dominicans showed me how life is in itself a joy not to be taken for granted.” – Michael Haupt
“From the community of Hato Viejo I learned how to be at peace with your circumstances and to make the best of the cards you are dealt. When I first arrived, I felt very out of place and uncomfortable with my surroundings and the accommodations of the town. However, by the end of our stay, I feel as though through watching the joy and energy of the community I was able to become fully accustomed to the community and at peace with my surroundings.” – Graham Buck
“This trip has changed me in many ways. I will never take any qualities of my life for granted again, even the extremely minor things. I’ve always known that there were extremely poverty stricken places but experiencing one for 5 days is an inconceivable experience.” – Levi Van Tassel
“I had a lot of favorite memories on this trip. My most favorite, however, was when we finished the court. The looks on the kids’ faces because they now had something to play on was perfect.” – Cameron Bernath
“The most difficult part of going home is the realization that I will never see most of these people again. Considering I have been around the group members and villagers for every working day in the past week, it is strange to totally remove that from my life again.” – Matthew Butson
“The reality of the experience is it has humbled me. Everything from how grateful I am I live in the US to how lucky my daughters are to have their opportunities to how great it feels to be in a complementing relationship with my wife. While one often says, “I am lucky to be from the US,” this experience makes this statement come alive with more meaning.” – Robert Taylor