Four summers ago, way back in 2010, I went on my first volunteer trip. The trip was with Hero Holiday (now: Live Different) and I went as an intern for 3 weeks to Sosua, Dominican Republic.
I always look back on this trip as a pivotal moment in my life. Everyday was a wash of new emotions, inner conflicts and realities that refused to hide away. The work we did was tough. But the lives of those we helped were tougher. I’ve never felt more out of my element nor so in the moment as I did during my 3 weeks in The DR. Pushing through the heat and exhaustion of shovelling, clearing rocks, mixing cement or whatever else was on the agenda was rewarding. It was also humbling to see men twice or three times my age be able to do the job two or three times as fast as I was doing it. But I knew we weren’t there for our labour skills.
A lot of memories stick with me from that trip. I’ve written before about my beautiful friend, Natanael, a Haitian refugee who I met at the garbage dump looking for recyclables to fill her bag (that would fetch less than a dollar). I remember walking into a crumbling building, seeing mattresses pressed up against the wall and being told this was the new hospital.
One night in particular I remember very well. It was one of the nights where only the interns were in the DR (we facilitated two 10 day trips and had a few days off in-between). That night, the rain was coming down like crazy. We had been dealing with quite a bit of rain and stormy weather, but that night was particularly bad. I assumed we would all meet in the staff room and huddle together playing cards and listening to music. Instead, Cole, one of the staff leaders, told us to go put on closed toe shoes and follow him to the cars.
We drove through crazy DR traffic to the village of Agua Negra. We had been working in Agua Negra to build a house. It was the first community we had been introduced to that summer. The work in Agua Negra was difficult; to reach our building site we had to manoeuvre across uneven dirt paths and alleyways with wheel barrows that never wanted to cooperate and adorable children running underfoot.
By the time we pulled up that night, the rain had died down. Agua Negra was pitch black and eerily quiet. Cole introduced us to one of the local families and asked if we wanted to take a walk. The first time Cole had walked us through Agua Negra had been shocking enough but filled with bright sunshine and smiling kids grabbing at our hands. That night was very different.
The first thing we noticed when we got out of our cars was the foot or so of water that we stepped into. At first, I thought it was just a puddle. I didn’t realize that the entire community was now covered in a foot or more of water. Cole lead us through the town, pointing out areas where we could stand on higher ground to keep less of our legs out of the water. We trudged through in silence. Eventually, we reached the site of last year’s build where Cole proudly showed off a raised foundation. This house that they had built last year was built above the water level, meaning it hadn’t flooded. Meaning every other house that hadn’t been built with this consideration in mind was flooded. Meaning every time it rained, almost every house in Agua Negra flooded. We finally understood the name of the community: Agua Negra, Black Water.
At the end of our 3 weeks in the Dominican, Cole made an announcement. He told us that the community of Agua Negra would be changing their name. The area would now be known as Nuevo Renacer, New Life. It was the perfect uplifting note to leave the DR on.
Since that trip, I’ve thought often about the people I met, communities I was invited into and experiences I had in the Dominican. I’ve been privileged enough to go on a few other volunteer trips, to Peru and to Swaziland, thanks to the catalyst of my time with Hero Holiday in 2010. I’ve often wondered how those people and those communities, like Nuevo Renacer, are doing.
So why am I writing about my summer 2010 volunteer trip during the holiday season of 2014? Because of this. This video was posted on my Facebook newsfeed by some fellow Hero Holiday/Live Different alumni. It’s West Jet’s Christmas Miracle video. Do you remember last year when they surprised their passengers with gifts coming down the baggage carousel? Well, this year they decided to bring that same cheer to the Dominican and the wonderful people of Nuevo Renacer.
I had tears in my eyes within the first thirty seconds of this video. I immediately recognized some of the smiling faces of kids I had played with; kids I had given stickers to or attempted to keep up with in a game of soccer. I recognized some of the adults, men who had built alongside of us and the beautiful community leader Sandra. I recognized the place where the sleigh is parked as the place where I dragged wheel barrow after wheel barrow filled with rocks. By the end of the five minute video, I was a blubbering mess.
I’m really glad I got to watch this video today. The holiday season is starting to really amp up and this was the perfect reminder of what my priorities are. Today I was walking around downtown after lunch with my friend and I had the desire to buy something. There wasn’t anything I really needed, in fact, I had just done some Black Friday damage to my credit card, but I wanted something. Luckily, I talked myself out of any stupid impulse purchases and headed home empty handed. But the fact that I was so willing to buy something, just for the sake of having something new, shocks me a little bit. And the girl who came home after a 3 week trip to the DR in 2010 would definitely have been shocked to witness my attitude.
And that’t not to say I’m giving up on buying gifts or ever going shopping again. And I’m definitely not trying to guilt anyone into feeling bad over a trip to the mall. But for myself, I think I’ve been trying to get a bit too much out of material things as of late. I’ve put a bit too much focus on buying new things, going out to eat, etc. And being able to watch that video today was a great way to kind of recalibrate and put myself back into a head space that’s closer to the values I hold dear.
Okay, pass the tissues. I’m going to watch it one more time!