Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Family Humanitarian Trip to the DR


At the end of June, Ryan and I took Noah to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic for a family humanitarian trip.  Some of our best friends from dental school, the Cardons, went last year with their kids, and they invited us to join them this year.

It was a great experience.  I have so many thoughts about it.  Humanitarian service work is very nuanced, with questions about sustainability, ethics, respect for others, etc, and I did a lot of thinking throughout the week about how I hope our family can be involved in giving long-term.  I felt like this trip was a perfect springboard for that discussion with Ryan.  It was also a great happy-medium between service and vacation, which is perfect for a family with young kids. 

I did a lot of humanitarian work before Noah was born, but this was my first experience since becoming a mom.  I loved taking Noah with us.  I hoped he would get a lot out of it and learn about poverty, other cultures, and gratitude for his blessings.  Honestly, I think he just had fun.  I don't think he learned much or changed much as a result (he's too young), but it was a great trial run for doing service trips in the future with our family.  I think the perfect age to take kids on humanitarian trips would be about eight years old--that's when they would start to absorb and understand.  But I was still glad Noah was with us because I loved spending that one-on-one time with him (Sally stayed home with Grandma), and I just loved seeing the world through his eyes.  One thing that I loved was that he didn't pity the poverty.  He didn't see himself as bestowing anything on anyone--he was just there to make new friends!  I loved that and learned a lot from watching him.

So what did we do when we were down there?  Well, Ryan did dentistry, of course.  The organization that we went with (Ayuda Humanitarian) sets up temporary clinics in church buildings.  They lay camping mattresses on tables, set up portable handpieces and cleaning stations using a generator, and get the word out to the local community.  The people sure lined up!  Some of them had never been to the dentist, and they were so patient with the long waits.

Ryan and a few other dentists worked all day for four days, and I think they did some good.  That is something that I am always thinking about with humanitarian work: "Is this actually doing long-term good?"  I asked Ryan about that, because some people had mouths full of cavities and couldn't possibly get everything fixed in the limited time that we had there.  Ryan said that if he keeps people out of pain for a few more years, it's worth it to him--especially the children.  If he saved a few baby teeth so they won't cause infection and pain before they fall out naturally, then he feels like it was worthwhile.

I must say, seeing Ryan at work made me appreciate him all the more.  I assisted him for about two minutes one day, and I kind of wanted to die.  It was so boring and hard.  I can't believe he does it all day every day.  Now I am even more inclined to give him a backrub and a kiss when he gets home from work!

While Ryan was doing dentistry, Noah and I played with kids outside the clinic.  We brought games, art supplies, chalk, jump ropes, toy cars, etc.  Noah bought the cars with his allowance money (with a little help from Mom, of course), and all the little boys were in heaven.  They each picked a car and raced them down the ramp outside the church.  We also drew roads out of chalk that they could zoom them around on.  At the end of the day, Noah said, "My cars were a hit!" I think this was Noah's favorite day in the DR.

The kids loved the game UNO.  I swear this game has magical powers--it transcends cultures and defies language barriers.  I used it all the time when I volunteered in El Salvador in college.  I would carry a pack of UNO cards around in my backpack, and if I ever encountered a group of kids that needed/wanted to be entertained, I plopped down in the dirt and started a game.  Kids always catch on quickly and, even though my Spanish is super limited, they can learn how to play just from watching.  We played UNO for hours outside the clinic. 

Bracelets were also a huge hit.  Some of the other dentists' families brought those little elastic rubber bands that can be woven into bracelets, and the Dominican kids loved doing that.  When we do humanitarian work in the future, I definitely need to get a supply of those!  I brought glass beads and elastic string, and I sat with a couple of little girls working on those for an hour or so.

I was amazed, completely blown away, by their patience.  One little girl who was four years old strung her beads so carefully--only to drop the bracelet at the end right before I could tie it off for her.  I expected a massive tantrum (that's what Noah would do), but without a grumble, she simply picked up all the scattered beads and started over.  This happened about seven times, and she never cried or complained.  When she finally finished that bracelet, she was grinning from ear-to-ear.

It seems like growing up without a lot of "extras" makes kids more persistent and patient.  They develop an entirely different level of grit than most of the American kids I've worked with.  I want to know how to help my kids develop this kind of attitude, even though they are growing up in a culture of abundance!  Is this even possible? I hope that exposing my kids to a variety of places, life experiences, cultures, and perspectives will help with this--but I'm not sure that a few days in a foreign country can combat a lifetime of privilege.  Hopefully I can weave some of these lessons into daily life, and I welcome all ideas on this!

On the mornings that Noah and I weren't at the clinic, we tagged along with a non-profit called the Dominican Starfish Foundation and witnessed the good work that they are doing.  Their biggest project is rebuilding homes in some of the poorest communities in the DR.  Families who need a safer home go through an application and approval process, and then the foundation helps them demolish the house that they are living in (usually made out of scraps of wood and corrugated tin) and rebuild it with cement.  It is life-changing work.

We got to walk around that neighborhood and deliver food packs.  I must say that entering one of the little houses made of scraps was the most impactful experience I had while we were in the DR.  It was so eye-opening.  The entire house was the size of a tiny room in the US.  It was divided by a sheet: kitchen and living area on one side, bedroom on the other.  All five people in the family slept on one queen-sized mattress on the dirt floor in the bedroom.  I've witnessed poverty in El Salvador, but this was a shocking reminder of just how blessed I am and how much I should appreciate our three-bedroom rental home, which is truly a palace compared to what we saw in the DR.

The Starfish Foundation takes the houses from this... this! One family at a time!

Just amazing!!

Through the Starfish Foundation, we also participated in a local youth baseball game, which was a blast.  I bet those Dominican twelve-year-olds never expected to see this chubby American mama running the bases!  Ha!  I actually had a small group of younger boys off to the side and we played our own little scrimmage.  Then we pumped up balls to hand out to the kids, and of course, played a mean game of UNO on the floor of the dugout that smelled like pee.  ;)  It was a really fun day.

We also accompanied this organization to a local hospital to see conditions there, which were totally appalling.  We went into the maternity area where they have one big delivery room with lots of beds. You give birth right along side everyone else--no privacy.  And if you want sheets on the bed, you have to bring them yourself.  Then you are taken to a big recovery room with everyone else, and then you are sent home with the new baby to fend for yourself. 

Honestly, it was hard for me to be at the hospital.  It just made me feel sad.  It also felt really inappropriate to me.  Many volunteers were taking photos of the babies and other sick patients in the hospital, gawking and just overall imposing at a time that I'm sure is very stressful for people.   I thought to myself, "Yeah, because what I wanted right after I gave birth was a group of twenty strangers coming into my room to take photos of me and touch my newborn baby!"  It made me feel a little sick to my stomach.  This is why "voluntourism" often gets criticized--because it's easy to show up somewhere and pose for a photo with someone, but really, we didn't do anything to affect their lives long-term.  It was all for show.  I understand that the hospital administration wants (and needs!) people to donate money, and this is a great way to help Americans see just how bad the conditions are, but I feel like there has to be a way to do it that provides more dignity for the patients.  This visit really got me thinking about humanitarian work and the ways that I want and don't want to be involved in the future.

Other than that "low point" of the visit, though, I truly enjoyed the work that we did in the DR.  Hopefully Ryan kept a few people out of pain for a few more years, and hopefully Noah and I brought some joy to those kids for a few afternoons.  We didn't change anyone's lives, but our lives were changed for the better by what we experienced.  We learned so much and grew closer as a family as a result.  Since we've been home, I have thought back to that two-room, dirt-floored house several times, and it has given me new resolve to be content with my blessings and to donate money to great causes that affect change.

And in addition to all that cool life experience we got from the service portion of the trip, we also got to stay at a nice resort and spend time in the pool and at the beach.  Score!  We spent most mornings out in the community doing service and most afternoons back at the resort chillin'.  It did feel a little weird and hypocritical to be bouncing between worlds, but we were grateful for the nice accommodations that the Ayuda organization set up for our family, and I recognize how much that resort helps the local economy of Puerto Plata.  Like I said at the beginning of the post, it's all just so nuanced.  I could spend the rest of my life thinking about it all (and I probably will), but overall, we just had fun and it was a fabulous vacation. 

Noah loved sipping pina coladas, hugging a dolphin and touching tropical birds at Ocean World, and playing with our friends' kids, Maddie and Boyd.  He and Boyd played swords and called each other potty words all day long. (Oh the potty words!  Five-year-old boys are something.)

I loved evening walks down to the beach with the Cardons, nice dinners with the family, and the afternoon that I spent with just Noah, giving him a swimming lesson and eating chocolate crepes on the beach.  I sure love my Noah.

We also got to go on a hiking/caving/swimming expedition where we slid down waterfalls and jumped off cliffs.  Super fun.

Overall, it was just a great learning and bonding experience, and though we won't be able to do something like this every year, we hope to continue traveling and doing humanitarian service with our children in the future!

And speaking of, I have another adventure planned for next month: I am going to South Africa with an organization called Help One Now to work with a couple of community centers and schools there.  I will have so much more to write about that experience, I'm sure.  I am going with a small group of volunteers--I don't know any of them--and I am leaving my kiddos with their dad for the week.  I am super nervous but I think it's a great organization, and I am honored to be involved with their work.  I love seeing the world and trying to figure out my place in it and how I can help.

On to the next adventure!


  1. I am sure Noah learned more than you think he did. Great family trip.

  2. You are my hero. Seriously, this post was so inspiring! Sounds like an amazing experience and I cannot wait to hear how South Africa goes!

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