Students Serve in Dominican Republic
March 25, 2013 - by Kelsey Tomlinson
Kelsey Tomlinson is a senior communication major of Cuyahoga Falls, OH and one of the members of this year's social responsibility and personal well-being course at Mount Union.
So12 students, two professors and a journalist walk into a foreign country. They’re equipped with Spanish, vaccinations and sunscreen, but nothing can ever fully prepare you for what you’ll get in a developing nation.
The honest truth? You walk out with some bug bites, the unavoidable sunburn and a little thing called perspective.
Five months ago, after a rigorous process of applications, interviews and essays, 12 students were selected to be a part of the social responsibility and personal well-being course at the University of Mount Union. Taught by psychology professor Dr. Steve Kramer, the class focuses on social justice, sustainability, responsible citizenship and personal health.
A spring break trip to El Salvador is the culminating experience, so the course has affectionately become known as the “El Salvador trip class” around Mount Union’s campus. In this third world country, students are given the opportunity to experience a culture other than their own, work alongside the locals and be of service however they’re needed.
“Life has a funny way of always dropping you right where you need to be,” said junior writing major Sarah Wroblewski. “Traveling to the Dominican Republic was something I never saw myself doing but now I can't imagine my life without the memories and friendships I made while I was there. This trip, as well as Steve Kramer's class, have taught me so much about myself and what I am capable of.”
Trip number 22 was made March 9 to 16 of this year. However, due to travel warnings, the trip was changed to the Dominican Republic. This surprise would be the first of many.
“Bienvenidos a República Dominicana! Welcome to the Dominican Republic.” These bright yellow words on a grey wall were among the first things to greet this group of Americans. They weren’t there to relax on the beach, sleep in and vacation—they had come for a week of service, and they were ready. Or were they?
The first thing you notice about the Dominican Republic are the colors. All of the buildings are a bright shade of pink, blue or green. Breathtaking. Then you look a little closer. Most, if not all, of the Dominican Republic buildings are in some state of disrepair. It’s no wonder, being so close to the sea and wind all the time. But there was brick and plaster showing on almost every building.
Then you notice the trash. In the trees, around the trees, on the sidewalks — trash. There seems to be no concept of waste management. It was surprising, but not grounds to judge or sneer. One of the first things you learn is that different does not mean inferior.
The trip provided many learning experiences. Every day, through the connections of the West Indies Christian Ministry, the group of students and adults were working at a different location.
One day, they passed out 200 peanut butter sandwiches and 200 pounds of rice at a community along a local landfill. Called “the dump,” this community, and others like it, find their daily meals among the scraps and garbage other people have thrown out. The sandwiches were a simple way to try to help children get an appropriate amount of nutrition in their system.
The children came for the sandwiches, but they stayed for the piggyback rides and balloons. Every day was another adventure. At every location there were new kids to play with and new jobs to be done.
Along with playing with children, there was manual labor to be done. Students applied a fresh layer of paint for a kitchen, a church, a hallway, a balcony and four classrooms.
Mount Union students even got to experience mixing cement. It doesn’t roll up in a cement truck in the Dominican Republic. It has to be shoveled, sifted, shoveled again and mixed. Mixing is quite a process. You pour water onto a pile of the cement, and have to shovel around and around, trying not to lose any of it.
Finally, at the end of the week, students had a social night with some of the local young adults. They played games, made kites and ate pizza. It was amazing how well everyone communicated despite the language barrier. After all, laughter is a universal language.
You might think that would be enough to provide a learning experience for students. And that’s true. But Dr. Kramer took it a step further with evening discussions.
Every evening was spent recapping the day. Moments were relived and memories were solidified when everyone shared their experiences. Then, throughout the week, every one of the 15 students and adults shared their life stories—major events that had affected them. You end up realizing that everyone has more in common than not.
“I was moved by the trip, especially after some group reflection and response time,” said Zak Suhar, a senior Spanish and management major. “Professor Kramer offered a bit of life advice, saying to stretch yourself through experiences whether it’s socially, culturally, spiritually or intellectually. I felt that this trip did exactly that, improving my view on gratitude, finding meaning in life, stretching me beyond my limits and comfort zone."
"Having the opportunity to travel to the Dominican Republic is something I'll always be thankful for,” said senior sociology major Amy Ricciardi. “Getting a chance to experience and truly appreciate their culture gave me an entirely new perspective on life.”
Service trips aren’t about going into a place in need and saving people. It’s easy to think that, but that’s not what you’re doing. Those kids would have been happy without the Frisbees and Mount Union R-shirts.
It’s about the relationships you form with others. It’s about putting a smile on a stranger’s face. It’s about seeing a lifestyle other than your own and trying to accept and understand it. This is how you make the world a better place. This is how you become socially responsible.
The week came to a close, and with light suitcases and full hearts, the group of 15 Americans returned to the life they knew. Whether people were sleeping or reflecting, it was a very quiet plane ride home.
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